(15 December 1924 – 12 June 2015)
Around the same time a seasonal stream coming down from the Shivaliks was dammed to create the Sukhna Lake, a young roads inspector with the pwd picked up his first piece of junk to give it human form. The year was 1958 and the government of India was realising its dream of creating the first post-Independence modern city under the eccentric French architectural genius of Le Corbusier, who was giving his final touches to Chandigarh. For Nek Chand, that young pwd employee overseeing the construction of a highway, the raw material was all there, in the collateral waste left aside by Corbusier’s buildings; foundry slags, rocks, cement clinkers, broken ceramics and abandoned bicycles. Perhaps, it was the monotony of the government job which compelled the intrinsic artist in him to break the confines of a routine, inexpressive existence. In the decades that followed, Chand created an alternative world of his own from things discarded by the real world. He passed away on 12 June, leaving behind for us the world famous ‘rock garden of Chandigarh’, a space that he dedicated his lifetime to.
It started as a clandestine affair with a gorge near the lake; his private workshop where Chand glued, welded and carved the subjects of his kingdom, a small stretch of contradiction in Corbusier’s aggressively rationalist design of Chandigarh. Chand worked in secrecy for an astounding 15 years until his garden was discovered by the city authorities in 1975.
The initial reaction of an administration characteristically possessive about its often uninteresting public spaces, was to demolish the artistic encroachment. But by then, the sculptor had found appreciation in the city’s public which actively resisted the administration, so much so, that the site was made a public garden by a government order with Nek Chand as its supervisor. His garden would face similar problems from the authorities later on, again to be successfully resisted by his affectionate admirers. The ‘rock garden’ flourished under Chand’s
The ‘rock garden’ flourished under Chand’s supervision for the next four decades to become a landmark of the city, a must-visit site in Chandigarh. This writer is reminded of a visit to the garden years back on a winter’s day. The garden was bustling with the Sunday crowd. The atmosphere was one that let you be, because of the sculptures that did not oppress you with a ‘look at me, I am art’ attitude but left you at peace to gaze at them in a carefree yet intimate way.
That is how Chand’s sculptures are. They have an unmistakable uniqueness where each sculpture is a concept in itself, which has then been multiplied by the artist to stand as a species in his garden. For instance, there is the waving man, the women with pots, the sitting in thought monkeys, the courtiers, the musicians among many more. However, their creation out of junk, a post-industrial process, lends each one of them a distinctness, as the eyes or the expressions are never quite the same in two sculptures of the same concept. Where one sculpture is brooding, the other is cheerful or inquisitive or amused. His style shows an affinity to the community living along with an individual distinctness, an ethos that has got something to do with Chand’s early years in an idyllic village in Gurdaspur (now in Pakistan).
For one who was managing a secret garden for 15 years, it can be said that Chand never desired but only chanced upon recognition in his journey as an artist. He was felicitated with many honours and his sculptures even appeared on an Indian postal stamp in 1983. His work has been exhibited in the American Folk Art museum in New York and the Capitol Children’s museum in Washington DC among others.
To picture the image of a man at work in the dead of the night, all by himself, in a forest for nearly two decades, evokes a peculiar urge for creativity, both basic and profound in nature. Chand’s sculptures, the thousands of them, were carved out of the waste of a modern world out of which he created a utopia—a reminder of a simpler existence.