In 1963, when he was 10 years old, Pramod Kapoor saw a portrait of Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, at his grandfather’s house in Kolkata. On learning about the legendary publisher, the boy vowed to become as notable a figure in the industry one day. It would take him another 15 years to set up his firm, Roli Books, and some staggering risks to propel it to the position it occupies in the pictorial book market in India today. But 40 years and 1,200 titles later, Roli is a brand, still pushing the boundaries for illustrated books in the subcontinent.
“Recently we partnered with Taschen Books to import some of its premier titles into India," Kapoor says, when we meet at the apartment he owns in Jaipur, on the eve of the Jaipur Literature Festival last month. A star attraction of Taschen’s SUMO list, featured at the India Art Fair in Delhi last week, is Thomas Laird’s Murals Of Tibet, an oversized volume in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. Signed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and resting on a custom-made stand by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, it costs close to ₹9 lakh. Most publishers would label it a risky proposition, but for Kapoor it’s all par for the course.
“We do some books for the sheer happiness of it," he says, “in spite of knowing they may not even sell 2,000 copies." The joy of publishing, fuelled by his early love for comic books and the classics, along with his appetite for embracing big challenges, is part of Roli’s DNA now.
On 14 November 1978, when Kapoor started Roli (Penguin India would come almost a decade later), he was a relative greenhorn in publishing. Three years earlier, he had left his home in Varanasi for Delhi, to work with Macmillan. “I had done an eight-week internship with the company as part of my management programme when I was 21," he says. “The report I filed at the end of it was rather critical of the processes at Macmillan." Impressed by the young man, the authorities asked him to get in touch after graduation, which he did, only to not hear from them for a long time. “On the day I was about to accept another job with Reckitt & Coleman, the offer letter from Macmillan reached me," Kapoor recalls. At a salary of ₹550, it was a good ₹100 short of the other option, but he didn’t pause to think about the money. Such financial wagers became part of his career as a publisher-entrepreneur.
When he founded Roli, shortly after cutting his teeth in publishing, for instance, he didn’t have deep pockets. “I remembered hiring a table because I didn’t want to block any part of my meagre capital in office furniture," Kapoor says. An assistant came to help him out for half a day. But Kapoor’s chief asset was his nose for taking canny business calls.
Roli took off at a time when open general licences came into being, which allowed Indian companies to import books with minimal restrictions. Kapoor began to work with McGraw-Hill FEP printers, based in Singapore, to bring international textbooks into India, which would then be customized for Oxford University Press to sell in the country.
The project was an instant and huge success. Textbooks printed in colour were a real novelty and shook up the Indian market overnight. “Soon we began originating some textbooks here with illustrations by local artists," Kapoor says. “But I always wanted to create what people now call ‘coffee-table books’, which are, actually, illustrated books of photographs or art."
In the late 1970s, there were not many presses in India that could handle four-colour printing. So Roli’s tie-up with McGraw-Hill FEP proved to be a godsend. For not only could Roli produce books of exquisite quality in colour, but the technology available in Singapore also helped it keep the price points affordable. “Our first pictorial book came out around 1980," Kapoor says. “It was a small work on Rajasthan, with text by Sevanti Ninan and photographs by Sondeep Shankar, a real novelty at the time." It sold 30,000-40,000 copies.
The real breakthrough, however, came in 1981, when Kapoor purchased the rights to the English-language edition of The Last Maharajas, a pictorial book on India’s royalty, from the acclaimed French publisher Arthaud. The terms of the deal were tough. It entailed a guarantee of selling 3,000 copies of an expensive book, priced at ₹800 (equivalent to roughly ₹10,000 today), in a brief period. “When I came back to India from that meeting in Paris, I was literally shivering," Kapoor remembers. “I nearly regretted that I had made the pact on the spur of the moment—josh mein haan keh diya".
He went to a sympathetic Parsi gentleman, who was the regional manager of a branch of Union Bank of India, to seek credit. “I didn’t have any security to offer but I told him I could repay the loan in six months," Kapoor says. He then arranged for the cargo to be air-freighted from Paris to Delhi in a week—a rare move in those days when books were mostly shipped. But the trouble was worth it all.
“When I showed an advanced copy of the book to one of the distributors, he took one look and said, this book will make the fortunes of Roli," he says. Indeed, it did. “The Last Maharajas made us a lot of money and turned the company around," Kapoor adds. “But most of all, it gave me tremendous confidence as a publisher."
Since then, the history of royal families has been one of the focal points of Roli’s list. While the plates of the inaugural title are now lost and it is out of print, there are dozens more about nawabs and maharajas who dotted the landscape of the subcontinent in the colonial and pre-colonial eras. “It’s become a genre in itself," says Kapoor, for whom a large part of the excitement of making these books is the research that goes into them.
With an abiding interest in archival images, Kapoor still loves rummaging in the albums and portraits of erstwhile royalties. His own contribution to Roli’s list, as a writer, has been a pictorial biography of M.K. Gandhi, published in 2015. Currently, he is working on another image-heavy book, pertaining to the naval revolt of 1946, which is believed to be the precursor to the independence of India. To mark its 40th anniversary, Roli, now led by Kapoor’s son and daughter, Kapil and Priya, is taking on private commissions from ordinary families that wish to preserve their histories in custom-made volumes.
Although the Roli brand is most readily recognized for pictorial histories, the company has also been publishing fiction and non-fiction since the early 1980s. From the infamous Operation Blue Star to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, its books have reacted to living history with immediacy (in the 1980s, Roli Books also published Sunday Mail, a weekly magazine on politics and culture, though it didn’t last long). Over the last 40 years, the competition has naturally become steeper, with almost every publisher having the bandwidth to match production quality.
“In the days before social media, we depended mainly on reviews or word-of-mouth publicity," Kapoor says. “Like in any other industry, it was important for me to create a book that will automatically find acceptance." The game has changed now entirely, but so has Roli Books. “We will keep on reinventing ourselves," Kapoor promises.
What is your favourite book?
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I read it in 14 hours straight.
What are your other interests ?
I listen to Indian classical music every day. Cricket is my other weakness.
What is Roli’s next big title?
A biography of the Dalai Lama, blessed by the man himself, scheduled to appear in 2020.
Which Roli title has sold the most?
We did a set of Kama Sutras—one for men, the other for women—as a fun, playful collectible object. It has sold over a million copies worldwide. Of our non-pictorial books, S. Hussain Zaidi’s From Dongri To Dubai: Six Decades Of The Mumbai Mafia has sold over 150,000-200,000 copies.