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Just People & Stories

| | in Sunday Pioneer
Just People & Stories

These are just ordinary people and yet so extra-ordinary in their everyday life. MEENAKSHI RAO caught up with these story makers of a different kind in the scenic and quiet Kangra Valley


Nishat Rehman, 34  |  wall/street visual artist

Don’t be shocked by a sudden and unexpected splash of colours bursting out of an otherwise staid Government school building tucked away in the unknown hamlet of Rakh, somewhere between Dharamshala and Palampur.

It almost feels like an Amazonian parrot has lost its way into Himachal and is inquisitively perched on a wall, ready to fly away into the dense pinewood forest greens surrounding this school which has come to life much after its principal went door-to-door urging parents to send their children to this school.

Currently, this Senior Secondary School has just 264 schoolchildren on its rolls with some classes having only one or two students!

But that has not deterred one Nishat Rehman, formerly from Delhi but now residing in Pondicherry, in giving colour and life in a unique project to rev up the school with wall art and often engaging students in doing some broad strokes all their own.

Nishat has been painting the walls from 10 am to 6 pm every day for the past month and plans to extend her artistic endeavour to the new science lab building that has come up in the premises.

“It is a project close to my heart as the children here appreciate my work and get a sense of belonging to a school which has a unique and inviting visage, thanks to the colourful walls which no other much sought after private or Government school anywhere in the State have. They also love to assist me during their recess,” Nishat tells you with enthusiasm.

A cursory look at this 34-year-old Delhi Art School graduate with a yen for travelling, photography and winning stranger than fiction awards in the art circuit, does not bring forth her extended portfolio of work which makes her stand apart from run-of-the-mill painters and artists.

To tell you about just a few of her works, Nishat has painted a school bus in Bengaluru, NDMC dustbins for Lodhi Gardens, a scooter to depict her travels across India (she won a car for this), a Samsonite suitcase encapsulating India (it has gone into production line and is a limited edition hotsell on the international circuit as she won US$ 5000 for it), an unending wall on the Kozikode beach and, of course, some stand-out village projects around Pondicherry, including the tertiary care children’s ward at a hospital for terminally ill cancer patients.

“It is so moving to be with these kids. They are so full of life not knowing life is so short for them. One of my most satisfying moments was to paint the outer walls of a cancer inflicted girlchild’s small little hut. It brought a huge smile to her face and made me feel that in some way I had contributed to her happiness,” Nishat tells you over the signature apple smoothie drink she has for breakfast before setting out for work with pots and pots of Asian Paints colour at the school in the sleepy village of Rakh.

Ask her how her parents allowed her to travel all alone to remote places and settle down so far away from the family and she smiles gently before saying: “You do not expect a 34-year-old man not to be living alone so it is the same for me too, right? Thankfully, I have had no security issues so far and people have been good to me all over India,” she says. “Delhi pollution is the most threatening,” she adds with a laugh now that she is with the clean goodness and calmness of Pondicherry.

Not just painting, which is her first love, but also photography is a passion she wants to pursue. Photo exhibitions she has done many, mostly of pictures she clicked of the Indian countryside “from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, some of Gujarat and some of North-East” as she puts it.

So how does she get such projects from such unvisited places? “People contact me through the social media and also by word of mouth,” she says. She happens to be at the Himachal school on an invite from the Rakkh Resort owner Rajat Raitchal who heard of her through a photographer who has done up the resort walls with black and white gems of Kangra and its rural heartland in candid shots of daily life around children.

“Most CSR activities around schools involve providing books, desks and the like. But Rajat thought of this innovative venture of livening up the school as never before and he has succeeded in creating a buzz both within and outside the school. We have posted some photos of these painted walls on FB and twitter and people have been coming forward with funds for the computers, books and other study material which will be the next phase of activity here,” Nishat tells you with a gentle smile.

Beautifying and ushering a complete visual transformation of a Government school in a village of Himachal Pradesh is not something a career counsellor would advise.

But your therapist certainly would. That’s why Nishat is unique as is her art which is just about catching up on the fringes of the Indian art canvas. But this unique and humble influencer is confident that the time for wall and street art appreciation will soon come — much like her brush of life and creativity.


Shubham Sakhyan, Age 22  |  Engineer-Potter

He is just 22 but has decided to manage and expand a legacy so rich and deep that nothing less than his own gaon, ownmitti and own potter wheel would have done for this hatke youngster.

When he threw away his job as an aircraft maintenance engineer to shape a career — both his own and also of his students’ from all over the world — in the earthy profession of pottery making, he raised as many eyebrows as he did hats.

Kicking his manual potter wheel to shape a bowl from the mitti of his goan at his pottery studio in the art village of Andretta in the Palampur area of Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh, he looks much like a student himself and not the youthful teacher he actually is to the latest batch of students which has converged for a pottery course from all parts of India.

Andretta is a sleepy village surrounded with sylvan tea estates, thatched houses, an art gallery and a sculpture museum too. It is a place where the young Prithviraj Kapoor came to take his initial lessons in theatre before joining Bollywood. But it is its rangoli-oriented glazed earthen slipware pottery that breathes life and wonderment in you as you walk through a quaint pottery museum in the premises of Andretta Potteries which was established by the legendary Mini Singh and his English wife mary in 1983.

Shubham, who now manages the show at Andretta Potteries after the retirement of the legendary potter Mini (son of the famous Gurucharan Singh who established the Delhi Blue Pottery studio), says he would not ever trade the happiness and contentment of working in his own village under the deep blue sky and the majestic Dhauladhar range for company. Son of Mini Singh’s manager Jugal Kishore, Shubham has a passion for home clay and the shapes he can give them. “The success rate in this profession is really low so it is an expensive proposition. But it is the sense of satisfaction that drives me to create unique and new things every day,” the youngster says dusting the dry clay from his mud stained apron.

Potteries from Andretta have travelled the world, wowed exhibitions at prestigious fora and sell at a premium for their unique blend of natural colour, glass melts and local rangoli art, a culture the women of the region have long forgotten.

For a small but old organisation in the relatively unknown and unsung nook of interior India, propelling a dying craft as a new profession with a callow but seasoned manager at the helm, it is quite an example to follow and be inspired by.

“Our pottery is completely natural, including all the colours you see on them. I will not tell you the secret behind these vibrant colours. All I can tell you is that all the colours emerge from the same clay which we treat differently to get the best results,” Shubham says.

Burning in electric oven are the latest set of potteries headed for Fabindia. “Each piece is fired at 1040 degrees Celsius for over 10 hours and then cooled for 36 hours in the recovery room. All in all, it takes around two weeks to make a single work of art,” he adds.

The good thing about Shubham’s assignment is that it involves and propels local participation in pottery making. Except, of course, his students — a batch of 20 comes in for an all-inclusive three-week pottery making package for Rs 1.20 lakh per person.


Rajeev Sood, 31  |  Tea blender

The Kangra Valley is known for things you would not associate this sleepy and verdant rural heartland with, one of them being the lush but not so plush tea gardens. Yes, this is not the north-east, not Darjeeling, not Assam and so not a known tea country. But it has acres and acres of tea bushes adorning its gentle slopes in and around Palampur, an estate culture brought in by the British.

People in the business, however, say it is apparently pretty well known for its speciality and blended green teas. And that’s where a young and dapper Rajeev Sood comes in.

He dumped his Singapore studies and job to return to “mera gaon” to somehow revive the languishing 90 acres of tea gardens that have been his family for the past three generations, slowly ebbing away.

“It was a hugely difficulty task. Most tea gardens in the area had closed shop and sold the land as plots for residential purposes. After the 1905 Kangra earthquake which crushed the tea business of Kangra as the British withdrew from the completely flattened land, tea lost its status of black and green gold. But I did not give up,” Sood tells you, now sitting comfortably in his much revived tea estate.

The unique thing about his tea, which sells all over the world as Himalayan Brew, is that he has the secret recipe of the best blends in the region. From his signature Bulgarian Rose and Green Tea blend which sells at a premium, to the Rhododendron Ginger Green Tea, to Mulethi Green Tea, Sood has been burning the midnight oil to lend flavours to his green, white and orthodox, not to mention silver, teas that he grows in his estate.

A good blender is a rare breed in the tea business and rarer still if he is a youngster like Sood. “It is unfortunate that the tea industry in Kangra is shattered and scattered. I returned to India in 2006, bought a closed tea factory and started producing and packaging tea blends professionally. It is highly labour intensive. Did you know that it takes 50 ladies to make just 100 gm of tea? I have been training locals and strategising to keep up the hands in this dying industry,” Sood tells you with all the passion of a diehard tea-ist.

At 31, it is quite a keen job he has taken up but hard work and his added ability to spot the right aroma in tea has just about started “making business sense,” he concedes.

However, he rues the low to nil interest of the Tea Board of India in revving up the Kangra tea. “All eyes are on Darjeeling tea even though the Kangra tea is exact same. Only the elevation and the soul are different,” he says, adding that tea is a highly specialised growing business, blending even more so. “Only a person who knows about tea can run a tea estate. But my mission here is to revive defunct tea gardens. I have just bought two estates which had given up on tea and am now going to introduce them to good business with entirely local participation,” he says with passion.

Joining him in his venture is his lovely wife who has since given up her stable microbiologist job to taste the success of tea growing.

Sood can talk for hours on blending lemon, rose, bergamot, mulethi and what not with his tea leaves but insists that blending is a very complex, intuitive and knowledgeable strain of the tea industry.

No wonder he is buying his lemon oil from Swiss company Fermanic and sells his 50 gram of silver leaves for Rs 960. Russia, Europe and Germany are his main buyers and the horizon is just about opening up.

“Had the earthquake not hit Kangra, the tea terrain would have extended to as far as Kullu and the gold standard it enjoyed would not have been lost,” Sood says ruefully.

But one look at the branded packets coming out of the three-stop machine in the heart of his estate during off-season, and you know the young Sood has places to go —what with Russia warming up to his heady brew.




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