Clippety-clop, clippety-clop… the beat of a horse’s hooves breaks the stillness of a tiny hamlet in the Himalayas. It is the sound of the curtain rising on a real-life adventure, as an Irish actress named Norah Richards rides into a village called Andret.

A room at The Mirage, a homestay built in Andretta in 1948. It housed Prithviraj Kapoor’s drama teacher, Jai Dayal. The two would spend years in Andretta, immersed in theatre, before Kapoor moved on to make films, and make history, in Bombay. (Courtesy The Mirage)

It sits about 45 km from Dharamshala, in Himachal Pradesh. Soon after she arrives, in 1924, it will be rechristened Andretta and transformed into a haven for artists from around the world, including potters, musicians, writers, actors, a drama teacher named Jai Dayal and his young student, a future auteur named Prithviraj Kapoor.

The haven still stands, 100 years on. It still hosts artists, and now draws tourists on artistic pilgrimage too.

But let’s start at the beginning. Richards first moved from England to India with her husband Philip Richards, in 1911. He had accepted a teaching post at Dyal Singh College.

The move cut short her theatre career, but she began teaching instead, staging plays, including in Punjabi, and offering classes in creative writing at the college.

When her husband died in 1920, Richards, now 44, returned to England, but she missed the vibrancy she had become accustomed to. She returned to India and purchased a tea plantation in Kangra Valley, for one rupee, in 1924. She would soon swap it for land in Andretta, an hour south.

Even today, time seems to have folded in on itself here. The village sits in the shadow of the snow-capped Dhauladhar range. It has a smattering of bungalows between bamboo groves and rice fields; tea estates still glisten in villages just beyond.

Wall plates made at the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society. (Gustasp and Jeroo Irani)
Wall plates made at the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society. (Gustasp and Jeroo Irani)

Among the bungalows is Chameli Niwas (House of Jasmine), the mud-slate-and-bamboo home that Richards built in Andretta, in the local style. She soon added an amphitheatre, and began inviting former students to perform. She extended an open invitation to painters, potters, sculptors and writers, and they began to turn up when in search of space to create or community, escape, or inspiration.

Amid Partition, luminaries from across the new border would seek refuge here; some for a few years, others permanently. The eminent Sikh painter Sobha Singh left Lahore in 1947 and settled here at Richards’s invitation. His studio and former home are now a museum. The painter and sculptor BC Sanyal, who brought the Modernist art movement to India, moved here too.

Sardar Gurcharan Singh, a master potter who studied the art form in Japan and returned to birth a culture of studio pottery in India, moved onto land gifted to him by Richards, and set up the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society. It still stands, and serves as a platform for local artisans. It is now run and managed by Shubham Sankhyan, 28, whose late father worked with Singh’s son Mansimran Singh and daughter-in-law Mary Singh.

“Clay has been my best friend since I was two,” says Sankhyan, a potter, sculptor and flautist. Visitors to the village can walk in to browse, buy, or attend a 45-minute hands-on training session, or sign up for longer-term courses.

There are a number of homestays in the village. The oldest of these, The Mirage, was built in 1948, and was the home of drama teacher Jai Dayal. He and Prithviraj Kapoor would spend years here, immersed in theatre, before the latter moved on to make films, and make history, in Bombay.

Richards lived in Andretta until her death in March 1971, aged 94. A year before this, Punjabi University in Patiala acquired her home. Visiting today, it is easy to see why she missed the flaming colours and sun-warmed villages, and felt she had to return.

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