Each frame has a story, one that 71-year-old Suresh Kumar has preserved in his heart and negatives for years. His desk at the studio Indiano in Sector 17 is filled with files and boxes marked ‘Rock Garden’, as over the last few weeks, Kumar, a photographer by passion and chronicler of Chandigarh in many ways, has been sorting out photographs of Nek Chand at the Rock Garden.
It is a painstaking effort for many reasons, one that were thousands of negatives to sort out, choose from, finish and to frame, but more because each picture of Nek Chand is close to Kumar’s heart, for they not only shared a fantastic work relationship, but a special friendship and bond, that went back years.
As many as 96 rare photographs of Kumar have been showcased as part of a retrospective on Nek Chand at the Phase 3 of the Rock Garden on his second death anniversary, and it’s a rare documentation that Kumar has done, simply out of his love for Rock Garden and its creator. “It will take us days to see all the photographs I have. I think I began in 1973, when it was still a secret space and every time someone entered, there would be drum beating, to warn Nek Chand and the workers that outsiders were approaching,” says Sharma, adding that he would capture every new development in the garden, with many angles not possible now as so much has changed. With no digital cameras then, wide shots were tough to take.
“Many of the photographs here are unseen, and it’s a treasure that Kumar has. We have probably used just 15 per cent of the work here, dividing the showcase into sections, highlighting the making of the Rock Garden in the early days, a phase when Nek Chand worked a lot with cloth, making rag dolls, his portraits in younger days and at work here, wood models et al. For many of us, the showcase would be a chance to go back in time and it is so imperative that we archive and preserve our heritage and not just have a callous approach to conservation,” says Deepika Gandhi, who has curated the showcase.
Many elements that have been captured in these exhibited photographs cannot be seen now, like large, manicured patches of green, brightly coloured glass pieces that adorn the bird creations, use of feathers on human-like sculptures that could not withstand the test of time. “He sourced hair from barbers to use on the sculptures and it created such a real effect. Now these are not part of the garden here,” says Kumar as he takes you through frames which show bears made of discarded bicycles, artworks created out of glass bangle pieces.
Also on display are photographs of natural stones picked by Nek Chand from forests and river banks, which have mythical formations and are open to interpretation. Unique signage in the form of millstones outside the hut and images of its simple interiors, pictures of moulded wilderness to create spaces that retain essence of the place, workers carrying on braving harsh site conditions, creations of the first amphitheatre. A stunning image is of Nek Chand standing here, with the Capitol Complex in the background, as well as in the hut surrounded by musical instruments. Rare aerial photos capture the vastness of the site, and complexity of layout, terraces with lush green grass, tiny boats that once floated on the water channel surrounded by waterfalls.
In another image, the Rock Garden and Capitol Complex, both divergent creations are seen together in a rare photograph. “Pebbles covered his office roof and walls and the small corners from the 1970s that you see in some photographs have been lost to development and expansion. Some images showcase the play of spaces and artistic use of levels,” says Kumar.
A section is devoted to Nek Chand with various dignitaries and officials and at important functions. “One image with singer Reshma was close to his heart, for he missed Pakistan so much,” says Kumar, who recalls how Nek Chand would love to pose on the cloth horses, with one photograph depicting the creator leading a procession of his creations. The last section is the final farewell, with many memories to recount and cherish.