Andretta: An Artists’ Village And The Irishwoman Who Built It

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    Framed by the Shivalik Hills on one side and the Dhauladhar Hills on the other, Andretta was probably destined to be an artist’s muse. Located 12 km from Palampur city in Himachal Pradesh, it has been a nursery for many famous artists since pre-Independence times.

    Step into this picturesque village and you immediately see the amalgamation of multiple art forms like dramatics, pottery and painting. Art galleries like Norah’s Centre for Arts, Andretta Pottery and Craft Society, Norah's Mud House and Sir Sobha Singh Art Gallery dot this hamlet and create a special aura that tend to linger and even inspire.

    But did you know that the Andretta artists’ colony wasn’t founded by an Indian?

    Located in the Kangra Valley, Andretta was established by Irish theatre actor and playwright Norah Richards. Born in 1873 and educated in institutions like Oxford, Norah married Philip Richards, a professor of English at the Government College, Lahore. Norah arrived in Lahore, then a part of the unified Indian subcontinent in 1908 and went on to get involved in the cultural activities of the college.

    It drew her into the then budding Punjabi theatre scene in Lahore. Using contemporary social themes prevalent in Punjabi society, she wrote plays in English, directed them and also encouraged students to write their own one-act plays and act in them.

    Richards flourished in this environment and was even appointed Vice-Principal of the Dayal Singh College in Lahore. When her husband died in 1920, Richards returned to England. It was a letter she received while she was there that proved a turning point in her life – and for many artists in India.

    The letter had been written by Dayal Singh Majithia, the Lahore-based social reformer, banker and philanthropist, and a colossus of his time. It was he who had offered her husband a position at the Dayal Singh College in Lahore a few years earlier. Dayal Singh was aware of Richards’s zeal for the creative arts and, in his letter, urged her to return to India and involve herself in artistic pursuits.

    The timing was just right. Richards came back, intent on using theatre as a powerful medium to spread social awareness among rural masses in remote areas in India.

    She had once visited Andretta with her husband and had been enchanted by the picturesque place and its tranquillity. So she decided to put down roots here.

    After briefly working on the design of rural theatre, in 1935, Richards requested the District Commissioner of Kangra to allot her some land. She received 15 acres, and on it she built an English-style cottage for herself. It was constructed from mud, slate and bamboo and local masonry. She also built a makeshift stage and invited Punjabi theatre amateurs and professionals to learn and perform plays. Soon, the village acquired the name ‘Mem-da-Pind’ (Village of Memsahib).

    At Andretta, Richards nurtured Punjabi theatre by scripting plays, producing them and working with young, local theatre enthusiasts through the 1940s and 1960s. Due to her pivotal role in establishing modern Punjabi theatre, she acquired the nickname ‘Grandmother of Punjabi Theatre’ and ‘Lady Gregory of Punjab’ (after the famous Irish dramatist and folklorist).

    The artists’ colony she was building at Andretta was a wonderful platform for the best talents, and it birthed the careers of many famous names in Punjabi drama, like Dr Harcharan Singh, Balwant Gargi and Gurcharan Singh.

    Andretta also had a famous brush with Hindi cinema, when one of its legends, Prithviraj Kapoor made it his home in the late 1930s and early 1940s, on the insistence of his professor, Jai Dayal. Kapoor immersed himself in theatre here before he went to Bombay to join the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Next, he launched his own theatre company, the Prithvi Theatre, in Bombay. A bust of the legend, created by painter & sculptor Sobha Singh (he dabbled in sculpturing as well), is in the Sardar Sobha Singh Museum in Andretta.

    The 1940s saw a great influx of celebrated artists to Andretta. Richards personally invited Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal, a well-known painter and sculptor, and Prof Jai Dayal, who had been her husband’s student in Lahore. Jai Dayal helped Richards in all her artistic activities. After his retirement as an English lecturer in the Government College at Dharmsala, he settled in Andretta and was her neighbour. He had also been instrumental in introducing Prithviraj Kapoor to theatre in Andretta.

    Sanyal was later instrumental in setting up the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi, and he enjoyed visiting Richards at Andretta. He built a mud-brick holiday cottage in the artists’ colony, where he used to paint while dividing his time between Andretta and Delhi. He also painted stage backdrops for many of Richards’ plays at Andretta.

    In 1947, after being forced to leave for Lahore due to Partition, Sobha Singh, famous for his paintings of the Sikh Gurus and depicting Punjabi folktales, arrived at Andretta and painted hundreds of paintings on the Sikh Gurus, their life and work. His painting of Sohni-Mahiwal (1937), based on a love story, is still considered a celebrated work.

    Sobha Singh opened an art gallery and lived in Andretta till his death in 1986. His paintings can still be seen at the Sobha Singh Art Gallery run by his family in this idyllic village.

    Another noted personality who made Andretta her home was Freda Bedi, mother of actor Kabir Bedi and a friend of Richards. This was after contributing to the Indian freedom struggle through her political writings and a stint in the Ministry of Welfare after Independence. She embraced Buddhism and lived in the artists’ village for a while in the 1950s. While staying in the Kangra Valley, Bedi opened learning centres for women and children.

    As the artistic environment of Andretta kept attracting more and more artists, it also became a launch pad for the Delhi Blue Art Pottery haat.

    This school of pottery was inspired by-Persian style pottery, where clay and cobalt blue were blended to give the pots and other items their signature blue colour.

    In 1952, noted potter Sardar Gurucharan Singh laid the foundation for art pottery i

    India through the pottery unit he set up here. He worked at Andretta till his death in 1995.

    His son Mansimran started the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society in 1983 along with his British wife Mary Singh. It not only sells its products all over the world, but also teaches pottery. Mansimran also set up a museum at the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society. Its boasts a complete collection of Himachal village pottery, which is especially valuable as this style of pottery is on the verge of extinction. The Singhs also set up a Central Government Rural Marketing Centre in Andretta to provide assistance to potters. Today, pottery from Andretta is sold across India.

    The Delhi Blue Art Pottery went on to become a rage nationwide, and its legacy continues to thrive at the Delhi Blue Pottery Trust at Safdarjung in Delhi, which was founded by Gurucharan Singh and is maintained by his students.

    As other forms of the arts found a footing and flourished at Andretta, Norah Richards continued her work in drama. Every year, in March, she organised a week-long festival, during which students and villagers enacted her plays in an open-air theatre on her estate. Among her guests, Prithviraj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni were the most regular.

    Richards’ plays were on social reform, whose scripts she wrote while the others helped with production. She wrote newspaper articles and painted watercolours. Andretta thus became a hub of cultural and theatrical activities for an entire generation of artists. The air resonated to discussions about art, drama and the philosophy of living in a rural environment, and these discussions and debates attracted veterans from different fields to come here to participate.

    In 1970, Punjabi University, Patiala, honoured Norah Richards with a D Litt degree and made her a Fellow. She died a year later, on 3rd May 1971. Her gravestone in Woodlands Retreat, her Andretta Estate, has these last words inscribed on it: “Rest Weary Heart – Thy work is Done."

    During the 1990s, Punjabi University, Patiala, declared Richards’s house a heritage monument under the Punjab Government, and restored it. Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal’s daughter Amba, along with her famous architect husband KT Ravindran, opened the ‘Norah Centre for the Arts’ to rekindle the lost vision and dream of an artists’ village called Andretta.

    The little theatre is still in use by Punjabi University’s students, who stage plays here every year on Richards’s birthday, 29th October. They also host special functions here on her death anniversary.

    Andretta continues to charm artists from all walks of life. It was described by one of Punjab’s greatest sons, writer Khushwant Singh, thus: “This is where drama, painting, pottery and writing marry.”

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