Saturday, November 1, 2003

She was the driving force behind Punjab’s modern art movement
Jangveer Singh

NESTLED in the foothills of the mighty Dhauladhars, Andretta seems to be one of the many quaint villages in the Palampur valley, which offer a panoramic view of snow-capped mountain peaks. However, visitors passing through the ‘two-shop’ village are sure to be intrigued by two signs on opposite ends of the single-lane metalled road. One announces the house alongside the road as the retreat of portrait artist Sobha Singh while the other gives the directions to the mud house of Norah Richards, an Irish woman fondly remembered as the nani of Punjabi theatre.

Norah made the village her home for nearly 50 years after she came here in the 1920s. This earned it the sobriquet of mem da pind in undivided Punjab. The way to Norah’s house does not seem to have changed in decades. A kuchcha road with bamboo thickets on both sides leads one to the abode of Norah comprising her mud house, open-air auditorium, a holiday home built by the Punjabi University and a residential area behind it known as the Woodland Society.

Immediately on entering the compound leading to Norah’s house one comes across her grave. "Rest weary heart thy work is done", says a sign painted on a small wall alongside the spot where she was cremated in 1971. A lone marigold flower lies on her grave. Immediately ahead is the open-air theatre constructed by Norah, which is still unchanged. The theatre has an open mud hut as the backdrop with a small stage in front of it. Moss-covered stones rise up in steps to form the seating arrangement. This theatre was the core of Norah’s activities with playwrights, directors and actors visiting the village during the summer holidays to enact her plays, which had been translated into Punjabi, as well as those of others. Norah focussed on removing social ills plaguing society. She inspired famous Playwright I. C. Nanda’s play Suhag based on the practice of child marriage in the hills.

Ahead, to the left of the theatre, lies the mud house of Norah, which has recently been given a complete overhaul by the Punjabi University to which she bequeathed the property after her death. The mud house, which is a double-storey structure, seems to rise out of its surroundings unpretentiously. Built in stages by Norah, the building’s condition deteriorated in the last few years after a scholar who used to stay in it and look after it vacated the premises. Executive Engineer of the university Amarjit Singh Sandhu said mud mixed with lime and cement had been used to rebuild most of the original mud house and one whole section, which had been demolished during Norah’s time, had been rebuilt in conformity with the dimensions given in old building maps. He said bamboo sticks coated with tar had been used to support the roof on top of which local women had woven jute matting. Slate had been used to cover the roof.

There is no doubt that the university has rendered an invaluable service to art lovers by restoring Norah’s house but it could have avoided displaying the fact on a marble plate bordered with a stone at the entrance of the house. The ‘’dedication of the house by the Vice Chancellor" could have been put up in an innocuous place without spoiling the facade of the house. This, however, is a small slip up. An empty house with empty rooms gives no information to visitors about Norah Richards. One can’t find even the life history of Norah anywhere on the property.

To know Norah one has to visit former Ropar Government College Principal Malti Chandok who is one of the only two permanent residents of the Woodland Society made by Norah where a plot was taken by cine star Prithviraj Kapoor and where Kabir Bedi’s mother Frieda Bedi and artist B. C. Sanyal built their houses. Malti says she came into contact with Frieda Bedi during her teaching days and later came to Andretta with her brother-in-law. "What bought me to Andretta was a painting in my possession in which Parvati had been shown meditating against a backdrop of sheer rock mountains. My brother-in-law told me he knew the very place depicted in the painting and got me to Andretta. I was so taken up with the place that I started spending my annual summer holidays with a family in the village.’’

Malti says that after a few years Norah Richards wrote to her inviting her to her house. ‘’Once I got in touch with Norah I used to spend a lot of time with her talking about education or helping her clean her library’’, says Malti. She says Norah then asked her to select a two-canal plot in the area, which is known as Woodland Society, that she later gave her. She asked Prithviraj Kapoor to get the necessary documents from the tehsil office. "Norah then started asking me to build my house and when I laid the foundation stones I would get letters from her saying ‘I do not like your chess board, come and complete your house’. However I could not build the house till Norah’s death and settled down here after my retirement", she adds.

Malti feels the empty mud house of Norah gives one the impression that she wanted to live like a villager in Andretta. ‘’This is far from the truth’’, says Malti, adding that Norah built a mud house for herself because she wanted her house to be environment friendly. However she was essentially a theatre aficionado and an intellectual who used to contribute to papers like the Manchester Guardian abroad and The Tribune in India, besides others. Malti says Norah came to India because philanthropist Dayal Singh Majithia offered her husband Philip Richards, an English teacher, a job in Lahore College. She says Majithia persuaded Philip to come to Lahore College to ensure that "jattan de munde angrezan vargi angrezi bol sakan". When Philip agreed, Norah came with him and immediately set about instituting the Saraswati Manch to direct plays in English.

The very first play was a disappointment because the pronunciations of the actors were just not appropriate, says Malti. "It was then that Norah decided to direct plays in Punjabi and the modern Punjabi art movement was born". However Norah’s stay in Lahore was cut shot when her husband died suddenly after a brief illness a few years later. Norah returned heart broken to England where an incident in which India was being disparaged instigated her to speak her mind as a result of which she landed in jail. Another Woodland resident Mary Singh, who is from England, while describing the incident says that during the screening of the film Through Romantic India when Lord Reading appeared on the screen, Norah stood up and denounced him for doubling the salt tax. Mary says Norah got so incensed that she smashed a few seats for which she served a month-long sentence at Halloway prison.

The incarceration was a turning point in Norah’s life and she decided to return to India. Norah worked as a maid to earn the ship fare of Rs 900 and returned to India in 1924. Once back, she got in touch with one Mrs Parker who used to deal in wool in Banuri village near Andretta where she came before she finally found a place of herself in Andretta. Once in Andretta, she hired a mason, Shiv Charan Pathania, to build her a one-room mud house, which she later enlarged.

Shiv Charan’s grandson Ragubir Singh Pathania, who still lives in the same village, says his family had grazing rights over the land, which Norah bought for herself. Norah wanted to give some land to his grandfather, who refused the offer. Norah was a stickler for cleanliness, he adds, and was also responsible for the cleaning of the village well. He also fondly remembers the plays staged by Norah during the summer months when artists and writers came to live with her and stage their productions in her open-air auditorium. He says a regular theatre movement should be revived in Andretta to carry on her work.

For Mansimran "Mini" Singh, who runs Pottery Society in the village and whose father Gurcharan Singh had been bought to the village by Norah, the Irish lady’s singular contribution was the collection of so much talent around her. "She encouraged my father to come here as also noted artist B. C. Sanyal and Prof Jai Dayal, who was Prithviraj Kapoor’s teacher". Besides this the then Chandigarh Chief Commissioner, M. S. Randhawa, was a regular visitor.

Mansimran says Punjabi University conducts a theatre production to commemorate the birthday of Norah Richards on October 29 every year. He says the activity usually receives an enthusiastic response and is looked forward to by art lovers. Malti Chandok, however, feels the university should set up a museum in Norah’s house in which all her personal items, including books, type writers and personal articles, should be properly displayed. She says Norah’s library should also be recreated to let posterity know the essence of the woman.

While speaking about the Woodland Society, Mansimran says though it had been conceived as an artists’ colony by Norah, it has now become virtually defunct. He says only four artists, Paramjit Singh, Ram Kumar, Shami Mehndiratta and M. K. Puri, have built houses here whereas Norah had given land to around 18 people. He says even these artists have not visited their homes in years. B. C. Sanyal’s daughter Amba Sanyal, who is now heading the society, is trying to revive it and has recently built the Centre for Performing Arts complete with stages for various activities. He says though this is a laudatory step, the challenge was to get artists to come to Andretta even if for short spells so that the mission of the noble lady can be fulfilled.