Claying around in Andretta

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Biscuited pots waiting to be glazed and fired. Photo: df

The Norah Richards Art Centre in Andretta, in Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh. Photo: ddc

Jugal Kishore Sankhyan, who manages Andretta Pottery now, teaching students. Photo: mmm

Norah Richards' mud-brick home in Andretta, whch is now a museum of mud architecture. Photo: df

The Dauladhar range seen from Andretta. Photo: sudha mahalingam

Sun-dried pots.

Raj Kumar, a worker, at the kiln. Photo: fvcx

Jugal Kishore at work. Photo: df

Finished pottery. Andretta Pottery is much sought after for its unique slipware. Photo: dfs

Mani Simran Singh at the potting wheel in Andretta Pottery. Photo: hb

Wisteria in bloom, Andretta. Photo: dff

A Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Bir in Kangra. Photo: ddfd

Inside the Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Bir in Kangra. Photo: sdf

At the mela at Panchruki village. Village potting has virtually vanished and it is evident from the fare on sale here. Photo: dff

Holi celebrations in Andretta. Photo: sdf

Didi Contractor at her home in Sidhbari. Photo: asd

A mud-brick home in Sidhbari in Kangra Valley, designed by Didi Photo: hj

Wall art at Andretta. Photo: hgh

Norah Richards, from the personal collection of Mani Simran Singh. Photo: sdf

THE wisterias have burst forth in celebratory profusion. Mauve, white and pale pink blossoms carpet the ground, drift in the wind, get into your hair and eyes, and scent the ambient air. The slopes are brightly decorated with blood-red rhododendrons. Azaleas, narcissi, larkspur, buttercups, cornflowers and even tulips have erupted unbidden, lining the pathway in cheery welcome. The meadows are flashing with tiny yellow and blue wild blossoms, inviting you to step on them barefoot to feel their dewy caress.

At Andretta Pottery, Jugal Kishore Sankhyan and his assistants are trying to replicate the subtle and evocative shades of spring in their glazes. They are experimenting with exotic blends of metallic oxides to mimic nature. Copper for blue, tin for beige, iron for black, and a host of other secret formulae that will transform the humble clay into a lustrous object of art. The pottery shed sits on the bank of a gurgling stream from which the potters fetch water to coax clay into different shapes. Their wheels face the snow-capped Dauladhars. The peaks are perpetually sunbathed and keep changing colour throughout the day, providing inspiration for aspiring potters. The piercing rays of the mountain sun are filtered by a magnificent bamboo bush that lets through light in measured shafts.

Andretta, a serene village in Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh, nestling at the foot of the Dauladhars, attracts not only aspiring and established studio potters, but many talented artists: theatre persons, painters, dancers and musicians. The credit for turning the sleepy hamlet into a bustling arts village goes to Norah Richards, an Irish woman of vision and determination. The wife of an English teacher in Dyal Singh College in Lahore, Norah was reluctant to go back to England after her husband’s death. She was persuaded by Sardar Gurucharan Singh, the doyen of studio pottery in India and the founder of the Delhi Blue Art Pottery studio, to move to Andretta and make her home there. Sobha Singh, a painter from Lahore; B.C. Sanyal, the noted sculptor and painter and founder of the Lalit Kala Akademi; Gurucharan Singh, and Norah Richards formed the nucleus that turned Andretta into a hub of artistic activity.

Norah got land from a British tea-estate owner and set up the Woodland Estate, built herself an aesthetic dwelling of mud and slate, and began a theatre group. She held acting workshops with Professor Jai Dayal. Prithiviraj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni were regular participants in her workshops. In spring, Andretta came alive with performances which included local people as well, in the open-air theatre on Norah’s premises. Norah’s theatre workshops were followed by the wisteria festival to mark the beginning of spring. The local people were very much part of the festival, staging plays in Punjabi. Norah also painted and wrote in newspapers from time to time. Andretta soon became a hub of cultural and intellectual activity.

Norah was a Gandhian at heart and a visionary. She was ahead of her time in her concern for the environment. In recognition of her contribution to Punjabi culture, Punjabi University at Patiala conferred an honorary doctorate on her. Now her mud-brick home is a museum of mud architecture, managed by Punjabi University.

Gurucharan Singh came to Delhi from Gujranwala to work in Ram Singh Kabuli’s brick kiln way back in 1919. Mesmerised by the vibrant blue glaze that adorned Delhi’s Sultanate monuments, he was keen to begin work on glazed pottery. Acknowledging Gurucharan’s potential, Kabuli sent him to Japan, then and now the altar of the finest in studio pottery, to train under the masters. Young Gurucharan came in contact with Shoji Hamada and the legendary British master Bernard Leach, and imbibed their passion for this emerging art form. On his return, he moved to Lahore, where he worked on various industrial and art forms of pottery for the Punjab government. During his stint with the government, Gurucharan Singh set up the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS).

In 1952, Gurucharan started an art pottery studio in what is today the national capital’s Safdarjung. New Delhi was still being built and the rapidly expanding city edged the pottery out to what is now the ring road, from where it functions to this day. In the 1950s, it was still scrub land where jackals, peacocks and wild boar roamed. Today, perched on prime property in the heart of the capital, Delhi Blue Art Pottery is a thriving school for studio pottery and a favourite destination for aspiring studio potters in India.

Studio pottery was virtually unknown in India even in the 1950s. Terracotta water coolers and cooking utensils expertly thrown by village potters were widely used in homes. While red clay, stoneware and porcelain are all natural raw materials for making ceramics, Gurucharan Singh specialised in stoneware, the raw material carted from afar. There was little demand for his wares. He plodded on unmindful of the lack of knowledge of or appreciation for this delicate art form. But soon discerning aesthetes began to buy his tableware, and eventually, studio pottery gained wide acceptance. Today, Gurucharan Singh’s pieces have become collectors’ items, gracing galleries and museums in India and abroad. The blue glaze jaalis (latticed screens) and tiles produced by Gurucharan Singh, including the tiled panels of elephants in Travancore House on Curzon Road, adorn many of the Lutyens buildings in Delh. Hand-pressed painted tiles were ordered by Herbert Baker for use in the Parliament building and in Tiz Hazari courts.

In 1961, Gurucharan Singh’s son Mani Simran Singh (also known as Mini) came back after a stint with Bernard Leach in St Ives in England, that mecca of all studio potters. He and his English wife, Mary, who, incidentally, was also a student at Delhi Blue Art Pottery, joined Gurucharan Singh in popularising this art. Mini had exhibited at the Commonwealth Institute and other prestigious galleries and was a master artist in his own right. Mini and Mary have trained an entire generation of potters at Delhi Blue, even after Mini suffered severe paralysis on one side after a car crash.

During his earlier stint in Lahore, Gurucharan Singh met Sanyal and Sobha Singh, who was commissioned by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee to paint portraits of Sikh gurus. The ensuing friendship persuaded Gurucharan Singh to set up a studio in Andretta, and the trio shuttled between Delhi and Andretta. After his death in 1995, Mini and Mary stayed back in Andretta.

Now in their seventies, Mini has retired from active potting and has handed over the reins to his best student, Jugal Kishore Sankhyan.

Fastidious medium

I am in Andretta for two months to learn the basics of throwing and glazing. Andretta uses local clay and not stoneware, which needs to be fired at more than 1,200 °Celsius. As I sit at the wheel and attempt to centre the clay, I realise that clay has a mind of its own. Clay is indeed a fastidious medium to work with. Instead of trying to shape the clay to one’s will, a good potter aligns his/her mind to that of the clay to produce those miraculous containers. It demands a level of concentration that borders on meditation. After nearly four weeks at the wheel, I manage an approximation of a bowl. Kishori Lal, a 14th generation potter and an assistant at Andretta Pottery, effortlessly throws more than a hundred pieces a day—bowls, jars, cups, cylinders and coffee pots—all immaculately shaped and perfectly finished.

Jugal Kishore is an expert not just in throwing but in coaxing out tantalising colours from oxide glazes. It is common knowledge that glazes are always a surprise and even the most seasoned potters can never be sure what colour their pots will turn out to be after firing. Michael Cardew, another established English potter, had many a nasty surprise from glazes even after decades of hands-on experience in glazing. In fact, kiln disasters seem to have been a frequent occurrence even with Lucy Ree, Bernard Leach and Tim Andrews, all awe-inspiring names in the world of ceramics.

Jugal Kishore specialises in slipware, an English technique that Mary had introduced in Andretta Pottery. It involves applying colours before biscuit-baking. Once biscuited, glaze is applied and the pots are fired again. It is called slipware because the colours show under the glaze, like a slip visible through the dress. Andretta Pottery is much sought after for its unique slipware.

Mini and Mary’s home is a natural magnet for artists and aesthetes, who flock there to learn, perform or simply linger. For a village that is tucked away in a remote corner of the Himalayas, Andretta is buzzing with visitors and social life. Many expatriates who have made Mcleodganj and Dharmshala their home drop by at the pottery to buy, admire and to play around with clay. Mini’s house is also full of books on potters and pottery, and the generous Singhs let me borrow some books to browse through. The studio attracts students from all over the world. My fellow student Angus William is from Australia, and he has come to spend five months at Andretta Pottery. He has wholeheartedly immersed himself in the local way of life, going about barefoot, carrying loads of clay on his head and playing cricket with the local boys. He has endeared himself to everyone in the village.

However, for the locals, pottery holds no allure. It has lost out to plastic and non-stick cookware. Local craftsmen no longer pass on their skills to the next generation and the craft is almost dying out. Mary Singh laments the absence of any government or corporate funding to revive pottery in villages. While weaving has witnessed a veritable renaissance thanks to generous support from the government, village potting has virtually vanished, she says.

Panchruki mela, held in an adjacent village, testifies to this claim. There are just a couple of traditional potters in the entire mela, which is packed with cheap, machine-made goods. Handcrafting skills such as basket-weaving now survive only vestigially, that too with the support of some poorly funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Village terracotta pottery does not command the prices that glazed pottery does, but the village potter is scarcely able to transition to glazed pottery owing to the prohibitive cost of setting up a kiln.

That is also one of the reasons why studio pottery is not as popular as other art forms. For the truly passionate, however, there are commercial kilns available to fire the pots thrown in a city studio. Golden Bridge Pottery in Puducherry, set up by the Americans Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith, produces exquisite stoneware and also trains budding potters, while Devi Prasad, Nirmala Patwardhan and K.V. Jena also started teaching studio pottery in the 1970s. Andretta’s fascination with clay extends beyond pottery. Didi Contractor, a feisty part-American and part-German woman in her eighties, lives in Kangra Valley, not far from Andretta, turning mud and clay into lovely homes for the discerning and the committed to live in. In 1975, Didi decided to move from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai to the quiet environs of Andretta where she spent years in the stimulating company of Gurucharan Singh, Sanyal and his family, and occasional visitors like Mulk Raj Anand. Didi later moved to Sidhbari to be near Barbara Nath Wiser, an Austrian physician who runs an NGO called Nishta and with whom she shares her philosophy.

Mud housing

Didi’s first introduction to mud as building material was as a young girl when her parents bought a mud home in New Mexico and remodelled it. She admired the beauty of Indian villages and was happy to find Norah’s exquisite mud architecture in Andretta. Didi came to Andretta long after Norah was gone but lived in one of the mud-brick houses on Woodland Estate for 13 years, perfecting, among other things, the art of building mud-brick homes that would withstand the incessant monsoon rains and remain cool even in the summer when ultraviolet rays from the sun can virtually burn your skin. In fact, mud, according to Didi, is an excellent insulation against radioactive materials. Mud is also less dangerous inasmuch as it collapses outwards during an earthquake. Didi points out that building with mud is not a new concept but that she merely revived traditional wisdom.

Today, this self-taught architect still designs mud-brick homes and trains young students of architecture who come to intern with her. “Good architecture is also about fostering hand skills,” says Didi. Her exquisite cottage in Sidhbari nestles in a beautifully landscaped garden and is built almost entirely with indigenous materials such as bamboo, mud and slate tiles that are native to this part of the country. Didi is convinced that mud is a far superior building material than cement and mortar. Not only do mud bricks leave no carbon footprint and are cheaper to make but they require little maintenance. Unlike baked bricks, mud bricks are not hydroscopic—they do not absorb water. But most importantly, in a populous country like India, building with mud is labour-intensive rather than material-intensive and thus provides employment to rural labour.

Of course, mud housing may not be suitable for urban spaces where construction is vertical owing to the pressure on land. But Didi is at pains to emphasise that there is no single solution to the problem of excessive resource use and the resultant climate change. She says: “Each habitat must evolve its own individual solution to minimise resource and carbon footprint. There are no big or global solutions to our ecological problems. What we need today is a variety of individual, local, small solutions rather than one grand idea.” According to Didi, the very essence of sustainability vests in the concept of borrowing from nature and returning the resources to nature intact. “Cement will never biodegrade; our architecture must focus on biodegradability, zero waste, and sustainability.”

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