This weekend, Nek Chand, one of Chandigarh’s most treasured citizens, will turn 90. As I join his legion admirers in wishing him on this landmark celebration, my thoughts turn to the first time my husband and I were made aware of a wonderland that was being created behind a fortress of empty coal tar drums somewhere in the wild wastes of the area around the capitol complex. We had arrived in Chandigarh just a few months ago and were still coming to terms with its rather bleak and wind-swept landscape. In the early 70s, there were just a few ornamental trees along the impressive roads that divided the city into neat, geometric grids. Having grown up in the crowded small towns of UP that had little to do with modern layouts and wide roads, I was fascinated by the spectacle of a city that seemed to have fewer cars than roads and where one could drive in the middle of the road without fear of bumping into anyone.
One evening, Champa Mangat Rai—who once described herself memorably as an aboriginal of the city—arrived at our home and asked us to follow her car. ‘Bring a torch,’ she added mysteriously. Readers who remember this wonderful soul will realise that one did not question Champa’s odd commands, so we dutifully followed her down towards the lake. Suddenly, her car veered off the road and went bumping over the kutcha path to stop in the middle of nowhere. It was already quite dark by now and many mosquitoes were waiting outside to draw blood. Looming in front of us was a wall of drums camouflaged with mud. Where on earth had we come, we wondered.
Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Champa gestured to us to follow her. We stumbled over the stones and rubble and then, suddenly, as if from somewhere in the wall, came a man who bent low to wish Champa and her guests. Silently, he led us to a hole and what followed is as close to the beginning of Alice in Wonderland as I know. A ‘door’ swung to let us in and two dark labourers bearing flaming torches of burning tyres lit the path we were to take. Almost 40 years down, I can see those dark shapes: rocks studded into cement that were part of a kingdom of dreams. There were human figures fashioned out of broken bangles that glowed eerily down at the spectator; monkeys and surreal animal shapes that arose from the sky; broken plugs and ceramic pieces that assumed a new form when handled by an artist that saw in every waste object the possibility of a beautiful art object. We were stunned. Then, as silently as he had come, Nek Chand vanished into the gloom.
From the very day we met him, we became his ardent supporters. In those days, he was fighting a lonely battle against the local PWD that had wanted to destroy this garden because he had not taken their permission (as if it would have been happily granted to a road inspector, for that is what he was then) to squat on this property. It was Nek Chand’s determination to continue despite all such threats and the support of his friends (from the Chief Commissioner, TN Chaturvedi, to several bureaucrats in the Punjab and Haryana governments, to eminent citizens such as Champa) that the Rock Garden was able to take root. Through all his vicissitudes, his early struggles and his later renown, Nek Chand has miraculously preserved his modesty and innate goodness. His generosity in giving away his works gratis, his indifference to money and status—all these make him a great human being as well. As my husband was fond of saying, ‘Nek Chand is the only one apart from God, who decides that today he will create a mountain and then proceeds to do so.’
His Rock Garden is one of the most popular tourist sites and years from now, when all of us are gone, the men and women he created in the dark will continue to occupy a corner he carved out for them in Chandigarh.
Today, when I sit down to write of him, I also remember something of those times and those who breathed life into a city that may have remained just an architectural enterprise. It is important to remember that the severity and forbidding presence of the cement blocks that were its signature feature were softened by the playful eccentricity of Nek Chand’s Rock Garden. His ‘rivers’, ‘mountains’ and ‘waterfalls’ were added to a landscape that had lacked a human, natural dimension. Nek Chand’s swings hung from ‘trees’, like his labyrinth of lanes and tunnels, were a delightful counterpoint to a city locked into grids and squares. Like every city, Chandigarh needed to grow and mature into a living, lively space.
Would that growth have been dwarfed if it had only proceeded in the direction set for it by Le Corbusier? I cannot say. All I can say is what so many believe: thank God he gave us Nek Chand!
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