The legend of Norah Richards

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It is sad to know how the HP government failed to recognise the contribution of this wonderful women when it mattered the most. The words engraved on her grace at Woodlands Retreat (her house) – “Rest Weary Heart – Thy work is Done” – speak volumes about the kind of contribution she might have made to the development of art, culture and literature in the area. The government even did not respond to her wish to donate all her properties to the state government, as a result, Punjabi University, Patiala has been managing her estate.

Norah Richards (1876 – 1971): A brief sketch

Norah Mary Hutman was born on 29th October 1876, in Ireland. She did her formal education in various institutions in different parts of the world, mainly Belgium, Oxford and Sydney. At a very young age she took to the stage and became a successful actress. She got married to Philip Earnest Richards, an English teacher and a Unitarian Christian. She came to India in 1908 as her husband accepted a job to teach English literature at Dyal Singh College in Lahore (Sardar Dyal Singh Majithia, founder of the college, was an ardent follower of Brahmo Samaj, which had a synergic relationship with the Unitarian Christian movement).

Norah Richards got involved in various cultural activities in the college and her enthusiasm helped stimulate much serious theatrical activity. Lahore was the home of Punjabi culture in those days. She brought many Punjabi themes under her English pen and directed a few plays. More importantly, she encouraged students to write their own oneact plays and perform them. She had an interest in theosophy and was actively involved in the theosophical movement and home-rule agitation by Dr Annie Besant.

On her husband’s death in 1920, Norah returned to England. In those days there was a policy to malign India’s image in England. Norah reacted strongly against it and was punished for breaking the law. She came back to India in 1924. Events worked out well for her to settle in the beautiful valley of Kangra and finally made her home in Andretta. In those days of British Empire, quite a few Britons had acquired lands in the hill states of British India. One such settler who left for England gave away his property to Norah, which came to be known as the Woodlands Estate.

Living amidst villagers, she chose the same life-style and made a mud house with a thatched roof for her-self. She named it Chameli Niwas. Her 15 acres of estate covered by tall trees and wild flowers professed her love for nature. Norah also opened a school of drama from which have emerged many famous names of Punjabi drama like Ishwar Chand Nanda, Balwant Gargi and Gurcharan Singh.

Every year, in the month of March, Norah organized a weeklong festival in which students and villagers enacted her plays in an open-air theatre constructed on the premises of her estate. Among the guests, Prithvi Raj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni were the most regular ones. Amongst her other friends who later settled near Woodland Estate were Prof Jai Dayal, painter Sobha Singh and Farida Bedi. Norah’s plays were on social reform, displaying wide sympathy with the people’s ways and traditions. She wrote scripts while many people came and helped with the production. She wrote newspaper articles, and painted watercolours. Andretta thus became the hub of cultural and thearetical activities for a whole generation of artists. One among them was young Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal, who had already won recognition as a sculptor and painter and later on became the doyen of Indian art. He discusses Norah Richards at some length in his autobiography.“Usually, she would greet me with a khurpa in her hand in home-spun khadi kurta and churidar, her white curls covered with a veil on top of which she donned a straw hat. This was the pattern of her work-a-day dress, grey, or ochre brown in colour. A cotton string around her waist carried a whistle and a suspended pouch carried her spectacles, bunches of keys, pen and pencil and a writing pad and a watch. She would dig the soil of her vegetable garden, tend and water the plants herself.

“I used to feel amused at her idea of discipline and the method of its application to her servants. The work-time was divided between hukka -break, tea-break, rest-break and
meals break. With the aid of an alarm clock in her pouch, she would blow her whistle and command: “Hukka pio, hukka pio “, and then whistle again at the determined interval for their coming back to work. At the end of the day all her servants would retire to their homes leaving her completely alone to pursue her literary work, letter writing and reading. The little kerosene lamp would burn till after midnight and the tick-tack of her typewriter would begin before dawn. Sanyal continuous, “ ‘Mem’ she was at the core of her heart and remained critical of the villagers fouling the fields and not following her example of digging pits for leafclosets and do her own scavenging and sanitation work. “Sooner than immediate” was the mould of her temperament and she could not tolerate untidiness.

Norah’s contribution to Punjabi drama was duly recognised by Punjabi University, Patiala which awarded her an honorary doctorate. The museum of the university houses some of her rare belongings. During the later years of her life, Norah was deeply worried about the future of Woodlands and her large collection of literature and manuscripts. “She toyed with the idea of making a will. Confused in her mind, she made and unmade several.

Though skeptic about governmental control and administration, she offered the estate to the government of Himachal Pradesh, but received no response. Eventually, she left most of her estate and valuable collections to the care of Punjabi University, Patialla. “In the waning days of her life, she was completely dependent on the service of the attendants for a meagre meal and glass of water. She was placed to rest on 3rd March 1971. Her gravestone in Woodlands Retreat has these last words inscribed, “Rest Weary Heart – Thy work is Done.

Excerpts from B C Sanyal’s, ‘The Vertical Woman’, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, 1998 and various other internet sources. (Compiled by Vipan Kumar)

Join the Conversation


  1. says: Mary Ellen Korman


    I am researching the life of Ethel Merston, who in 1935 and 1936 lived in Banuri and was a close friend of Norah Richards. If you knew Miss Merston, or know of anyone who did know her, I would appreciate any information, or memories, or reminiscences about her. Also, the names and any other information for two other women who were friends of Mrs. Richards and Miss Merston — a young French woman who lived with Miss Merston but returned to France after a short time, and an English woman who had a house in Banuri and with whom Miss Merston lived after the young French woman left.

  2. says: Clarence

    Hi ! I do not know if you found answers to your search… but there is a book on sale on Amazon about that woman Ethel Merston by Mary Ellen Korman.

    I hope it helps.

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