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Andretta-A sanctuary of potters

PALAMPUR, (Himachal Pradesh), JULY 29. Picture bamboo thickets, rhodenderon shrubbery, banana boughs, blackberry stems - all in two kilometres and more. Truly Andretta is fertile.

Thirteen kilometres from the Leopard-infested Palampur, against the gentle gradient of Dauladhars, alluvial Andretta twists and turns the wheels of fortune for the clay potter and its all encompassing serenity provides refuge to artists and writers.

Nestled against the background of the Kangra valley, the village has a French sounding name, which, locals say, perhaps means inner stone or hill. A humble open air theatre built in mud and stone, moss covered stones rising up in steps to reveal a seating arrangement, legendary painter Shobha Singh's cottage and the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society which includes a working studio pottery and a terracotta museum, all greet you as you enter the village's premises. Lines of mother earth in various shapes and sizes left out to dry is what catches the eye. The bhatti (kiln) here belongs to an erstwhile potter Sardar Mansimran Singh or Mini, who along with his wife Mary moved in here in 1983 and set up a Central Government Rural Marketing Centre with a grant of Rs 1,35,000 to assist potters. Ever since there has been no looking back. He has taken local potters all over the country - Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad Baroda and Chandigarh and his wares are supplied to Cottage Industries, Dastkar and even a shop in Oxford, England.

``We have held several exhibitions all over the country and at Andretta potteries to encourage interaction between local potters and those from different states and countries such as Japan. Also, when a local potter goes beyond his village he comes to know the worth of his means of livehood, the garah (pot) which probably costs him Rs 30 to make could probably end up in an urban apartment for a good Rs 300. This is awe inspiring for them and encourages them ..''

``Railway Minister Lalu Prasad's decision to introduce kulhars in trains is a good idea. It certainly is an attempt to give livelihood back to the traditional potter,'' he adds.

His father, the legendary potter Gurcharan Singh, founder of the Delhi Blue Pottery Society was invited by an Irish lady and playwright Norah Richards in the 1920s to settle in Andretta which she envisaged to be a hub of artistic activity. It eventually did with the likes of painter and sculptor B C Sanyal, Prithviraj Kapoor, Shobha Singh and Gurcharan Singh making it their home.

``My father's aim was to make pottery available to a person of modest means. There are, according to me, two things very essential for a potter. First one has to slog it out and secondly the emphasis should be on good functional pottery and strict standards must be adhered to'', Mansimran Singh or Mini, as he is popularly called, says.

Mini was brought up in an environment of studio pottery but his first choice was the Navy. However, when it was known that he was colour blind he changed his plans and became a potter. He first trained with his father at the Delhi Blue Art Pottery. Gurcharan Singh later sent Mini to an old friend and associate Bernard L each at St Ives in Cornwell, England for his apprenticeship.

``The discipline at the pottery in Cornwall was very stringent. I also learnt how to pack pottery for dispatching so much so that I once protested there were others to do that work but the master potter pointed out that having made a beautiful piece of pottery it was important to ensure that it arrived at its destination in one piece.'' What is so special about Kangra pottery? The clay in the Kangra valley is extremely plastic therefore the pots produced in this area are extremely light, the way the bowls edges are cut are also hallmarks of Kangra pottery. It is impossible to transform traditional shapes as they have been perfected over centuries to suit the local demand, reveals Singh.

``We have introduced traditional rangoli designs on mugs, Also lightly modern shapes make the traditional Kangra pottery lighter. It can go a long way in increasing its longevity.''

``In Andretta with the help of one traditional potter we have been able to train other non-potters to become potters. We have also managed to use rangoli and other traditional designs to incorporate into the designs of our plates and bowls etc.''

However, over the years, a sense of despair has overcome the traditional Indian potter who has been reeling under crippling power cuts, hounded by anti-pollution laws for his coal-fired bhatti which can cost anything from Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 and burdened by a 12.5 per cent sales tax on the finished product.--PTI

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