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Nek Chand's supersensitivity, environmental creations and the Rock Gardens

By Yogesh Kant | PUBLISHED: 05, Nov 2012, 18:35 pm IST | UPDATED: 06, Nov 2012, 17:44 pm IST

Nek Chand's supersensitivity, environmental creations and the Rock Gardens Among all visionary environmental creations in the world there are none as impressive, as vast, as that –Rock Garden- created by Nek Chand in Chandigarh. Like many other artists, he was fascinated with strangely shaped stones.

He felt that within them they expressed the personalities of living creatures, so he tried to shape them. He built up a vast collection of 3000 rare examples of ordinary people, of animals and birds by using waste materials. FacenFacts grabed the opportunity to ink his extra-ordinary efforts at the Outside Art Fair in Delhi.

The Story begins:

While talking to FacenFacts Nek Chand said that he firmly believes in nature. He says every components on earth is useful. He reveals his source of inspiration- fallen leaves, who go back to enrich the soil. He says in the same way the waste of a city should be recycle back into use once more. This inspiration brought into practical shape the kingdom of god and goddess and a vast and stunning ‘ Rock Garden’ in Chandigarh.

He moved to Chandigarh in 1951 after losing his home and native village in the 1948 partition of India, to work on the elaborate 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 was a road inspector for the Public Works Department and he was making rafts and boats to sail on the recently created Sukhna Lake but peddle boats were soon made available on rent by authorities and his craft was banned.

This allowed Nek to devote more time to his passion for rocks and stones and he began gathering them from the nearby Shivalik Hills, the Sukhna Cho, Patiala Rao and Ghaggar rivers. It was around this time that the Swiss architect Le Corbusier was asked to design the city of Chandigarh, the first planned city of India.

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. He had access to waste dumps in his Department and after his work day he brought materials and stones back to his place on the back of his bicycle. So began one of the most momentous achievements of individual human creativity in modern times.

By 1965, he was ready to begin his work. 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 sculpted his first figure made of cement with an outer skin of broken bangles. Gradually the creation developed and grew. In no time 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 created his space.

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.

Nek Chand continued to work on the garden in secret for fourteen years only being discovered in 1972 by a government malarial research party. The sensational news of materialistic creature was found in the cavity of jungle.

The news spread quickly across the city and everyone in the city became aware of the unusual creation of Kngdom of Stones. Thereafter, crowds of visitor rushed to see the magical objects in the jungle.

Notably, Nek was afraid that this dream of his would cost him his job, since it was very much an illegal project, but this didn’t stop him from expanding the Rock Garden with each passing day. Broken pots and bottles, brick fragments and natural stones were the main ingredients used to create a unique world inhabited by marvelous creatures.

Although, the garden was built illegally but the immense enthusiasm in people and support compelled the government to think seriously over the creation.

Nevertheless, the government took the stance of nationalizing the area-called “Rock Garden”– and appointed Nek Chand its “Creator-Director”. He was allotted some staff to maintain and continue development of the garden, a task Nek Chand would finally devote his full time to.

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. 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.

Nek Chand continues to work on the project to this day and now has the help of several workers and a van to transport materials. He has constructed more than 3000 sculptures from all sorts of objects, such as broken bangles, ceramics, pottery, light bulbs and electrical components all held together with cement.

The armatures for the sculptures are made from bicycle frames, exhaust pipes and table trestles to name only a few items. The garden was an immediate success with the local population, some of whom were potentially looking back at the mundane objects they used to own, now transformed into works of art.

The garden continues to receive around 20,000 visitors per week from all over India and abroad. The area of the park is just less than 18 acres and its perimeter wall stretches to a kilometre in length.

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.

Nek Chand developed complex and extensive methods of waste collection with many different collection points to form one of the largest recycling programmes in Asia.  And still he continues to work, now on the Third Phase of the Rock Garden...
Key Dates:

1924: Nek Chand Saini born in a village called Barian Kalan, near Lahore in what is now Pakistan

1947: India gains Independence from Britain and is divided to create Pakistan. Nek Chand and his family being Hindu abandoned their home and move to India.

1951: The construction of Chandigarh begins. Lahore, the old capitol of Punjab was located in Pakistan and so the new Indian capital of Punjab was to be Chandigarh. It was designed by the Franco-Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, Jane Drew and Edwin Maxwell Fry [educated at Liverpool School of Architecture].

1958: Nek Chand began collecting stones from the surrounding rivers and urban waste from the destroyed villages.

1972: The garden is discovered by an anti-malarial research party. Nek Chand begins to solicit the support of the chief architect, MN Sharma and other key Chandigarh personnel.

1976: The garden is named the Rock Garden and officially opened on the 24th January.

1984: Nek Chand is awarded the title Padam Shri, by the Indian Prime Minister and a postal stamp is produced showing one of the park's sculptures.

1989: A proposal was made by the High Court of Chandigarh to demolish part of the garden to extend their car park and to make a new road. Nek Chand had to fight this proposal in Court and a 'human shield' of Chandigarh residents prevented bull-dozers from demolishing 'phase-3' of the garden.