Nek Chand's Story
by Tony Rajer
Chandigarh, India, is an unlikely location for the world's largest folk-art environment. Chandigarh, a stark 20th-century utopian dream city, was designed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. In the midst of this carefully planned, 1950s-style architecture lies a 40-acre garden kingdom comprised of meandering paths, courtyards, waterfalls, pavilions, theaters, plazas and thousands of sculptures created by an untutored builder named Nek Chand Saini (b.1924). In the past few years, completing this monumental endeavor and guaranteeing its preservation has become an international effort involving many individuals and organizations.
In 1951, Nek Chand arrived in Chandigarh to work as a road inspector for the Indian government's Public Works Department. In 1958, he began collecting curiously shaped rocks, discarded materials and recyclable items from the demolition of the villages that once stood on the site where Chandigarh was being built. Around 1965, working secretly at night and on weekends in a publicly owned forest reserve, Nek Chand assembled the materials, including rocks, broken crockery and colored stones, using concrete and a few primitive tools. He had carefully observed the techniques of using concrete in building the new city, particularly in the Government Center, then under construction. Nek Chand was fascinated by the plastic nature of concrete, and his creative impulse was stimulated by the building going on around him.
The place he chose for his exotic kingdom had been designated as a land conservancy, where any kind of building was forbidden. Nevertheless, there he built a miniature world depicting Indian village life, as well as a fantasy kingdom of palaces, pavilions and other structures.
Ten years later, in 1975, city inspectors stumbled across this illegal construction in the forest. The Chandigarh bureaucracy wanted it destroyed. Nek Chand's creation occupied government land that had been set aside as green space between the government buildings of Le Corbusier and the city proper. When word spread, hundreds of people found their way through the forests to see this enchanted kingdom. After much debate, the Chandigarh Landscape Advisory Committee relented and allowed Nek Chand to open his creation to the public.
After visiting the site and recognizing its artistic value, Dr. M.S. Randhawa, an agricultural scientist, gave the site the name Rock Garden. The Rock Garden was formally inaugurated on January 24, 1976, before a crowd of thousands. Thereafter, with a small budget and a group of helpers provided by the local government, Nek Chand was encouraged to enlarge his garden and continue his many projects.
The stages of the garden's complex construction have been designated as Phase I, the earliest, begun in 1965; Phase II, completed around 1983; and Phase III, which is still under construction and scheduled to be completed about 2003. Nek Chand set up a local network whereby broken crockery, tiles, rags and other discarded items could be brought to the garden for recycling.
With the aid of government workers, Phase I was quickly completed, and Nek Chand moved to Phase II, which included a waterfall, several plazas, a small theater, gardens, paths and nearly 5,000 pottery-encrusted concrete figures, some embellished with human hair which Nek Chand had collected from barber shops.
In order to safeguard the sculpture and still make the pieces available for public viewing, Nek Chand placed them on high sloping terraces connected by pathways and divided by tile- embellished walls with narrow, low doorways. Most of the sculptures are smaller than life size and range in subject from human figures to monkeys, peacocks, elephants, bears and many imaginary creatures.
In another section of Phase II, Nek Chand created a miniature village with shops, houses, paths, temples and a cascading waterfall. This make-believe world is enhanced further by the trees, vegetation and birds that inhabit the remaining forest. Hundreds of birds live in the garden, using the small nooks and crannies as nesting places.
An important aesthetic feature of the garden is the sense of compression and expansion of space. In moving from one section of the garden to another, the visitor goes through narrow passageways and arrives into broad open courtyards ÷ an integral part of Nek Chand's design.
In Phase III, Nek Chand's work has become monumental in scale. He works without formal plans but directs his workers to construct what he describes. The heart of this section of the garden are the "great swings," dozens of swings that hang from huge concrete arches resembling ancient Roman aqueducts. Each of the swings can hold several people at once, and visitors take pleasure in this activity. Phase III also has several pavilions for soft rag sculpture displays, an aquarium and an open-air theater.
Work continues on this section of the garden with additions to the inner boundary wall, more swings and a planned small museum. Nek Chand has not yet revealed all the details for what he says will be the most spectacular part of the Rock Garden. The elements of the garden appear to have been there many years, even though, for the most part, they are of recent construction.
As the size of the site has expanded, public interest and visitor volume have increased exponentially. International exhibitions of figures from the Rock Garden have been held in London, Berlin and Paris, where the Grande Medaille de Vermeil was conferred upon this modest man. In Washington, he created a sculpture garden at the Capitol Children's Museum, and he was given the keys to the city of Baltimore. The postal service of India issued a Rock Garden stamp in 1983 to honor his work. In 1984, he was awarded the prestigious Indian award, Padam Shri, the equivalent of a British knighthood. He has received hundreds of awards, which he displays in a special room in his home.
Unfortunately, all has not gone well in this garden paradise. Some people, including local Indian bureaucrats, have expressed jealousy of the success of Nek Chand's creation and the fact that he has been showered with attention. For example, the Bar Association of Chandigarh fought for years in the law courts to prevent expansion of the Rock Garden because it conflicted with their plans for a larger parking lot. But, in 1989, Nek Chand won a landmark court case in which the Rock Garden was given permanent protection that included green space buffers around the boundary wall.
In 1996, while Nek Chand was on a lecture tour of Europe and the United States, local officials did not prevent vandals from damaging hundreds of sculptures. This destruction halted the ongoing construction of Phase III. However, since this unfortunate incident, significant steps have been taken at local and international levels to guarantee that Nek Chand's vision will be completed and preserved for future generations.
Today, Nek Chand is revered as a national hero. Nearly 3,000 people visit the garden daily, making it the most visited folk art site in the world and one of the most visited tourist sites in India.
In Chandigarh, the Rock Garden Society was organized to help administer and complete the garden. In London, the Nek Chand Foundation was established to promote and preserve the garden. In 1999, the Nek Chand Foundation undertook the first steps in a major documentation project that will include oral histories, site plans, photography, preservation activities and promotion. Several other initiatives are also in the works. One of the most exciting is a planned study tour for folk-art enthusiasts who want to work in the garden. The 10-day trip, sponsored by the London-based Nek Chand Foundation, is planned tentatively for February 2001, to coincide with the silver jubilee festivities of the public opening of the Rock Garden.
Further information on the trip and a foundation brochure may be obtained directly from Sara Burns, Director, Nek Chand Foundation, 36 Highbury Place, London, England, N51QP. The e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Telephone: +44-171-359-1747 and Fax: +44-171-226-3255.
In November 1999, under the auspices of the Nek Chand Foundation, the author was sent to Chandigarh to initiate a major documentation project. The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Nek Chand Saini, the Nek Chand Foundation, Sara Burns, John and Maggie Maizels, the Rock Garden Society staff, Dharam Paul Attri and R.K. Bedi.
ANTON (TONY) RAJER is a Harvard-trained art conservator specializing in the preservation of folk art. He has completed folk art site assessments at St. E.O.M's Pasaquan, Howard Finster's Paradise Garden, L.C. Carson's Concrete City, Wisconsin Concrete Park and other locations.
The late TONY RAJER was an art conservator, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a member of the FASA's National Advisory Board.
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[#49] Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter/Spring 2000$15.00 ppd