The Mystical Village in India With an Inexplicably Italian Name
Andretta in India has become a haven for artists (and for those who appreciate their work), but nobody is quite sure how it got its name.
Everything about Andretta feels mystical, like one of those places to which time doesn’t apply, apart from the position of the sun.
Even its origins are mysterious. No one I’ve spoken to knows how this Italian-sounding village in Himachal Pradesh, India, got its name. People have their theories, mind you—“There were Italians here once upon a time,” (there weren’t) and, “The people sort of ‘look’ Italian, too, wouldn’t you agree?” (I wouldn’t)—but none of these tales are verifiable. Even Google has failed me.
I’m sitting inside a fairy-tale cottage. Ivy is creeping around its walls; daffodils, lilies, and begonias are in full bloom; dragonflies dance above the pond beyond the veranda. I am cooling off from a typically hot July day with a gin and tonic. My hosts, Mansimran “Mini” Singh and his wife Mary, who left the U.K, for India some time ago, are telling me about the “old days” as lunch is being laid by their housekeeper.
Andretta is tucked away in the Kangra Valley—tea country in the Western Himalayas. It is an hour-and-a-half from Dharamshala, where Tibetan refugees have found themselves a new home ever since the Dalai Lama fled here in 1959. Monks roam the streets in their maroon-and-amber robes, sometimes wearing white sport shoes and stopping to take selfies with tourists outside Buddhist temples. And since Dharamshala connects to the rest of Himachal via plane, train, and automobile, tourist season is upon us in the summer months.
Mini and Mary have just come off their own equivalent of tourist season. Each year, they host students from across the globe who come to train in pottery under Mini for a month at a time. Over 600 students have passed through here, I’m told, over the last 30 odd years. I’ve come here without purpose as such. I’m not a potter or a sculptor, and, truthfully, I had no idea what a big deal Mini was in pottery circles until I looked him up online before my morning’s pottery class.
I’m here because Mini and Mary are the epitome of Indian hospitality: When I met them in a bakery in Palampur a few days prior with a mutual friend, they instantly lit up with a “You should come potter. Why don’t you come around for tea tomorrow?” And when we did go to tea, Mini repeated the offer to come try my hand at the potter’s wheel.
I feel instantly special. Since they don’t take students year-round, most people who come to Andretta Pottery during the off-season are taught by Shubham Sankhyan. Shubham’s father, Mary tells me, ran the show before him until he passed away. “He handles everything now,” Mary tells me, saying it’s thanks to him they have a website and social media presence.
The only other lunch guest is a sculptor named Amal from Kerala. He is staying with Mary and Mini while he practices his art before leaving to go on an annual pilgrimage. He cannot hear nor speak. Since I cannot sign, so far, we’ve communicated through hand gestures, and, when I still cannot understand what Amal is saying, he writes down or draws for me in his pocket notepad.
Mini and Mary’s “Andretta Pottery and Craft Society” sits along a raw, dirt road in the area’s Woodlands Artists’ Colony, an area that’s taken off in recent years and come to be known as something of a cultural haven for all breeds of creative types: the dancers, the yogis, the writers, the painters—they all come together here.
Andretta wasn’t always like this. According to recent census numbers, Andretta’s population is just over 1,000 people. In fact, the village’s searchability on Google Maps is a recent but celebrated phenomenon.
Yet, if legend is to be believed (and what else is there to go on, in a place this small?) the area was once called “Mem da pind,” or the memsahib’s—the lady’s—village. The lady it refers to is one Norah Richards, an Irish widow who moved to the area in the 1920s after an Englishman sold her land in the valley for a mere rupee. Arriving on horseback after a day-long train journey, Richards went on to make her patch of Kangra home: She built a traditional mud-slate-and-bamboo house. It wasn’t much, but for a woman who adored all the murmur of country life, it was where she’d live until her death in 1971 at the age of 95.
An actress by profession, Richards would eventually be dubbed “the Lady Gregory of the Punjab.” While in Andretta, she built a modest amphitheatre and invited amateur actors to perform Punjabi plays. Soon, professional actors followed suit. Eventually, she’d write to her late husband’s student, Jai Dayal Singh, a professor of drama and literature, and an artist named B. C. Sanyal, asking them to come visit.
Neither one left.
Sanyal went on to become the father of Indian modernism and went on to tutor three generations of Indian artists until his death at the age of 101.
Perhaps there’s something in the water here in Andretta.
I think this, but don’t share it with Mary and Mini. Mini’s forehead has a visible dent from a car accident. His left side is partially paralysed. In my pottery lesson before lunch, as I kicked the wheel, Mini held his cane with one hand while pulling the clay into a perfect cylinder with the other.
When I gave the same thing a try with both hands, it looked promising until the clay collapsed on itself splattering my apron and sending Mini into a fit of laughter. “No worry,” he said, “that’s the thing about clay, you just crump it together and do it again.”
And do it again I did. My second try was, I thought, quite good: “Good!” said Mini, before adding, “now again.”
I start the next one, and Mini walks over to some cups that are ready for the kiln, wiggling them on a flat surface to make sure they’re level.
It was Mini’s father who’d first moved to Andretta, in Norah Richards’ day. Gurucharan Singh was a giant in the world of studio pottery. He’d trained in Japan, but come back to India to work with local potters before growing the country’s oldest pottery institute.
Along with him moved the portrait painter, Sobha Singh, who’d go on to paint hundreds of paintings in his near-40 years in Andretta.
“In Norah’s time,” Mary tells me, “the environment was just vibrant!”
It didn’t take much for me to imagine and envy what that must’ve been like: debates and discussions on everything from philosophy and art and drama—everything one expects from a dot on the map labeled an “artists’ colony.” By the late 1960s, Andretta was the key to a treasure trove of talent. And the talent seemed boundless at the time: a gift that kept giving. Ex-students would visit their teachers in this colony, go home, tell peers, and the cycle would continue.
Prithviraj Kapoor, a prominent film actor came to visit his tutor, Jai Dayal Singh, year in, year out. Eventually, he’d go on to become the patriarch of the Kapoor family, who’ve supplied Bollywood with a string of actors for four generations.
B. C. Sanyal’s daughter, Amba Sanyal, would go on to set up the Norah Richards Centre for Arts, where Punjab University students still put on plays every year, on Richards’ birthday.
Meanwhile, Sobha Singh’s studio and home is now a museum for his work. Last year, they added an artist-in-residence program, too.
And Jai Dayal Singh’s adobe, The Mirage, has today been expanded into a heritage homestay under the same name that remains true to its roots with the addition of a dance and yoga studio cum rehearsal space. Mini and Mary know the owner, Denis, well. He’s away now, they tell me but suggest I stop by there “next time”
Inside Mini and Mary’s cottage, lunch is over. Amal excuses himself once we’ve finished our mangoes for dessert. Birds chirp away in the background, but I don’t feel the need to fill the post-lunch silence with small talk. I’m oddly at ease with Mary and Mini and Norah Richards.
Perhaps it’s because they’re all third-culture-kids in a sense, like me, having moved from place to place and country to country. I ask Mary if she misses home. “This is home now,” she says. She’s been in India since the ’60s, as has Mini, and it’s been a few years since their last trip to the U.K.
Mini asks what’s next on my list. “I’m headed back to Brisbane for a bit,” I say. Before I can finish with the whys and wheres, he gets up and slams a guestbook in front of me. He has ex-students in Noosa, he says, I must visit them: “Look for Angus’s e-mail.”
Later, as Mary and I are discussing her recently-published memoir, and I’m trying to center my clay on the wheel, she tells me about her and Mini’s efforts to keep local potters in business. I ask her if she thinks it’s a dying art.
“We’re hopeful,” she says. “Things will change, and maybe not for the better, according to us—but we’re old. Change is inevitable.”
In the 36 years they’ve been in Andretta, Mini and Mary have seen it change, too. While the revival of this former artists’ village is a pleasant one, the changes in the countryside haven’t always been as pleasant. As more and more Indians move into big cities, coming home with their pockets lined, their parents’ are the last generation of potters, of tea pickers, of farmers who ploughed fields without tractors. The younger generation builds homes that are gaudy and pop loudly against the quiet green of the tea slopes and their adobe neighbours. And the pollution: there’s so much single-use plastic nowadays, and it’s just everywhere.
Change is inevitable.
For now, though, Andretta is a cocoon, sheltered from all the changes that are happening elsewhere at a much faster, alarming rate.
A half-hour drive off the Andretta dirt road onto tarmac and I am in Palampur, a hillstation in Kangra, for evening tea. Before I take my first sip, I wiggle the bottom of the cup against the table. It’s perfectly balanced; flat. Mini would’ve been proud.