Muse of the mountains

From exhibitions and museums to learning pottery and tea making, here’s a guide on how to explore Dharamshala and McLeodganj through the lens of art...
Muse of the mountains

For centuries, seekers, seers, travellers, poets, painters and mountaineers alike have been drawn to the ever-inspiring realm of the Himalayas. They come in droves to hike, stay, marvel at the stupefying beauty and generously imbibe the peace these hills offer. We were no different, returning to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh after 18 years. 

Set on a quiet hill overlooking the panorama of Dharamshala, McLeodganj and the snowy peaks of the Dhauladhar range, our perch was perfect for the mountains to play the muse. But we were in for an immersive experience of exploring the region through art and our first stop was Chitrashaala. 42 artists had come together for the recently-concluded sixth edition of the international art residency — Chitrashaala, an initiative by Ashish Vohra, founder of jüSTa Hotels & Resorts and his wife Deepika Govind, a well-known fashion designer from Bengaluru. Bringing together artists from Poland, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, Italy, Mauritius, Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh, besides homegrown artists from Kolkata, Baroda, Mumbai, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, the project served as a vibrant platform to exchange ideas and conversations around art through their varied styles, contemporary designs and surrealism.

Stepping out of the elevator, we nearly stumbled over easels and tables laden with paint bottles and brushes. Works of art were propped against the walls, left to dry. It was fascinating to watch how the same landscape, interactions with locals and their experiences in Dharamshala had impacted the artists and how they interpreted it in myriad ways. Almost a thousand original artworks created during Chitrashaala over the years are displayed across the hospitality brand’s properties in Rishikesh, Mukteshwar and Udaipur.

Leaving the artists to their easels, we set off to try our hand at pottery at the legendary Andretta Pottery and Crafts Studio. Founded in 1983 by Mansimran Singh, popularly called Mini and his wife Mary Singh, Mansimran is the son of Gurcharan Singh, the Father of Indian Studio Pottery who launched the famous Delhi Blue Art Pottery in the ’60s. Trained by renowned studio potters Bernard Leach and Geoffery Whiting in England, Mansimran settled in the quiet village of Andretta to pursue the dream his father had sowed. The couple, now in their 80’s, have retired but Andretta is still an artist hub that allows pottery enthusiasts to learn the art through workshops and residential courses.

We took part in the short demo by Shubham Sankhyan and his team, marvelling at how a lump of clay could be shaped into whatever we liked. We peeked into the tiny store showcasing Andretta’s signature glazes. The use of natural terracotta and ‘slip trailing’ is what sets them apart. Gorgeous creations of various sizes and utilitarian products in muted earthy tones of terracotta, green and blue embellished with the typical kangra rangoli patterns were stacked neatly. Each handcrafted piece was unique, highlighting their strong design philosophy and inspiration of using local materials and keeping the heritage alive. Nearby is a museum dedicated to the works of padma shri Sardar Sobha Singh (1901-1966), one of Punjab’s most gifted and prolific artists.

Housed in a lovely pink heritage building with a hip slate-tiled roof, Sobha Singh Art Gallery displays his paintings and sculptures — stunning larger-than-life portraits of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh to the timeless romance of Sohni-Mahiwal and Heer-Ranjha from Punjab’s folk tales, freedom fighters Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Kartar Singh, Mahatma Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indian army heroes, landscapes and lots more.

Next up, was learning about the art of tea making. Kangra is the tea capital of North India. At the fascinating Himalayan Brew tea factory, we tasted 22 of their 180 varieties including Kangra Durbar and Detox Kahwa, besides kombuchas and syrups. It was a late lunch at Takri Natives’ Kitchen and Café set amidst tea gardens in Gopalpur on the Dharamshala-Palampur Road. Takri is a traditional stone shelter used by gaddis or shepherds in the area. We dug into the Himachali bread siddu served with walnut, garlic and tomato chutneys, mushroom galouti, dimsum and the delicious traditional Kangra dham (thali) featuring Himachali dishes like alu chana ka madra, Pahadi chicken, khatta meat, keema kaleji and mutton gurda, served with rice and roti.

The following morning we visited McLeodganj and went straight to Norbulingka Institute at Sidhpur near Dharamshala is dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan art, craft and culture. Founded in 1995, it’s a secret haven with Japanese inspired gardens that houses various workshops and studios dedicated to statue making, thangka painting, screen printing, wood painting and wood carving, to papermaking, metal craft, appliqué and tailoring. What an experience!

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The New Indian Express