Norah Richards learnt to strike her roots here in the village of Andretta. She identified herself with the land and the people… From Lahore, it was about 12 hrs’ journey by train, bus and then on foot. A 9-mile walk from Bainuri through fields, woods and cultivated terraces brought one to Andretta.” — The Vertical Woman: Reminiscences by BC Sanyal
There is a strange umbilical chord connecting a set of highly creative people with the Kangra village of Andretta and the city that brought them together in pre-Partition India — Lahore. Norah Richards, an Irish theatre activist and playwright, came to Andretta first, sometime in the mid-1930s. On the insistence, it appears, of Professor Jai Dayal of Lahore University, who according to cine actor Shammi Kapoor “was in love with her and she with Shakespeare”. Norah had first come to Lahore in the 1920s on the invitation of a philanthropist, Dayal Singh Majitha, who offered her husband Philip a position at Lahore College to ensure that “Jattan de munde angrezan vargi angrezi bol sakan” (So that the boys of our land learn to speak English as the English do.)
Once in Andretta, Norah Richards built a traditional Kangra-style mud house, set up a makeshift proscenium, and invited Punjabi theatre amateurs and professionals to perform plays. BC Sanyal, who first met Richards in Lahore in the 1940s, was drawn to her immense zeal for the creative arts. As he mentions in his autobiography, he painted stage backdrops for many of her plays at Andretta. To the Punjabis, Andretta during this time came to be known as “Mem da pind” (Memsahib’s village). Richards herself was famously nicknamed the “Nani of Punjabi Theatre” by one of her students, Balwant Gargi, for her contribution to the Punjab theatre movement between the 1940s and 1960s, which she engineered from her mud house in Andretta. In 1935, the District Commissioner of Kangra donated her 5 acres of land in recognition of her contributions.
With Professor Jai Dayal came his student, the young Prithvi Raj Kapoor, who also took stage here. This was during the years the young Pathan was being discouraged from acting. “There is no place in films for uncouth brawny Pathans who think they can make it as actors,” he was apparently told by Baburao Patel, publisher and editor of Film India in the 1940s. Clearly, Kapoor saw his future differently from Patel’s prognosis. And though he did not know it then, the young Pathan was deeply influenced by Richards and Professor Dayal, leading him to start his own theatre company, the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, which his son Balbir Raj (Shashi Kapoor) and Shashi’s wife Jennifer somehow kept afloat, and which now is undergoing a renaissance of sorts under the management of their daughter, Sanjana. Today all that remains of Prithvi Raj’s visits to this beautiful valley is an ugly cement bust placed inside Sardar Sobha Singh’s Museum in Andretta.
BC Sanyal, who was instrumental in setting up the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi, himself loved to visit Richards at Andretta. “Once I took my studio associates from Lahore for a painting camp, and put up an exhibition at Norah’s open-air theatre. We were delighted at the positive response of the village audience. We had also invited Chhanga, the village potter, to display his terracotta horses and domestic pottery. It was a day that is still remembered in Andretta.”
Andretta was also home to Freda Bedi, mother of actor Kabir Bedi, and a friend of Richards. Kabir’s father Baba Payare Lal Bedi was a remarkable Lahorian who played a crucial role in Indian politics. He was joint secretary of the Congress All India Kisan Sabha in 1936-37 and helped Sheikh Abdullah in drafting New Kashmir, the manifesto of the National Congress. His English wife Freda embraced Buddhism at Andretta, while he wandered off and settled in Italy.
During her years at Andretta, the idea of turning the small Kangra Valley hamlet into an artists’ village (officially called Woodland’s Society) came to obsess Richards, and to realise her dream she extended invitations to several artistes to come to Andretta. Two of these invitations went to two Sardars — the master of blue pottery in India, the late Sardar Gurcharan Singh, and portrait painter late Sardar Sobha Singh. Both earned Padma Shrees — the highest honour bestowed on artists by the Indian government — and stayed steadfast to Richards’ dream as long as they were alive, a tradition that is today continued by their families.
Richards died in 1971 and Andretta slowly drifted into oblivion. But looking at Andretta even today, it is not difficult to understand why Richards chose this place. The valley forms a perfect bowl surrounded by thick forests and bamboo groves of the Shivalik Hills on one side and the looming Dhauladhar on the other. Standing in its fields, you feel you are in the womb of creation — where nature itself conspires to create a gamut of colours and perspective that baffle and thrill. I, for one, have not been able to figure how it is that the Dhauladhar Range from here appears nearer, more mighty and awesome than from Palampur, Baijnath or Bir. “This is where drama, painting, pottery and writing marry,” writes Khushwant Singh, observing, per chance wittily, that though the village is Punjabi by nature, it has no chicken shop to speak of.
For those who have made their home in the artists’ village, their heart throbs with the changing seasons of the valley. Like Mansimran Singh, Sardar Gurcharan Singh’s son — affectionately named “Mini” — who along with his wife Mary has set up the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society. Here visitors are encouraged to try their hand at the wheel. BC Sanyal’s daughter Amba, whose husband KT Ravindran, the celebrated architect and dean of Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture, rebuilt Richards’ crumbling mud house, and recently started Norah Centre for the Arts to rekindle the lost vision and dream — of an artists’ village called Andretta.
Andretta doesn’t offer any accommodation, but Palampur or Bir nearby are ideal bases. To get to Andretta from Palampur, drive towards Baijnath and turn right a little ahead of Tashijong. The 12-km drive past tea estates and bamboo groves is very picturesque.
At Andretta, take in the unique view of the Dhauladhars. Then visit the Norah Centre for the Arts at Woodland’s Cottage, Richards’ well preserved mud house. Every year students of Punjab University stage plays here to celebrate Richards’ birthday, on 29 October.
Also visit the Sir Sobha Singh Museum (Tel: 01894-254229, 253423; sobhasinghartist.com). The most famous of Singh’s paintings in the collection here is the Soni Mahiwal painting he executed in the 1940s. Singh also painted many versions of Guru Nanak besides figures from Punjab mythology and legends, and of the Gaddis who roam the Dhauladhars. The museum is currently being managed by Singh’s daughter-in-law, Navrattan. A shop here sells poster prints of his work.
The Andretta Pottery and Craft Society (Tel: 253090), started in 1983 and run by Mansimran ‘Mini’ Singh, is a pottery production studio. Stop here and buy lasting souvenirs of your Andretta visit. You can also do a 3 month pottery course here for Rs 40,000, which includes accommodation, food and tuition. Write to Andretta Pottery & Craft Society, Village & PO Andretta, Tehsil Palampur, District Kangra, HP-176103, or email minimary_99@ yahoo.co.uk for more information.