Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
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Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000

Nek Chand's kingdom

Alka Pande

Historian and writer based in Chandigarh.

Every time I visit Nek Chand's Rock Garden in Chandigarh I am amazed that I find something new to think about. The naive creativity of the fantasy garden never fails to delight the senses.

Spread over 25 acres the Rock Garden has become an icon of the City Beautiful. In many ways it stands out as a contrast to the modernistic approach of the city architect Le Corbusier and at the same time in keeping with his philosophy.

The rock garden is the work of one man - Nek Chand, a humble road inspector who had no formal training in either design, architecture, or landscape planning. He did not even have a formal education beyond High School. But the Rock Garden is a living statement of the unlimited boundaries of creativity which goes beyond the formality of education. The fantasy garden has been created entirely out of discarded city debris, industrial waste and natural fossil rocks personally collected by Nek Chand.

Nek Chand started work on his own dream project more than forty years ago, working quietly and unobtrusively in 1948. He found the vast expanse of land close to the Sukhna Lake an ideal spot for the nagri of devis and devatas (city of the gods and goddesses). From complete waste materials - the discarded debris of a high energy and material consuming cisilization - concrete poles, bitumen drums, cast off terra cotta pots, bits of crockery, cycle tyres and parts, electrical fixtures, plumbing, whitewash waste, industrial slag, junked steel furniture, pebbles, natural stone, fossil rocks, sanitary ware, glass, bottles, broken bangles, rags, porcelain, and other bits which an ordinary person would never even think of using.

By reinvesting waste and imbuing it with an aesthetic appeal, balance and harmony a sculptural park has been created. Nek Chand has demonstrated the harmony between man-made waste and nature. "It is my belief that any conflict between nature's will and man's design is bound to lead to an overall destruction. The dimensions of the essential harmony between man and nature can be economic, social, political and aesthetic. My own effort is to explore the aesthetic dimension. The natural environment, trees, water, soil, birds, rocks are the major participants in my work." Says Nek Chand with a quiet dignity.

There is a timeless quality about the garden. "The garden is, in reality, a large and complex labyrinth, with paths, gateways, steps, waterfalls, courtyards, porches and buildings. Much of the material that the Rock Garden is made out of is concrete and found objects," wrote Anton Rajer, art conservator in his report for the Nek Chand Foundation, London.

The garden proceeds in a chronological order of its creation, and in the unfolding shows the process of Nek Chand's creation. Starting with a few natural forms and found objects like mishapen rocks, to minor landscape modification finally leading to a large scale architectural environment. Nek Chand saw the waste of an industrial society as raw material for recycling.

"Nek Chand Saini of Chandigarh, India has risked both social and legal opprobrium. A former roads inspector and warehouse and dump supervisor, Mr. Chand has created, over the past several decades, literally acres of sculpture inside massive walls made of scavenged rocks and porcelain encrusted cement over coal tar drums. His figures include deities, humans, and all manner of animals, ranging in size from miniature to life size and over life size. For the most part, they too are made of concrete covered with found objects" writes American author John Beardsley in his book Garden of Revelation.

In the second phase of the garden Nek Chand went on to create a playground for the entertainment of the elevated souls in heaven who found a place once again on earth. He created open courtyards, all the pathways are decorated with sculptures, complete with the king's and queen's chambers. A large waterfall, a canal, an open air theatre, a miniature village was included. These architectural spaces have become over the years an interactive space, where plays, dance and music performances even fashion shows and utsavs are held.

Right now Nek Chand is busy completing the third probably the final phase of development. He is busy making an exit where life sized horses and camels are being made again out of waste. Children and visitors to the garden can climb up and down these figures and actually experience and participate with Nek Chand's creative genius.

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