Nek Chand Saini is an Indian self-taught artist, famous for building the Rock Garden of Chandigarh, a forty-acre sculpture garden in the city of Chandigarh, India. His family moved to Chandigarh in 1947 during the Partition. At the time, the city was being redesigned as a modern utopia by the Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier. It was to be the first planned city in India, and Nek Chand found work there as a roads inspector for the Public Works Department in 1951.
One day 36 years ago, Nek Chand, a humble transport official in the north Indian city of Chandigarh, began to clear a little patch of jungle to make himself a small garden area. He set stones around the little clearing and before long had sculpted a few figures recycled from materials he found at hand. Gradually Nek Chand’s creation developed and grew; before long it covered several acres and comprised of hundreds of sculptures set in a series of interlinking courtyards.
After his normal working day Chand worked at night, in total secrecy for fear of being discovered by the authorities.When they did discover Chand’s garden, local government officials were thrown into turmoil. The creation was completely illegal - a development in a forbidden area which by rights should be demolished. The outcome, however, was the enlightened decision to give Nek Chand a salary so that he could concentrate full-time on his work, plus a workforce of fifty labourers. Nek Chand’s great work received immediate recognition and was inaugurated as The Rock Garden of Chandigarh.
Now over twenty five acres of several thousand sculptures set in large mosaic courtyards linked by walled paths and deep gorges, Nek Chand’s creation also combines huge buildings with a series of interlinking waterfalls. The Rock Garden is now acknowledged as one of the modern wonders of the world. Over 5000 visitors each day, some 12 million people so far, walk around this vast creation - the greatest artistic achievement seen in India since the Taj Mahal.
About Nek Chand:
Nek Chand Saini, born in 1924 in a family of Landlords in Berian-Kalan,( now in Pakistan) located ninety km to north of Lahore. Did his Matriculation from Lahore University. In August of 1947, at the age of 23, when India was partitioned he left his native village with his family to come to ‘Indian side’, where he settled in Gurdaspur. In 1949, he joined the Highway Department as a part of Refugee Employment Programme and lived in Panipat and Faridabad, Haryana. In 1950, he got married to Kamla from Delhi. He has two children, daughter, Neelam and son, Anuj.
The Genesis Phase Of Rock Garden:
In 1951, Nek Chand was appointed as a Road Inspector with Chandigarh Public Works Department. In the early fifties, he supervised the construction of roads in Chandigarh.
The Artist in him discovered in the building and Industrial waste, novel resources for his creativity. On every holiday, he ignored his domestic liabilities - instead of spending time with family, he would bicycle to river beds, mountains, jungles and search for his ‘treasure’.
At his official site, he had a small PWD store to store material. He used this enclosure as a workshop and would work day and night to transform his precious diamonds into living sculptures. Every evening after his office hours, he would work in his store and make sculptures or some landscape. The wild animals, insects, snakes, mosquitoes couldn’t stop this determined artist to transform his creativity and ideas into reality.
No body, least of all Nek Chand himself, knew what was evolving. Nek Chand was creating his own Kingdom being unaware/unbothered about what was evolving and what wiould happen to it in future. He was busy in pumping life into every single creation. He kept on working like this for 20 years.
Most likely Nek Chand is the first person in India, who demonstrated the concept of reuse and recycle and artificial waterfalls.He put value to the different type of waste materials such as rusted oil drums, discarded lights, broken/used building material, tiles, sanitary wares, glass bangles etc, most of which would be discarded and thrown by a common man and he transformed them into living sculptures through his vision and art.
Nek Chand never dreamed of making a public place. He was playing with his collection like a child, making his fantasy ‘Devtaon ki Ngri’(Kingdom of Gods and Goddess). For him his creation was just play. He knew that whenever found out by the administration, his store would be eventually demolished and he was ok with this thought much like most of the children making sand castles at beach.
Recognition And Inauguration Of The Garden Story:
After 20 years of shear hard work, the glare of dawn really shone on him because of some supportive team of bureaucrats. After the construction of the Lake road (name of the road), the PWD store was supposed to be destroyed as the process of jungle clearing and then the administration discovered this so called “Store Garden”.
Dr. M.N. Sharma, first Chief Architect of Chandigarh was amazed at this creation. He liked the ambience so much that instead of ordering its demolition, which he could; he started visiting the place regularly. In a Raw Vision article, Sharma wrote that he didn’t have the heart to go by the rules and advised Nek Chand to continue his work.
Dr. M.S. Randhawa, first Chief Commissioner of Chandigarh, also found out about this Store.
Dr Randhawa who was himself a biologist and anthropologist recognized the traces of prehistoric life in Nek Chand’s collections (of fossils) and he being Chairman of the Landscape Committee of Chandigarh Administration, opened a new file and directed that there should be a unique garden called ‘Nek Chand Garden’ at that site.
In 1976, Chief Engineer Kulbir Singh inaugurated the Rock Garden for general public.In the same year, Sh. T. N. Chaturvedi, then chief commissioner of Chandigarh decorated Nek Chand with his first award, which was a cash award of Rs. 5000/- and a certificate. He also suggested that Nek Chand be ‘released’ from other ‘mundane duties’ to devote his entire time to Rock Garden. The Rock Garden became immensely popular during the 1980’s with Nek Chand receiving the Padam Shri in 1983 and a sculpture appearing on an Indian postage stamp. During this period Nek Chand also began receiving attention from outside of India and was awarded the Grande Médaille de Vermeil in Paris in 1980, following an exhibition in Paris.
After a visit to the Rock Garden by Ann Lewin, the Director of the Children’s Museum Washington DC, Nek Chand was requested to construct a garden at the museum in Washington. Nek Chand accepted the commission and work started in 1986 with sculptures exported from India (Crosbie 1986).
Nek Chand received a lot of support from the then Governor of Punjab S. S. Rai. During his tenure Nek chand was given the designation of ‘Creator Director’ of the Rock Garden in 1988.
-by Roohi Kalia Ralhan
(with inputs from Nek Chand and his family)