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Rock Garden creator Nek Chand dead

CHANDIGARH: Creator of Chandigarh’s famed Rock Garden Nek Chand died here around midnight, Thursday-Friday. He suffered a cardiac arrest. He had celebrated his 90th birthday on December 15 last year.

Rock Garden creator Nek Chand dead

File photo of Nek Chand -- a self-taught artist famed for building Rock Garden in Chandigarh, an 18-acre spread of sculptures made using scrap and rocks -- in his office in the garden. Tribune photo: Pradeep Tewari

Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, June 12

Creator of Chandigarh’s famed Rock Garden Nek Chand died here around midnight, Thursday-Friday. He suffered a cardiac arrest. He had celebrated his 90th birthday on December 15 last year.

From The Tribune Archives

A fantasy land only Nek Chand could create

Four international awards for Nek Chand

9OTH birthday: Who’s who of city throng Rock Garden

In love with City Beautiful

The Mr Green of Chandigarh

His son Anuj Saini, who helped him in maintaining Rock Garden, was by his side when he died.

Rajesh Kumar Bedi, a family friend, told The Tribune that Nek Chand was admitted to the PGIMER here after cardiac distress on Thursday. In the afternoon, UT Adviser Vijay Kumar Dev and Home Secretary Anurag Aggarwal had visited him. He was declared dead by doctors at 12.10 am on Friday.

The date and time of the cremation will be decided later on Friday. Chandigarh declared Friday a holiday.

The Chandigarh Administration had on December 15 last year honoured Nek Chad on the occasion of his 90th birthday and 40 years of the opening of his creation, Rock Garden, which has brought Chandigarh world renown.

Among the several awards that the acclaimed creator of art from waste received during his lifetime was the Padma Shri in 1984.

Nek Chand had worked as a road inspector for the Public Works Department. He hailed from Shakargarh region, now in Pakistan. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled the death of Nek Chand.

"Nek Chand-ji will always be remembered for his artistic genius and fabulous creation that is cherished by many. May his soul rest in peace," Modi said in a tweet.

Rock Garden is a sprawling spread of myriad sculptures and works of art fashioned out of waste materials collected by Nek Chand from demolition sites around the city. It was officially opened by him on January 24, 1976. Till date it has seen development in three phases, with interlinked courtyards. Most creations are figures of dancers, musicians, birds and animals, besides several artificial waterfalls.

More than 2.5 lakh people visit Rock Garden every year and the annual revenue generated from ticket sales is around Rs 1.8 crore. The garden is maintained by the Nek Chand Foundation, formed in 1996. 

Reproduced below is a tribute to him written by art historian BN Goswami, published in The Tribune on the occasion of his 90th birthday on December 15, 2014:

Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. — Walter Benjamin

I do not recall who it was that, writing about Nek Chand, spoke of his having received endless honours, among them the Padma Shri, which he said was the equivalent of a knighthood in Britain. This may or may not exactly be true, but I liked the sound of it: “Sir Nek Chand”. I have, whenever I have been with him, always addressed him as “Nek Chand ji” but, had I come upon that reference to equivalence earlier, I would have certainly started addressing him as “Sir Nek Chand”.

The honour sits well, in fact perfectly, on him. But I am sure that had I begun using that address, he would have objected, flashing that shy but irresistible smile, saying something that one could barely have heard.

Endless words have been written about Nek Chand ji and his work, and by this time it would seem as if one knows it all: his humble beginnings from a little village that now is in Pakistan; his first job as a lowly road inspector; the surreptitious manner in which he began building “something” on government land, against all laws and rules then prevailing but on his own time; his forays on bicycle back into the neighbourhood and the region, assembling rocks, picking up waste materials that cost nothing and generally lay among piles of waste —  discarded shards of ceramics, useless electrical fittings, bottle tops, lumps of cinder, broken glass bangles — , and then fashioning them into objects of fancy.

One also knows about his quiet but elegant “kingdom” being discovered by the angered powers that be, the threat of razing it down that loomed over it, and the eventual saving of it from destruction by enlightened intervention. What followed is widely known and has been justly celebrated: the enthusiasm with which his creation, the “Rock Garden” — the name was apparently given “from above”, not chosen by him — was greeted by the multitudes that started pouring into it, the honours that came to him from different lands, the endless invitations, the dissertations and volumes written on his work, the starting of an internationally based Nek Chand Foundation.

This domain of his — a chaotic but endearing island in the midst of rigid geometry — is now not only an enduring part of the Corbusier city but an icon of it. Not everything works in respect of form or design on this island, but most of it does: brilliantly.

Here one can, anyone can, wander about, breathing a different air, greeting sights that take one completely by surprise: sprawling tracts of grassy land, artificially created water-falls amongst “valleys” and “gorges” with an open-air theatre set in their midst, swings and majestic colonnades, armies of cement monkeys and bears and village lasses, down to an old village well placed in the heart of a tiled courtyard, and, at one spot, that amazing creation: strings of rope-like, coiling, twisting, cemented ‘tubes’ that hang down endlessly from above like aerial roots. A memory perhaps of a banyan left behind in a village in Pakistan a long time ago?

All the accolades and honours notwithstanding, however, it has not been smooth for Nek Chand ji, it has to be said. He has faced more than his share of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”; he and his creation have been under threat; the support in respect of money and men that should have been rightfully his, at least after his garden kingdom had been officially recognised, he has rarely received without a struggle; plain jealousies have raised their poisoned head at every other step. But — and this is the measure of the man — he has always remained himself: humble to a fault, self-effacing, dedicated, completely immersed in his work, whether thinking or working by hand. The passion that moved him from the very beginning has stayed young in his ageing heart; the vision that he had has remained untarnished.

As someone wrote after spending time with him, interviewing and taking down notes, that “what remains in mind is not the analysis (of his work) but that simple image of a man sitting by his hut in a forest clearing, mixing cement, mortar and odds-and-ends discarded by civilisation, creating … year after year, … giving shape to elements of his imagination like no one else had done before”. There are no theories he has worked with. But then, as has been well said: “Critics need a theory; creators don’t.”

There is little new that one can say about Nek Chand ji – someone translated his name once as “The Moon of Virtue” – and his work. Except, of course, to recall one’s early encounters with him and his creation, or to pick moments from “the shimmering chaos of one’s memory”, to use a phrase of Monet’s, and keep shoring them up. I remember the first time I saw his “garden”: very, very few people in the city knew about it, and it was still all hush-hush even though it was an architect friend who took me to see it. Around it, there was a tall “mud wall” made up of discarded coal-tar drums piled one top of another, something more like a fortification than a barricade, on one of which one had to tap with a stick, like a secret signal, for some worker from inside to peep out, ascertain that only a friend was at the gate, and then swing it open for entering.

What was inside was, of course, breathtakingly calm and Nek Chand ji would greet one, emerging from the little mud hut that he had constructed as a “pad” which doubled as his “office”. In the years that followed, a kind of friendship formed between us — at least he recognised my name — and one had occasion to reach him from time to time over the telephone, asking him for some small favour or the other, like sparing some time for seeing a visiting friend, and each time he would answer in his characteristic Punjabi: “Lau, kyon nahin janaab”! 

One winced a little at the undeserved respect shown by him in words and tone, but each time one was grateful. Any time that one would approach him for something, to be given a preview, for instance, of a new phase that he was quietly working on, unknown to the rest of the world, he would oblige: “Aa jaao, kal shaam”. Once, when I invited him to come to Patiala (where I was teaching as Visiting Professor for some time) to come and participate in a symposium that my department had organised, he not only accepted the invitation most willingly but arrived from Chandigarh, on the morning of the symposium, in a tempo in which were loaded some sculptures of his own making, all set to gift them to the University.

That is quintessentially him: helpful, willing to share, not a touch of hubris about him. When he said to some interviewer that “I regard myself neither as an artist, nor as a craftsman … I am completely insignificant”, he was, I am convinced, speaking from the heart. This, with the burden of all the honours he has been loaded with on his shoulders.

Sheikh Sa’adi, the great Persian poet, once said:

Khisht-i awwal gar nihad maimaar kaj, Taa suraiya mi ravad deewaar kaj.

(If the first brick the mason lays is crooked/ The wall he raises will always be crooked even if it reaches the stars.)

Nek Chand ji’s work will endure. For, from the very beginning, he has never laid a brick that was crooked, either in work or in his self-denying persona.

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