There is a saying, ‘Sudden plans work the best and weave evergreen memories’. Well, something similar happened to me during my visit to Kangra, last October. Nestled 13 kms from the tea gardens of Palampur in the Kangra Valley, squeezed between the mighty Dhauladhar range and the dense Shivalik forest, I discovered Himachal’s best-kept secret, Andretta. My visit to this town was a memorable one, to say the least.
A Happy Accident
I was in Kangra, attending a friend’s marriage when I decided to take a ride into the heart of the beautiful Dhauladhar range. I booked a local taxi from Kangra and set out on this open-ended, undefined journey. There was no plan and no expectations, just a backpacker, his dreams and a cab.
As we (Driver Suresh and me) traced our path into this enchanting valley, the vast stretches of sprawling tea gardens and the zealous tea pickers became our constant companions. Soaking in the fragrance of the plantations and lost in the music of birds, I was interrupted by Suresh who enquired about my final destination, “Bhaiji, kitthe?”. Unsure of the answer myself, I spent the next 30 minutes googling likely places and finally, on an impulse, decided on Andretta.
There I was, in front a lovely and welcoming house- boasting a long verandah, topped with three windows, and a forested hill rising steeply behind ‘The Mirage’ is a yoga retreat and heritage homestay in the unfamiliar town of Andretta.
A Mystery Unravelled
The vibe of the place was very distinctive, a cultural spectacle wrapped in warmth and comfort. Excited to know more, I asked the retreat manager about the house and I received a booklet in return, delineating the history of Andretta and the house.
I. A Theatre in the Middle of Nowhere
Norah Richards was the woman credited behind the discovery and growth of Andretta, subsequently making it a meeting point for some of the great minds in the field of art, pottery and theatre. Sometime during the 1920s, this young Irish woman arrived in Andretta on a horseback and decided to make this haven her home. After settling down, she soon built a makeshift proscenium and invited Punjabi theatre artists to perform plays here. Gradually it attracted artists from all over, which was when the District Commissioner of Kangra granted Norah 15 acres of land where she started her own school of drama under the name of Mem-da-pind. The theatre tradition, inaugurated by Norah, continues in the village till date (in the premises of Woodlands Retreat) with aid from the Andretta Artists colony.
II. The Foundation of Art
Invited and inspired by Norah to share her dream, the portrait painter for Sikh Gurus, Sobha Singh, visited Andretta next. Having invested over three decades in this art village, he created masterpieces like Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal and many others. These paintings are now well preserved and displayed at the Sobha Singh Art Gallery. Some of Singh’s murals adorn the Parliament House in Delhi.
III. A Potter and his Craft
Padma Shri Awardee, Sardar Gurcharan Singh was also part of the Andretta community. This master potter from Delhi was responsible for introducing studio art pottery in India. He passed on his skills and expertise in making handmade pottery to the locals of Andretta. His son and wife, later, started the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society here.
Andretta: A Rural Cultural Sanctum
These three artists, with their passion and ambition, soon converted this unknown village into a sanctum of art and culture, which attracted tourists and artists from all over the world, including Freda Bedi (actor Kabir Bedi’s mother) and Prithvi Raj Kapoor (a pioneer of the Hindi Film Industry). ‘The Mirage’ was a contribution by Norah’s friend from Lahore, Jai Dayal (now owned by Denis Harrap, founder of The Andretta Arts Company).
An Understated Elegance
Consumed by lovely thoughts about the place, I slept peacefully. At the crack of dawn, I enjoyed my morning chai on the verandah, with snow clad Himalayas slung across the view. Denis was also there, narrating his experiences to one of the fellow guests when he asked me to join them for a jungle walk. He introduced me to the local Gadi tribe whilst sharing his knowledge of the place.
After a refreshing walk, I headed towards the Artists Society of Andretta, in an attempt to put together the pieces I had read in the book. While the Sobha Singh Art Gallery surprised me with its one-off painting collection, the theatre performance in Woodlands Retreat aroused curiosity and fired my artistic impulse. Experiencing handmade art of functional glazed earthenware (also supplied to Fab India) at the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society was something that I’ll probably cherish for life.
In search of tranquillity amidst the valleys of Kangra, I found an extraordinary place with a remarkable history; a happy accident that validates my impulsive travel decisions and will motivate me to embark on more unplanned journeys. I took a bus back to Chandigarh from Kangra and from Chandigarh, I booked an AC cab to take me to New Delhi. This marked the end of a wonderful trip, spontaneous, unplanned and thoroughly unforgettable.