I met my friend Kajal in Bangalore many moons ago where both of us studied with the late Dick McHugh SJ. I’ve been following her posts recently as she holidays in Andretta and I am captivated by her account of Norah Richards, an Irish theatre artist who spent 60 years in India, earning the title Lady Gregory of Punjab. I’ve pinched her latest FB post and photos, with permission.
Mud homes are a wonder to explore. They smell damp and musty, but the walls are thick, and rooms stay warm in winter and cool in summer. Maybe that is why Norah Richards, an Irish theatre artist, chose to build a mudhouse to live in. The house badly needs conservation now, and I am sure Punjab University to which her entire Woodland Estate passed, will take steps to fix the problem.
Residents in the village are proud of her legacy. A few had even worked with her. An old lady here looked after her in her final years. NR is like an integral part of the folklore, her legacy just exists and villagers don’t really contemplate there might come a time when it won’t.
An epic blooper marks her death anniversary, (“date of expire”) and her birthday, on a signboard near her grave: the two anniversaries when students still flock to the estate, live in a students hostel and perform at the auditorium.
All her personal effects are at the University. On the walls hang pictures of her belongings, a sad substitute. But it was intriguing to walk around her house and imagine her living there. Tiny bedrooms, a parlor, a kitchen, balconies, tiny doors and windows and really low roofs from which hang lanterns, now connected with electrical wiring. I tried to imagine her chatting with BC Sanyal, the famous painter, or instructing a young Prithvi Raj Kapoor, who also trained with her. Or just sitting on her balcony, staring at the veil cast by the Himalayas beyond. What would it have been like, with no colorful rooftops interrupting the view? I can swear, there’s almost a translucent quality about the mountains. Like if it were any thinner you could see right through the range.
When Norah built her “chameli niwas” or Jasmine cottage, there must have been no sign of the untidy little village that has mushroomed around the hill slopes. She invited and attracted quite a few luminaries of those times to settle in Andretta, including Gurucharan Singh, who brought his blue pottery skills and Shobha Singh (whose paintings I do not really favor!), and her theatre workshops must have been busy affairs.
The lady who looked after Norah said she had many small units constructed for artists to reside and work with her. Her “home rule” writings, advocating Indians rule India (she was Irish and brought the sentiment right along with her!) struck a chord with people in Pakistan and India, making her fairly popular. She trained rural folks, amateurs, social workers and students, trying to spread messages of social reform through the art of theatre.
A lot that has been said and written is part fact, part folklore. Someone even did a PhD on her life. But anyone who can live such a rich and full life has my respect!