Coming this spring to the internet airwaves is Book-It Repertory Theatre’s audio adaptation of Jamyang Norbu’s story The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes. Adapted by Bilal Dardai, this production features a wide array of local talent, including Agastya Kohli, Abhijeet Rane, Samir Shah, Khenrab Palden, Kevin Lin, Khanh Doan, plus flautist Satyajit Limaye and violinist Andrew Pang – along with an audio appearance by Norbu himself.
At its most basic, the word mandala is a Sanskrit term meaning “circle,” while in Tibet, a mandala becomes a geometric configuration of symbols that combine to create a spiritual depiction of the universe and cosmos, and of the various philosophies that form the foundation of Tibetan Buddhism. Norbu’s story explores not only Holmes’s time in Tibet, but also his spiritual side.
Unlike Book-It’s other audio productions this season, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes is directed personally by Book-It’s artistic director Gus Menary. “I first read about The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes in Tricycle Magazine, an independent Buddhist quarterly,” Menary said. “It was a combination of everything I was interested in at the time— Sherlock Holmes, Buddhism and Tibetan history.”
Norbu blends all three of these in his 1999 novel, which was originally published in India. “In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, The Empty House,” Menary recounted, “Sherlock returns to his life in London after faking his death, and remarks to Watson that he ‘traveled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head Llama.’”
What Doyle didn’t write about Sherlock’s time in Tibet was left open for Norbu to imagine from a position of homegrown expertise. “Jamyang Norbu picked up the story, filled in the gaps, and has described the India and Tibet of the late nineteenth-century in incredible detail,” Menary said.
This production is the fulfillment of a dream. “I had wanted to adapt this story into a piece of theatre prior to my ever coming to Book-It Repertory Theatre,” Menary said. “It is both a grand adventure story and a parody of the westernized perception of a mystical Tibet, complete with Shangri-La and flying swords.”
Although Nordu is also a playwright who has written several theatre pieces, he and Menary entrusted the audio adaptation to Dardai. “Jamyang and I had many great conversations about literature, our favorite adventure stories, and his life in Tibet, India, Tennessee, and New York,” Menary said. “I knew that Bilal would take great care with Jamyang’s work.”
Dardai brought a wealth of experience to the project. “In addition to being a Sherlock Holmes appreciator, like Jamyang and myself, he honed his craft writing for Lifeline, a theatre company in Chicago that also does literary adaptation,” Menary reported. “The audio drama he is staff writer for, Unwell: A Midwestern Gothic Mystery, recently was named the Best Podcast or Online Audio Drama in the 2021 BBC Audio Drama Awards.”
This depth of skill allowed Book-It, a company known for its adaptations of literature, to further adapt again in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “When we first realized that in-person events would not be possible, we at Book-It put our heads together,” Menary recalled. “I knew I didn’t want the company to go dark through the impending tumult, and that we had to continue creating and presenting exciting new pieces from great literary works.”
Menary predicted that literature in performance would remain compelling. “In the midst of great conflict, stories are more impactful and more necessary,” he said. “Whether it be live, on vinyl records, radio, or podcasts, there is great tradition in oral storytelling.”
But just as important as the story itself is the voice that tells it. “Bilal and I realized that we very much wanted Jamyang’s own voice to be a part of the adaptation,” Menary said. “As a result, he plays the part of himself, a narrator relating his discovery of this hidden manuscript about Sherlock Holmes’ and Hurree Chunder Mookerjee’s adventures in India and Tibet.”
Menary predicts that this introduction to Norbu’s work will leave audiences wanting more. “The palpable love Jamyang has for his homeland inspired me to pick up some of his other works, including Warrior of Tibet, which is a fascinating book about the Khampa warrior, Aten,” Menary said. “Jamyang is currently writing a full history of Tibet, and I can’t wait to read that when he’s done.”
Until then, listeners can partake of this production in episodic fashion. “There is no Mandala of Sherlock Holmes without Jamyang Norbu,” Menary said, “and we are incredibly honored to have him as part of the production.”
The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes runs from May 15 to June 30, in five episodes, streamed online.