Chandigarh: Sitting in his cluttered, low-roofed office in Rock Garden – his own creation – Nek Chand Saini never seemed to be staking a claim to his space. It was as though he had strayed there by accident. No wonder, the sixty-odd years Nek Chand spent in Chandigarh, shaping a fantasy world out of the waste, turned him into a folklore hero of sorts.
It must have been the lack of imagination on the part of Chandigarhians to christen Nek Chand’s creation as Rock Garden. Because what he was creating was the ‘divine kingdom of Sukrani’. If the force of imagination shaped his dream world, despite his very humble disposition, the ability to stay afloat in a dream world helped him sail through the many impediments and threats stalking his 90-year-long journey. Now glorified, Nek Chand bicycled for months to the local court, sat through the proceedings in a corner, to get the issue of his residence resolved with the Chandigarh administration. In a public ceremony held to felicitate him, he was seen cycling to the venue when dignitaries drove past, to ‘honour’ him. The quintessential Nek Chand took it all in his stride—an indifferent bureaucracy, hostile vandals and at times bulldozers sent by the administration to demolish Rock Garden. He was not of this world. That’s how perhaps, he could create a new world.
But it was the connect people felt with Rock Garden that placed them on his side. They fought the mighty administration to protect his kingdom made out of waste. These were the people who had left behind their beloved gallis and mohallas in Pakistan. The cantonment-like Chandigarh, modern India’s first planned urban space was a compensation of sorts for Lahore. Clean and orderly though it was, however, the city failed to offer the intimacy of living spaces they were used to. It was then that Nek Chand gave Chandigarh the soul it so needed.
The maze-like interconnected courtyards, narrow mysterious alleys, curved lines around the gorge, the almost sky-touching arches, the low-entrances that force visitors to bend their head, and the tiny model villages of his creation compensate for the absence of gallis and mohallas and aangans and chaubaras. By lending the rectangular spaces of Chandigarh the much-required angularity and uncertainty Indians are so used to, Nek Chand made the city a more liveable space. It came from the imagination of a man whose humble stature stood in contrast with his lofty imagination.
Nek Chand had migrated from the Shakkargarh area of Pakistan during Partition and obtained a government job in the ambitious project of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, one of the modern temples of India of Nehru’s dreams. A nobody in the newly-minted bureaucratic hierarchy of the city, a road-inspector to be precise, he would cycle clandestinely to the place of his choice, a gorge near the Sukhna Lake. There, he filled this imaginary kingdom, which was in fact a PWD warehouse, with the faces and figures drawn from his memory, using waste material. He worked for years under dim light, as though possessed.
The sculpted men and women, birds and animals he made in the dead of night remained hidden from public glare for many years. Once the two-acre, ‘illegally built’ space came to public notice, it mesmerised everyone by the raw beauty of the sculptures and their diverse colours and textures – all created out of waste. The setting for these ‘beings’ was complete; replete with water bodies, trees made on concrete, and channels running through. It was a silent statement, delivered in aesthetic richness, that while the world spent millions of dollars brainstorming over how to treat waste, he just went ahead and did it. Rock Garden was opened to the public in 1976, many more wings were added to it later. Today, it now an area of 12 acres.
The recognition his garden received worsened the short-sightedness of the administration. Dogged by hostile bureaucrats and the indifference of the administration towards the maintenance and extension programmes of the Rock Garden – despite the huge revenue it generates by tourist footfalls – his admirers created the Nek Chand Foundation. It attracts volunteers from across the globe. He was awarded the Grand Medalle de Vermeil in Paris in 1980, an Indian postal stamp commemorated Rock Garden a few years later, and in 1984 he was awarded the Padma Shri.
The city he made his home will remain indebted to him for the unique gift he left for its residents. When a thousand birds twitter in the evening at Rock Garden, they return to the nests they built on the trees planted by Nek Chand. In Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh of exotic trees, birds do not nest. Nek Chand will now rest with the song of the birds.