Earth Tales Magazine

Nek Chand’s wonderland

At first glance, Chandigarh neither looks nor feels like an Indian city. Le Corbusier’s strikingly original buildings, as much reviled as admired, give the impression of Western transplants, and the grid layout with arrow-straight criss-crossing roads is too regimented. You can never round a corner and come upon the unexpected, at least not until you step into the enchanted environs of Nek Chand’s Rock Garden.

Here is a fairyland fashioned out of the humblest materials. Like As a sculptor sees a statue in a roadside rock, Nek Chand saw creative possibilities in throwaway items. While going on his rounds as a road inspector, he picked up broken tiles, bricks, pipes, hoses, bathroom accessories, discarded pottery and jewellery, dented pots and pans, oil drums, bicycle and car parts, glass, feathers, and human hair from barber shops, all the detritus from the small towns and villages that were bulldozed to make way for the building of Chandigarh. In addition, he secretly transported strange rock formations from the Himalayan foothills by bicycle, and dumped them in a jungle gorge, and learnt how to use cement by watching Le Corbusier. Every night for 18 years he would visit his hideout and work on his hoard by the light of burning tar, till in 1975 officials came upon it fashioned into 2,000 statuettes of elephants, bears, horses, monkeys, birds and humans — an entire world in itself. Initially, he was threatened with imprisonment for stealing 12 acres of land, but eventually it was gifted to him with additional space and the services of 50 labourers to create his wonder world of waste.

One enters through a low archway tiled with mosaic in pink, yellow and blue and discovers a labyrinthine cobbled pathway lined with tin drums, matkas, and discarded electrical fittings embedded into cement walls. It opens out onto a small amphitheatre with a stage and seats cut into the hillside, for this is not just a rock garden but a mini-city built into the natural contours of the gorge.

Village belles with matkas on their heads stand beneath waterfalls topped with small temples, and shady trees loom overhead, their huge knotted roots exposed at eye level. Multiple bridges span rivulets, buffaloes wallow in a pond and women rest by the roadside their water pots beside them, every fold in their saris clearly etched with ridged tiles. Elsewhere, a feast is in progress with dancers, drummers and pipers. A man pours drinks from a wine bottle while his neighbour quaffs from a glass, and a scruffy–looking waiter wearing a chipped bowl upside down on his head offers tea in a dented kettle on a broken wooden slat serving as a tray.

Schoolboys, uniformed in brown shorts and shirts of white mosaic tiles, are lined up performing some kind of drill, stick figures dance in a meadow, and there are martial activities too. A soldier wearing a tin helmet salutes smartly, and another rides the cutest horse you ever saw, covered in white, blue, tan and pink tiling with rein and bridle made of white pebbles to match the soldier’s uniform. Elsewhere ranks of soldiers of another age dressed in blue and white tiles resembling body armour relax in a parade ground with a huge horse (The Trojan Horse perhaps?) in their midst.

The Rock Garden is a place of magical transformations where a broken bathtub becomes a swimming pool, a toilet bowl is a pond bordered with flowers, inner tubes of tyres and cycle wheels are arms and legs, and a space station, or it could be an alien spaceship, is made from dismembered bicycles. There is a launching pad, spiky antennae point skywards at odd angles, and rockets appear ready for take-off. Since there are no captions, the viewer’s imagination is free to fill in the blanks and join the dots, a fun-filled exercise.

Entire walls are embedded with vividly-coloured broken Chinaware and elegant ladies wear full-length gowns made of broken bangles. Bangles are used again to create a stunning gallery of peacocks, pink and blue, green and gold, purple and orange, gorgeous to behold as the sunlight glints on their iridescent ‘feathers’. There are crows, sparrows and geese too; and menageries of monkeys, elephants, bears and exotic animals. On an elevation stands an entire temple complex, only its spires and domes visible.

No amount of description can do justice to Nek Chand’s inventiveness or the sheer fecundity of his imagination. He is whimsical, playful and witty, but the sombre note is not entirely absent. A totemic tribal head with huge jade-green eyes stares hypnotically at the viewer, a three-headed woman has the body of a penguin, and women with mournful, hooded eyes swathed in dark brown clothing sit in a field, their torsos curved in ranks of brooding arcs. These mysterious, surreal figures are neither surprising nor out of place considering that its creator first saw his garden envisioned in a dream that became a magnificent obsession. In the process, this man of humble origin who never saw the inside of an art school has left us with the world’s largest single repository of folk art.

Honoured with the Padma Shri and accolades from the US and many European countries, here his success inevitably aroused jealousy. He has fought court cases to retain his land and, returning from a lecture tour, was horrified to find his figurines vandalised.

Critics, unable to fit this one-man genre into any known category, have called it Outsider Art, but he insisted that he was not an artist, since his work was never meant for public viewing. ‘I did it only for my own pleasure’, he said. Today the Nek Chand Garden is the most popular tourist site in India after the Taj, drawing an average of 5,000 visitors a day, and standing as a monument to the dedication of the man who created it.

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 11:23:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/Nek-Chand%E2%80%99s-wonderland/article11642223.ece

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