Nek Chand


  Raw Vision    
  Nek Chand shows the way - sculptures from the Rock Garden of Chandigarh

1997: An exhibition to celebrate the visit to England of the
world's greatest living environmental visionary artist.

Special opening event in the presence of
Nek Chand: Sunday June 15th 12 - 3.30
Talk by Nek Chand: June 24th 6.00pm.
WaTeRMaNS Arts Centre, 40 High Street, Brentford, London
June 15th--August 17th Held in conjunction with Apna Arts and Raw Vision
0181 847 5651 / 0181 568 1176 /0115 942 2479 / 01923 856644

Nek Chand's Wonder of the World
by John Maizels
from Raw Creation, Phaidon Press 1996

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 textural surfaces.

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 Press, London.


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