How An Irish Woman Turned A Small Himachali Village Into A Beautiful Art Retreat - Homegrown

How An Irish Woman Turned A Small Himachali Village Into A Beautiful Art Retreat

The further we delve into recent Indian history, the more surprising the revelations thrown back at us become. Often lost in translation, a consistent trend that emerges is the deep love a few Britishers nurtured for India and its culture. These vivid, little-known snippets from our history, told in a personal narrative format, act  as stark reminder of the heritage or culture we sometimes take for granted, as we continue to expand our existence within our individualistic commercial cocoons. It is in this very context that the story of Andretta, a small but power-packed village in Himachal Pradesh, assumes so much significance.

Norah Richards is a name not many are familiar with, yet she is called the ‘Nani’ of Punjabi Theater. An Irish actress, writer and theatre practitioner, Norah first came to India with her husband Rev. Philip Ernest Richards who was a professor of Engish Literature at Dyal Singh College in Lahore. Her immense love for theatre was infectious, and her students soon started picking it up from her enthusiastic lessons. Credited with creating a culture of theatre in Punjab, with both Western and regional plays, she was a staunch supporter of the home rule movement of India and was disturbed by the negative portrayal of India being propagated in England. After the passing of her husband in 1920, she left India only to come back four years later, and in 1935, the District Commissioner of Kangra offered her 15 acres in the village of Andretta where she built an estate called Woodland.

Norah's House Image Source: 10 Year Itch
Norah's House Image Source: 10 Year Itch

She’d taken a great liking to rural life and she insisted that her house be built with same materials as the local mud huts, naming it ‘Chameli Niwas’. The zeal for theatre and art was carried forward at her new abode and she strived to inject a dose of drama wherever she could. Every year in March, Norah organised a week-long theatre festival where students would organize Punjabi plays in her open-air theatre - and guess who happened to be a regular performer there? Prithviraj Kapoor, a pioneering figure in Indian theatre. A deep admirer of Norah and her work for Punjabi theatre, the patriarch of Bollywood’s renowned Kapoor family harboured a deep-seated desire to make Andretta his home - a wish that remained sadly unfulfilled till the very end. She invited several well-known artists to settle in Andretta, and the few who did cemented its reputation as a thriving cultural and artistic haven.

Take Padma Shri S. Sobha Singh for example. Most famous for his paintings and portraits of Sikh Gurus and Punjabi folklore, the legendary Indian painter was originally based in Lahore, but was forced to leave the city during the Partition. He, like many other artisans, made Andretta his home in 1948 and went on to hundreds of paintings until his passing in 1986. A little known fact is that the most commonly worshipped image of Guru Nanak was his creation. Today, the Sobha Singh Art Gallery and Museum is curated by his daughter Bibi Gurcharan Kaur, and has evolved into a principle attraction at Andretta that houses his original works as well as photographs of him at work.

Image Source: Full Stop India
Image Source: Full Stop India

But of all the people who went on to make Andretta their abode, Gurucharan and Mansimran Singh easily had the most relevant impact. Sardar Gurucharan Singh, considered one of the finest Studio Potters in the country, set up the Delhi Blue Pottery in 1952. In 1956, Norah Richards visited him after being impressed by his work, and even offered him a piece of her land to come to Andretta. He eventually fell in love with Andretta and would come there every summer to create some of his best works up till 1986, when he took the plunge and moved there with his son and daughter-in-law. A Padma Shri winner like Sobha Singh, Gurucharan Singh spent his whole life trying to promote Indian pottery, a legacy that would later be carried forward by his son Mansimran Singh and his wife Mary. The Andretta Pottery and Crafts Society is currently run by Mansimran and Mary, providing a 3-month course in pottery and other shorter-duration courses as well, for which Indians and foreigners alike flock to in large numbers each year. The co-operative set-up houses an array of beautiful works of pottery, some of which have been produced at the facility, and there’s also a terracotta museum housing pots from across the globe.

Image Source: Cedia Freedom Trail
Image Source: Cedia Freedom Trail

Another well-known personality who was a patron of Andretta and Norah Richards was B.C. Sanyal ,the celebrated painter and sculptor, who worked tirelessly till his death in 2003 to make Norah’s vision of an artists haven a stark reality; we must say that, to a certain extent, her dream remains fulfilled. ‘Norah’s Centre For Arts’ and the ‘Woodland Society’ are used to encourage artists of all kinds, and patrons can drop by and hire rooms to pursue their respective arts. Every year, the students of Punjab University in Patiala organise a Punjabi play on 29th October to commemorate Norah’s birthday as well as her contribution to Punjabi theatre.

Tucked in the captivating setting of the foothills of the Dhauladhar Ranges, Andretta has all the makings of a conventional natural tourist attraction anyway, and provides one with the opportunity to be closer to nature in a serene environment; the  legacy of Norah Richards, S Sobha Singh and the famous Pottery Trust, though, adds a dimension of artistic prowess that one rarely hears of in India and that’s really what sets it apart.

How To Get There: One can take a bus from Delhi to Palampur or Dharamsala. Andretta is a 13 km ride from Palampur and 48 km from Dharamsala.

Accomodation: Homestays are offered if one signs up for the Andretta Pottery Centre. A popular option is Mirage, a restored traditional mudhouse by New Zealander Denis Haraap and his French Wife.

Things to do: You should check out Norah Richards’ House, the Centre for Arts and Sobha Singh’s Art gallery alongwith many nearby monasteries and temples. The course offered is for 1,000/a day and a 3-month-long pottery course which is for Rs 90,000, inclusive of food, accommodation and tuition. You can learn more on the Andretta Pottery  Website.

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