Where the arts flourished, the village of Andretta in Kangra is the place to become one with Nature.
Words & photographs: Ambica Gulati
A signboard says ‘theatre’. The mud structure has no seats, no huge hall, no café, no ticket counter, no sound and light systems. Surrounded by a garden, this theatre is in the estate where theatre artiste Norah Richards lived. On another side is her mud home with little rooms and a narrow staircase. Shoes are not allowed inside. The backdrop is the Dhauladhar range. The greens of this space and the mountains in the distance fascinate me. I see nothing but flowers and birds and I think about the times when the little village was home to creative spirits. Born in 1876, Norah was an Irish theatre artiste and environmentalist. She came to undivided India in 1908, married to Philip Earnest Richards who taught English literature at Dyal Singh College in Lahore.
For me, Richards is a new entity. I am not in touch with doyens of regional literature or theatre. But a little research shows, she was called the ‘Lady Gregory of Punjab’. She was involved in the cultural activities in the college and produced her first Punjabi play, Dulhan aka The Bride, in 1914. It was written by her pupil IC Nanda. Till then, Andretta didn’t know it was going to become an artists’ colony. But Nature has its own ways and Richards was the pivot for this movement.
Richards’ husband passed away in 1920. She lived in England till 1924, but I guess the love she got in India made her come back. A Britisher who was leaving India sold off his 15-acre estate to her. And she became one with the green, serene hamlet. Half her estate, Woodlands Estate, was forest and in the other half she lived in the thatched roof mud hut and ran her theatre school. She did all her writing in the light of the old kerosene lamps (which hang from the roof even now) and worked on many sanitation issues with the villagers. She also held a weeklong theatre festival, which attracted the likes of Prithvi Raj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni. She painted with watercolours and her artistic endeavours drew many like-minded ones to the serene village. It became a hub for famous painters Sobha Singh and BC Sanyal, actor Kabir Bedi’s mother Farida Bedi and others. Richards passed away in 1971, leaving most of her works with the Punjabi University, Patiala. On her gravestone are her last words ‘Rest Weary Heart–Thy work is Done’.
A little down the road, I see the board Andretta Pottery. This is the buzzing space now in Andretta. Everyone knows about it and everyone talks about it. Some foreigners are sitting around. A small room houses some creative pieces, which looks quite different from the ones I have seen in the city markets. I guess creativity does flower in the right ambience. I can buy some, I am told. But my interest is in observing and getting acquainted with the man who runs this—Mansimran Singh, better known as Mini. His father Gurcharan Singh used to practice the craft here, persuaded by Richards to be in the natural ambience.
From a 20-minute session to a six months course, this is among the more famous places to learn pottery in India today. I watch a lady from Turkey work her fingers around the clay. She is on a sabbatical and in no hurry to go back to her homeland. The sun is rising, but my talk with young Shubham who manages the place keeps me hooked. With no desire to exchange life in the valley for city lights, Shubham asks me to spend an hour sitting under a tree, telling me I will see at least 100 different birds. But time being less and explorations being more, I take off.
Art gallery and papercraft
My next stop along the green roads is Sobha Singh Art Gallery. I enter a doorway to see a lady working with paper rolls, chart paper of different colours to be more precise. I watch and turn my eyes to see rolls turned into sofas, owls, wall hangings, butterflies and more. Giving me barely time to pay for the ticket, she says that photographs aren’t allowed inside the museum. This is disappointing, not being able to carry back some beautiful memories. The museum is sacred and we take off our shoes before entering. This was actually the artist’s home. And it’s not a large one, but very aesthetic. The painter was known for his portraits and works related to the Sikh gurus and some murals are also present in the Parliament House. In 1947, he won the State Artist of the Punjab Government and then the Padma Shri in 1983. The Government of India also released a stamp in his honour in 2001.
Standing in front of the many vibrant paintings, I try to imagine life amid colours. It brings a smile to my face and a longing to leave the city. On the first floor, I peep into his bedroom and personal belongings. A musical instrument catches my attention. Few minutes could have been few hours if pictures are allowed. But wearing my shoes, I walk around the premises and chance upon the bust of Prithvi Raj Kapoor on a wall. Art never dies.
Andretta is barely a 20-30 minute drive from Palampur (13km). The nearest railway station is at Pathankot (90 km). Alternatively, one can fly down to Gaggal airport (40km).
One can hire a taxi from there, or take a bus A slow but scenic way is to take the toy train till Palampur.
More to see: Bir Billing, the paragliding ground is nearby. Dharamshala and McLeodganj are close too. One can see the Kangra Fort, take an audio tour there. The area is also famous for different treks.