Saturday, April 13, 2002

Fragrant memories of Norah Richard’s Chameli Niwas
Charu Dogra

Norah’s mud house beside a newly constructed building.
Norah’s mud house beside a newly constructed building.

IT was last year that I had a chance to visit Palampur, a small town situated in the Kangra valley. The visit left me totally smitten and awestruck by the serene beauty of the place and its surroundings. I had been to the mountains earlier but never before had I witnessed such an amazing interplay of nature and tranquillity. It was probably this same picturesque beauty that had possibly impressed the famous playwright Norah Richards way back in 1924 when she chose to make Andretta, a village near Palampur, her home. While I was in Palampur, I got an opportunity to visit her house ‘Chameli Niwas’ and curiosity prompted me to gather whatever little information I could on this great but little-known personality.

Norah Richards played an important part in bringing Punjabi drama to the forefront and in giving it a new outlook. She was born on October 29, 1876, in Ireland. She came to India in 1908 after marrying Philip Richards. Norah was vice-principal at Dayal Singh College, Lahore. Lahore was the fortress of Punjabi culture in those days. During her stay in Lahore, she brought many Punjabi themes under her English pen and directed a few plays. She soon became a popular figure among the students and teachers of the college. After her husband’s death, Norah returned to England. However, unable to keep herself away from India, Norah came back in 1924. She chose to settle in the beautiful valley of Kangra and finally made her home in Andretta. Considering that Norah was brought up in a totally different society and culture, and educated in various institutions in Belgium, England and Australia, it is incredible the way she could settle so easily to village life in India. Norah impressions are clearly visible in every page of her work Country Life wherein she writes, "...only village life is natural."


Living amidst villagers, she chose to lead the same lifestyle and made a mud house with a thatched roof for herself. She named it Chameli Niwas. Her 15 acres of "Woodland Estate" covered by tall trees and wild flowers professed her love for nature. Norah also opened a school of drama from which have emerged many famous names of Punjabi drama like I. C. Nanda, Balwant Gargi and Gurcharan Singh. Every year, in the month of March, Norah organised a weeklong festival in which students and villagers enacted her plays in an open-air theatre constructed on the premises of her estate. Many of her friends and visitors experienced immense pleasure in the exotic surroundings. Among the guests, Prithvi Raj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni were the most regular ones. It was a heavenly retreat for them and they maintained their yearly stint with it for many years. Amongst her other friends who later settled near Woodland Estate were Prof Jai Dayal, Gurcharan Singh, painter Sobha Singh and Farida Bedi.

During the later years of her life, Norah was deeply agonised by the thought that who would take care of her large estate, especially her house which was most dear to her. Unable to find someone trustworthy, she kept changing her will. After her death on March 3, 1974, her will disclosed that she had left Chameli Niwas in the care of Punjabi University, Patiala. To look after her other assets, she had formed the "Woodland Society".

Norah’s ardent efforts in the field of Punjabi drama were not only appreciated but also recognised. She was awarded "honorary doctorate" by Punjabi University. Some of her belongings have been placed in a museum today. Norah chose to lead a very simple and ordinary life among the villagers. She tried to inject some enthusiasm and vivacity into their grave lives by making drama a means of entertainment for them. For a major part of her life, Norah endeavoured to preserve her strong bondage with nature as well as with the rustic village life that she was so fond of.

However, on my visit, I was much distressed to discover Norah’s most cherished possession, Chameli Niwas, in a pitiable condition. If it remains neglected for some more time, only the ruins will be left.