A treasure trove of natural attractions, Himachal Pradesh attracts hoards of outdoor enthusiasts with its lofty snow-tipped peaks, lush meadows and valleys, enchanting alpine forests and sparkling lakes and rivers.
However, the hill state is also a paradise for art lovers, owing to its rich artistic traditions — which not just include indigenous art forms, but also influences of those who decided to make the state their home-away-from-home. In sharp contrast to the quintessential art galleries at urban centres — mostly an insipid white with plenty of artificial lighting — art spaces across the hill state offer the opportunity to discover artistic traditions in serene, verdant environs. From learning traditional Tibetan arts at Norbulingka Institute to trying your hand at the potter’s wheel at the atmospheric Andretta Artists’ Village, or simply appreciating Russian artist Nicholas Roerich’s masterworks at the eponymous art gallery, there is plenty here to interest art enthusiasts. Considering my unexceptional skills at art, exploring an art trail through Himachal Pradesh sounded like a crazy idea. But no travel plan was ever crazy enough! And with this thought I set out to learn more about artistic practices in Himalayan regions.
Located on an unassuming street in the village of Sidhpur, Norbulingka Institute has an austere faÃ§ade that belies the treasures hidden inside. Named after the summer residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, in Tibet, the institute was founded in 1988 with the aim to preserve the ancient artistic and literary heritage of Tibet. I stood at the institute’s ornate main gate, taking in the sight that lay before me: lush green grounds crisscrossed by gurgling streams and cascades, with cobbled walkways leading to traditional Tibetan-style buildings. “This way please”, said Tenzin Tashi, the Traditional Arts Workshop Coordinator, gesturing me to follow him. Immaculately kept Japanese-style gardens flanked the path down to the building, where I was to report for my wood painting workshop. The artisan workshops here are a hive of activity, with artists practising centuries-old art forms, such as Thangka painting, woodcarving, wood painting and appliquÃ© to painstakingly create magnificent decorative items. It is possible to learn any of these techniques over a time period of your choice for a fee.
At the wood painting workshop, I was greeted by the Master Artist and escorted to my workstation, where I was to get started with the practice piece, before attempting the final one — a framed wall hanging. The artisans at Norbulingka follow the traditional Tibetan style of relief painting called kyumbur, which is generally used in temple frescoes, but has now been adapted to being used on wooden furniture and decorative arts. The kyumbur technique adds depth and texture, lending a three-dimensional look to a design on an otherwise flat surface. However, it requires an immensely steady hand to trace the design on wood, using a syringe filled with a stiff mix of paint and carpenter’s glue. The Tibetan artistic tradition has a vast repertoire of designs that not just include Buddhist motifs, but also nature-based motifs from India and China, as well as geometric patterns from Central Asia. Students are free to work on any design from the range of choices available; however, it is a good idea to choose a fairly simple one, if you don’t have prior experience in wood painting.
I chose a Tibetan yak motif for my final piece. While I waited for the relief to dry, I set out to explore the complex, home to the superb Losel Doll Museum, with a collection of over 150 dolls set against dioramas showcasing life in the Tibetan Plateau, and a Buddhist temple, which enshrines a 14-ft-high gilded Buddha statue, and has a splendid, over two-stories high thangka, depicting the Buddha and the 16 arhats. Right opposite the museum stands Norbulingka’s flagship store, which is worth a browse for its attractive (but steeply priced) shawls, bags, lamps, and decorative items, all created in the workshops. Back at the workshop, it was time to fill the dried relief with colour. The Master Artist prepared the mixing tray, scooping generous amounts of paint onto it, mixing them to obtain rich hues, and then handed me an assortment of flat and fine brushes to get started. The rest of the afternoon was spent trying to perfect my brush strokes — a combination of flat wash and wet-on-wet crosshatching to create tonal variation. The Master Artist applied a coat of varnish at the end, for that perfect finish. And I was left with a fleeting sense of celebration over having learnt a new skill and my finished amateur piece to attest to that! At Norbulingka, students are also felicitated with a certification of completion at the end of the workshop.
While Manali remains perennially popular on the tourist trail, its charming neighbour a few kilometers south, Naggar, harbours a gem that appeals to both lovers of art and nature. Nestled in the thickly wooded upper reaches of the Kullu Valley, the sleepy town is home to the International Roerich Memorial Trust. My travels brought me here back in 2011, and every time that I have come back here since then, the place has never failed to work its magic on me. The idyllic estate sits at an altitude of 6,562ft on the slope of a ridge, with panoramic views of the snow-capped Gepang Peak and the Kullu Valley stretching out below. The art museum here occupies the former house of Russian painter and writer Nicholas Roerich and his wife Elena Roerich, a philosopher and writer. Roerich bought the house in 1928 and lived here till his death in 1947. A narrow path flanked by well-manicured gardens leads to the single-storied house, which stands in the shade of towering pines and Himalayan deodars. Nature lovers are in luck here, with the gardens harbouring an abundance of flowering plants, such as hydrangeas, roses, magnolias, chrysanthemums and mimosas.
I breathed in the fresh mountain air while soaking in the lovely views from the gardens. After a brief tour of the estate, I strolled into the art museum, occupying the ground floor of the house, and filled with magnificent paintings by Roerich and his younger son Svetoslav Roerich. The pride of place, however, is occupied by the Himalayan Series by Nicholas Roerich: a collection of 37 astounding works depicting the Himalayas in different moods — as if the mountain range were a living, breathing entity. Svetoslav’s works, by contrast, capture the rustic beauty of bucolic life in the region. My favourite here is the one of a young Gaddi girl sitting in quiet contemplation with a pair of lambs against a dramatic backdrop of the mountains.
A winding staircase next to a foliage-covered wall of the house leads to the upper floor, where you can see the private rooms of the Roerichs from the balcony running around the house. Pause awhile to take in the mountain vistas, which are second to none in the surrounding region! If you are up for a bit of rough climbing, make your way down the steep path to the hillside gardens where lie Nicholas’s tomb as well as a memorial to Svetoslav Roerich and his wife Devika Rani, renowned film actress and grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore. As I made my way out of the memorial complex, I decided to stop over at the souvenir shop to take a piece of Roerich’s Himalayas with me. The shop is a good place to pick up prints of the Roerichs’ paintings, posters of miniature Kangra paintings, key chains, mugs and postcards.
An art trail through Himachal Pradesh cannot be complete without a visit to Andretta Artist’ Village, a short drive from Palampur in Kangra Valley. Surrounded by the majestic Dhauladhar Range and the forested Shivalik Hills, this village draws visitors with its rustic charm, high art and tons of natural beauty. This peaceful village was established in the 1920s by the Irish theatre artiste and environmentalist Norah Richards. Interestingly, Andretta began as a hub for the theatre artists, with Norah setting up a school of drama here and inviting amateur artistes from Punjab as well as professionals to perform here. Soon, famous actors from the Hindi film industry also started frequenting the village. Among the early settlers here was renowned contemporary artist Sardar Sobha Singh, famous for his depictions of Soni Mahiwal and Heer Ranjha, which became a staple in Sikh calendar art. You can view his works and buy prints at the fascinating Sobha Singh Art Gallery, which occupies his erstwhile house. The star attraction here, however, is the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society, run by celebrated potter Mansimran Singh (aka Mini), who moved to the village with his wife, Mary Singh, to set up the society. The centre not only produces beautiful pieces of glazed earthenware, but also offers three-week long programmes in pottery to students serious about learning the craft. Over the course of the programme, students live with the Singhs and are required to do everything themselves from scooping kilos of clay out of storage containers to fetching water from a nearby stream to soften it and, of course, learning how to operate the wheel. A few steps from the Centre stands Norah Richards’s recently renovated mud house, which serves as the venue for plays enacted by students from Punjab University every year on Norah’s birthday: 29th October.
A holiday in Himachal Pradesh need not always be about doing all the touristy things you’d otherwise do. For lovers of nature and art alike, embarking on an art trail is a fine idea to not just unwind in the lap of nature, but also de-stress frenzied nerves by indulging in some art therapy. The next time you plan a vacation in the hills, remember to veer off the tourist trail to these beautiful places for a spot of art and plenty of calm.
Norbulingka Institute: 8km SE of Dharamshala in Sidhpur. Opening times: 9am—5.30pm daily. Workshops remain closed on Sundays and second Saturday of each month.
International Roerich Memorial Trust: 23km S of Manali. Opening times: Daily. Closed: National holidays. Nov—Mar: 10am—5pm, Apr—Oct: 10am—6pm. (Ticket office closes 30 minutes before the closing time)
Andretta Artists’ Village: 15km SE of Palampur.