Of all the visionary environments in the world there
is none as spectacular, as vast, as that created by
Nek Chand in Chandigarh, northern India. Nek Chand,
like so many other Outsider artists, was fascinated
with strangely shaped stones. He felt that within them
they expressed the personalities of regal figures, of
ordinary people, of animals and birds, and he built
up a vast collection of thousands of examples. His other
raw material was urban and industrial waste.
Nek Chand believes that in Nature everything is
used, even fallen leaves go back to enrich the soil,
similarly the waste of a city should be recycled back
into use once more. He had moved to Chandigarh in 1951,
after losing his home and native village in the 1948
partition of India, to work on the vast construction
of the new city designed by Le Corbusier. In this process
a mass of waste was created by the demolition of over
20 villages, and numerous other buildings, to clear
the ground for the new town.
In 1958, Nek Chand, who was working as a Roads Inspector
for the Chandigarh Public Works Department, made for
himself a little clearing in the thick undergrowth outside
the city and began to collect together the stones and
the waste materials that he knew he would be using,
storing them in a little hut he had built. He had already
had a dream showing him that this location was once
the site of a glorious kingdom and he was following
his desire to create his own kingdom of kings and queens.
He had access to waste dumps in his Department and
after his working day he brought materials and stones
back to his clearing on the back of a bicycle. So began
one of the most momentous achievements of individual
human creativity in modern times. By 1965 he was ready
to begin his kingdom. The land he was working on was
not his own, but a Government area where no development
or building of any kind was permitted. Unlike other
Indian cities, Chandigarh was carefully planned and
only authorised development was permitted.
Nek Chand set his stones around the little clearing
and before long had sculpted his first figures, made
of cement with an outer skin of broken bangles. Gradually
the creation developed and grew; before long the sculptures
and stones covered several acres. After his working
day as a roads inspector ended, he worked alone in the
undergrowth. He cleared the land and built his environment.
Day after day, and at night by the light of burning
tyres, he worked in total secrecy for fear of being
discovered by the authorities. Apart from his wife Kamla
and a few trusted friends nobody was aware what Nek
Chand was doing.
When in 1972 a Government working party began clearing
the jungle they came across acres of stones and statues.
Almost two thousand sculptures of various sizes inhabited
the undergrowth. Amazed by what they had discovered,
local government officials were thrown into turmoil.
Nek Chand's creation was completely illegal - a development
in a forbidden area which by rights should be demolished.
Within a few days of his discovery everyone in Chandigarh
knew about the extraordinary creations in the forest.
Hundreds flocked to see them and Nek Chand received
his first reactions from the world.
Although many city officials were outraged, local business
men offered Chand free materials and transport and with
this extra assistance he was able to embark on the First
Phase of the environment proper. He formed a series
of small courtyards to display his natural rocks and
sculptures. As his creation developed so did the support
and interest of the citizens of Chandigarh. By 1976
the city authorities were forced by public opinion to
relieve Chand of his duties as Roads Inspector and give
him a salary to continue with his environment on a full
time basis. Nek Chand's kingdom was officially inaugurated
as the Rock Garden and administered by the City of Chandigarh.
Chand was given not only a salary but also a work force
of fifty labourers and a truck to continue with his
work. Electricity and water were at last available.
He was now in a position to start work on the Second
Phase, a series of large courtyards, many coated in
a mosaic of natural stone or broken ceramic linked by
winding paths and low archways. He developed complex
and extensive methods of waste collection with many
different collection points to form one of the largest
recycling programmes in Asia.
The armatures for much of his sculpture were made from
old cycle parts; saddles became animal heads, forks
became legs, frames became bodies. For his extensive
areas of mosaic he used not only broken crockery and
tiles but whole bathrooms. He has built walls of oil
drums, electric plug moulds and of old fluorescent tubes.
His figures are clothed in thousands of broken glass
bangles, in mosaic, or in foundry slag, even feathers.
In addition to the cement and concrete creations he
also produces great quantities of animals and figures
out of old rags and discarded clothing. These giant
rag dolls are usually full size constructions with strong
metal armatures. The interiors consist of hundreds of
tightly bound rags, giving a rigidity and strength unusual
in this medium.
Not only has Nek Chand transformed urban waste into
beauty but he has also utilised a range of natural materials
in the Rock Garden. He has made vast sculptures from
the roots of upturned trees, built an extraordinary
complex of interweaving waterfalls and placed several
thousand strangely formed rocks, all collected locally,
around the garden.
Nek Chand's kingdom is set in a total area of twenty
five acres and the vast Third Phase, started in 1983,
is due to be completed by the end of 1995. This new
area, which is approached by a deep man-made gorge,
is resplendent with vast waterfalls and palace-like
buildings. A twisting series of over fifty arches, each
with a huge swing within it, comes alive with the laughter
of visitors as they swoop up and down. Huge versions
of his sculptures, mosaic figures of over fourteen feet
high and great birds and beasts will eventually inhabit
this huge new area.
Above the waterfall on the Third Phase, a high tower
is under construction, when completed, lights will shine
on the white mosaic domes which will be seen from as
far away as the Himalayan foothills. Huge pumping stations
are at work circulating tons of water around the various
waterfalls and fast flowing streams. The whole impression
is no less than an attempt at creating a paradise on
Earth. Nek Chand admits that his mission is one ordained
by God and some in Chandigarh sincerely believe that
he acts God's hand.
In recent years his fame has spread from Chandigarh.
He has had collections or exhibitions of his work in
Berlin, Paris, London, Madrid and Holland. He donated
over one hundred sculptures to the Capital Children's
Museum in Washington DC and spent six months installing
them and running workshops. The Indian government awarded
him the title Padam Shri in 1984, a year after the Rock
Garden was featured on an Indian postage stamp.
However his fame and honour have also brought enemies
to his door. Indian bureaucracy can be a hierarchical
and back-biting world and there have been those that
have resented the glory of an apparently humble man.
City officials held up the progress of the Third Phase
for several years by their attempt to run a road through
the Rock Garden and to use part of the area as an official
car park. Bulldozers were even sent to start demolition,
only to be faced with a human wall of children and local
people. In 1989 the normally serene Nek Chand gave a
powerful address to the Chandigarh High Court at the
final hearing of lengthy court action and judgement
was eventually given in his favour.
Nek Chand is a man whose inner strength and humble
acceptance of his destiny has seen him grow and develop
along with his epic creation. From a genuinely intuitive
sculptor, a classic Outsider artist, he has become a
visionary architect on a grand scale. Never working
with any plans he has been able to direct a work force
to construct a vast building enterprise.
In his days as a Roads Inspector he was completely
involved in the Chandigarh project. Although he never
knew Le Corbusier personally, he observed his building
methods closely, especially his imaginative use of concrete.
One of the features of the Le Corbusier buildings in
Chandigarh are the flowing curves of concrete, constructed
with complex shuttering to hold the liquid material.
Chand has developed Corbusier's techniques in the Rock
Garden by using a large array of shuttering arrangements;
from oil drums to sacking he has produced his own organic
masses of concrete with a huge variety of different
Chand knows Corbusier's buildings inside out. He can
explain the hidden vaulting on the roof of the High
Court or the construction of the Assembly Building.
Chandigarh has more Corbusier buildings in one place
than anywhere in the world and it is extraordinary that
one of the greatest architects of the Twentieth century
should have had such an influence on one of the greatest
contemporary Outsider artists.
Nek Chand is now a revered and feted personality who
receives the praises and respects of hundreds of people
every week. Over 5000 visitors each day walk around
his vast creation - in India only the Taj Mahal sees
more. Nek Chand is a serene and saintly figure, full
of inherent wisdom and knowledge, and totally devoted
to his life's work. He sees the Rock Garden as his kingdom,
peopled by Kings, Queens, Princesses, village people
and animals, all of whom will inhabit this paradise
for ever. He is aware of the magnitude of his creative
achievement but accepts his work as the will of God,
as a gift to the world.
Extract published by courtsey of Phaidon