It’s not mud,” roars Mini. “It’s clay, C-L-A-Y, clay!” I squirm under his baleful, unblinking gaze. With his white hair pulled back and a rather full beard quivering in annoyance, it’s hard not to squirm. My first day at the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh is not going well.
It seems that the throwing wheel has its own grammar and Sardar Mansimran Singh, or Mini, who is to be my guru, guide and host for the next three months, is especially particular about its correct usage.
I murmur an apology and frown at the ‘it’ in question—chocolate coloured goo splattered almost carelessly on a cement wall “to dry out”.
There is a pause, and then Mini softens up, his strict British accent giving way to the rough Punjabi tones of his mother tongue. “Don’t ever refer to the clay as mud. Mud is dirt. It’s nothing. While clay… clay is everything,” he says, hands spread out to encompass a ring of snow-capped mountains, the forest, the verdant green fields, the streams and the village itself.
A compelling childhood memory of a glistening kick wheel against the background of the Himalayas has brought me back to this pottery in the hills. Two decades ago, I was a child on holiday, brought to visit the Sobha Singh Art Gallery at Andretta. The paintings were impressive, but it was the pottery down the road with its slushy clay smells which captivated me.
I’ve come here as a trainee potter. I could have gone anywhere, but I came here for the location—pottery and Andretta are linked in my head. I craved the aroma of fresh pine and the seclusion of the mountains. I enjoy the mountains and the forests, but this time it’s the wheel that calls to me.
Andretta is a prosperous, clean and green village. It curves around a gentle hill slope and looks up at the mighty Dhauladhar range, which often has snow-covered peaks. The streams are noisy and houses hide behind overhangs of trees.
At the house across the road, we cook and eat off tableware made mostly by ex-students. every piece of crockery has an anecdote, which Mary, Mini’s wife, narrates with wit and affection. Ex-students, artists, potters, friends, and acquaintances visit often. Undermining my presumption of a hermit-like existence, the social life at Andretta is full, varied and almost always involves great food. There are evenings of bonfires and whiskey sours, Saturday dances, Sunday brunches, Italian dinners and Spanish breakfasts, long drives and even longer treks.
Not all visitors are human. One morning, we have a tipsy, chocolate-loving mongoose who has managed to finish the entire hoard of a student’s liqueur chocolates before stumbling out of the dining room. Another time, an incredibly long-tailed paradise flycatcher takes upon itself to become our 4.30 a.m. alarm.
It doesn’t feel like I am living in a village because the crowd is such a mix of international and local people. The paths are mostly paved or metalled, and there is marked absence of garbage or visible sewage. Yet, it is not urban in any sense of the word. It is an idyllic space that lets you dream, slow down a little. The villagers are used to eccentric artist-types moving around, so they are not overtly curious or judgmental. In typically Himachali fashion, they are warm with their hospitality and help.
Most days, I have breakfast by 9 a.m. (toast, peanut butter, eggs and Earl Grey tea are my staple) and spend the hours between 10 a.m. to noon in the pottery—wedging, throwing, trimming or shaping. Lunch is at 1 o’clock and after a rest I return to the wheel at 3.30 p.m. and work till sunset. Dinner is at eight sharp and usually followed by music or a movie, or a night of Scrabble and cards. Saturdays are half-days and Sundays are off. The schedule is flexible, making room for cooking, outings, picnics, and visitors. Sometimes, I take a day off and explore.
During one of the morning treks across the pine forest, Mary shows me the streaks of clay that are the source of our raw material. The clay is dug out by workers and hauled to the pottery, where it is filtered and sometimes aged before use. I feel a renewed sense of connection to the wheel and double my efforts to master it. After a month of hard work, I produce an approximate copy of a cup.
I am ecstatic. Mini walks up, almost nonchalantly takes a metal wire and slices my newly-minted cup right through the middle. I flinch.
“That was to see if it is any good,” he explains, complimenting me on the thin and even walls. “Now make six of these of the same size. Before you come for lunch.”
It takes me another week to make six. All are sliced, found “good-enough” and tossed into the recycling bucket. I learn the real art of deconstruction.
The making and unmaking goes on at every stage of pottery, and of life. “Don’t get attached to the immediate results of your hard work. They don’t define you,” Mini admonishes me.
While I am mulling the spiritual consequences of this statement, Mini also throws in a bit of commercial business sense. “Tableware, cups and saucers—these are used every day. They will break. They will be replaced. Observe the visitors to the potter’s gallery. Most buy tableware,” he points out.
I try harder and the call of the clay remains consistent and strong. But the clay, it seems, does not hear me. It’s my last month at the pottery and suddenly I am unable to centre consistently. “Oui, frustrating eh?” asks a visiting French potter. “Keep no difference between you, clay and wheel. Then you are centre. If no help, do pranayama like thees.” She demonstrates.
I try the yogic inhale-exhale. My shoulders stop bunching up and I feel the stress leaving my neck. I bang, shape, knead and repeat. Three hours and six perfectly wedged balls of clay later, I sit on the wheel. This time when I touch the clay, it feels different. It clings lovingly and willingly. There is such wilfulness and yet so much submission in the small lump that I am hooked. I look up, delighted. Five pairs of eyes are watching me intently, knowingly. All of them have felt that first pull.
And just like that, I am a potter.
Andretta village is located in the foothills of the Himalayas in northwestern Himachal Pradesh. It is 12 km from the town of Palampur; Dharamshala to Palampur is 38 km. From Chandigarh, Palampur is 260 km/6 hours and from Amritsar it is 229 km/5 hours.
Air Direct flights operate between Delhi and Gaggal airport, Dharamshala. From Dharamshala airport, Andretta is 45 km/2 hours by taxi.
Rail The nearest broad gauge railway station is Pathankot, 114 km from Palampur. From Pathankot, a narrow gauge ‘toy train’ takes 7 hours to Maranda station, 2 km from Palampur. Taxis are available from both stations.
Road From Palampur to Andretta, a bus or a taxi ride takes 30 minutes. Buses are scarce and routes change due to the weather and road conditions. From Delhi to Palampur, (via Chandigarh), daily overnight Volvo buses (private and government) are available. HRTC has daily buses from Chandigarh to Palampur.
Andretta and Palampur enjoy pleasant weather most of the year. In summer, (April-May) temperatures are between 15-29°C. July and August see moderate rainfall. Winter temperatures can dip to -2°C. Wild button roses are in full bloom from March to May.
Andretta Pottery and Craft Society There are three categories of boarding at the pottery: single, double and dormitory, in which four boarders share a bathroom and two toilets. However, you don’t have to stay here to join the course (01894-254248, 980523313; www.andrettapottery.com; full board included in course fee).
Mirage Boutique Himalayan Homestay, Andretta A boutique hotel just down the road from Andretta Pottery is another option (www.mirageandretta.com; doubles from ₹3,300; including breakfast).
Hotel Tea Bud, Palampur Make Palampur your base and stay at Tea Bud, run by Himachal Tourism, and close to tea gardens. (01894-231298; www.hptdc.gov.in; doubles from ₹2,600).
WelcomHeritage Taragarh Palace, near Palampur Located on 15 acres of forest estate, this former summer residence of the Nawab of Bahawalpur is now a hotel that retains hints of a bygone era. It is 12 km from Palampur (01894-242034; www.taragarh.com; doubles from ₹6,900; kids stay free.)
• Three-month course Preparing of clay and the process of hand-building/wheel techniques, making glazes from scratch (rarely taught by a potter), firing, and even pricing of tableware. If you ask nicely, Mini will even sketch a general layout for a pottery should you want to build one for yourself.
• Stiff workouts Be prepared for shoulders, legs and arms to be used. Working the manual kick wheel, clay wedging and throwing cannot happen without developing muscle.
• Mountain walks Mary organises walks every alternate morning. Routes are planned and village dogs accompany her on these outings. It’s good to go along for fitness and fun.
• Cultural exchange Expect to learn much more than pottery i.e. new desserts, languages, how to do a great singing bowl massage or even to raise your kundalini. Instructions will come from visitors and fellow students.
• Blue pottery The blue pottery technique, used in ancient Indian pottery, was rediscovered by Mini’s father, Sardar Gurcharan Singh. It is a style of low-fired pottery which has a blue glaze (kanch glaze) and uses ground glass as one of the ingredients. Mini teaches the technique, if a student is interested.
• A large library of books and DVDs. There are hundreds of books on various techniques of ceramic art. Students can browse, ask questions and experiment with permission.
• Electricity is unreliable but is available for eight to ten hours a day.
• Students are expected to help out with chores and in the kitchen.
• Laundry can be outsourced at a small extra cost.
• The nearest government hospital is in Palampur. There is a primary healthcare centre 5 km from Andretta. While Andretta doesn’t have a doctor, doctors from neighbouring villages make home visits.
• Phone recharges for prepaid SIM cards can be purchased in Palampur.
Several pairs of quick-drying old clothes, warm clothes, as well as comfortable walking shoes. Carry at least one formal outfit. Unexpected things can happen at Andretta. The writer, for instance, was invited to a party in a palace, an army ball, and a house warming in a renovated monastery. Carry personal toiletries and medication (if you need it) as these might not be easily available, though Andretta’s small provision store does stock some basics.
A three-month course (including food, lodging and pottery lessons) costs ₹90,000; capacity is eight resident students. A one-month course costs ₹40,000. Shorter stays cost ₹1,500 per day. To learn something of the basics of pottery a minimum of one week to ten days is recommended. The three-month course will make you a complete potter. Advance booking is necessary.
• Mini travels to Palampur every couple of days and will be happy to give you a ride.
• Students cannot invite friends over to the house without permission.
Andretta has had a history of creative residents. It began with Norah Richards, an Irish dramatist and activist who lived in Andretta from the mid-1930s to 1971. Here she taught students of Panjab University the nuances of acting and drama. She inspired many famous artists from Sobha Singh to SaRdar Gurcharan Singh to come to Andretta and pursue their creativity, and was instrumental in it becoming known as an artist’s village.
Norah Richard’s Home and Norah Centre for the Arts Visitors can stop by to view Norah Richard’s restored home. Students of acting from Panjab University perform in the open-air theatre here every year on her birthday, on October 29. Visitors are welcome to attend the performance. The Norah Centre for the Arts, situated a little further away, is another cultural space used by artists to brainstorm, create, and be inspired.
Tourist Advisory Centre An information centre is situated between Andretta and Panchrukhi villages. Staff can give information leaflets and help visitors map and plan trips around the area.
Andretta Pottery and Craft Society Travellers to the area, who don’t have the time to learn pottery, can make a day visit to Andretta Pottery to interact with Mini and the students and get a brief idea about the art. There is no fee to visit unless you wish to have tea or lunch, in which case you must inform Mary a day in advance (01894-253090).
The Terracotta Museum Attached to Andretta Pottery is a small museum started by Mini’s father, the famous potter Sardar Gurcharan Singh. It houses a collection of work of local artisan potters as well as samples from around the world.
Sobha Singh Art Gallery The famous painter and sculptor Sobha Singh lived in Andretta for 38 years. This well-kept gallery is filled with his works, most notably his iconic portraiture of the Sikh gurus and the painting of the Punjabi love legend of Sohni-Mahiwal that propelled him to fame. Prints of many of his works, and books on his art are available here (01894254229; entry fee ₹20; photography not permitted.).
The Craft Shop This shop in Andretta sells pottery (mostly tableware) made at Andretta Pottery. It also sells Himachali shawls, handicrafts, pickles, juices and herbal medicines.
Outdoor Pursuits There is plenty of opportunity for hikes, walks, treks and birdwatching in the area.
Palampur Just 12 km from Andretta, Palampur is picturesquely located overlooking the Dhauladhar range. It is famous for its tea plantations and old temples and is ideal for a few days of R&R. In particular, the centuries-old Bundlamata Temple and Chamundadevi Temple are noteworthy. Since it is surrounded by pine forests and tea estates, the mountain air has a refreshing fragrance, all the year round. Those who have not been to Dharamshala nearby, can pick up Tibetan souvenirs in Palampur.
Baijnath The famous 12th century Shiv temple of Baijnath is 16 km from Palampur.
Bir and Billing These towns are recommended for paragliding. International contests take place here in May. In Bir, one can also visit the Deer Park Institute, a monastery converted into a learning centre. Private and government buses frequently ply the 28 km distance from Palampur to Bir. Billing is another 14 km uphill from bir through dense forest.
McLeod Ganj (upper Dharamshala) The centre of pilgrimage for Tibetans, this vibrant town can be accessed from (lower) Dharamsala and is approximately 60 km from Palampur. Most famously, it is the home of the Dalai Lama, and a place where Tibetan culture is preserved in exile. Mountain walks, temples, cultural institutes and great dining options make this a destination in its own right. Private and government buses run between Palampur and Dharamshala bus stands. Shared cabs are available for the trip to McLeod Ganj. Day cabs are another option.
The Norbulingka Institute This institute and cultural centre, in a former Buddhist monastery, allows visitors to observe and interact with Tibetan artists making thangka paintings, tapestries, furniture and artefacts. A store sells these artefacts. The Japanese garden café is perfect for tea and the attached Norling Guest House is a superb stay option. It is approximately 48 km from Palampur (www.norbulingka.org.)
Besides Andretta Pottery, you can also learn pottery at these destinations in India:
• The Delhi Blue Pottery Trust (Safdarjung Enclave, Delhi; 011-2619 8588; closed on Monday).
• The Golden Bridge Pottery, Pondicherry (Puducherry) was founded in 1971 and a position here is highly coveted (www.raymeeker.com).
Appeared in the July 2012 issue as “Pottery in the Hills”. Updated in May 2018.