A universe from nothing

When Nek Chand passed away a few days ago, a pall of sadness descended upon the city to which he had left a great gift: a piece of his poetic imagination.

Written by B.N. Goswamy | Updated: June 22, 2015 5:26 am
Nek Chand, Rock Garden, Nek Chand Rock Garden, Rock Garden Chandigarh, nek chand news, indian express columns This is what it was: a “kingdom” of his dreams that Nek Chand, then a lowly road inspector, had been building on his own. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

Two objects among the thousands that I, over the years, have seen strewn about, built, arranged, bent out of or into shape, in the meandering “domain” of Nek Chand stand out in my memory. One is from a period long before that domain was “officialised”, and named the Rock Garden of Chandigarh. This was a sturdy structure, brought in from who knows where, that stood in the midst of a small, sparsely tiled courtyard: two leaning shafts of timber joined by an iron rail on which was positioned a rusting pulley covered with coils of rope, one frayed end of which hung loose.

The whole contraption-a common sight in the countryside, a device for drawing water manually from a well-was positioned on a platform at the heart of which was a circular opening, like the mouth of a real well, except that there was not a drop of water in it. I was a bit taken aback at the sight, for somehow it did not fit in in the ground that I had traversed to get to the spot: a spread-out meadow of green grass, a field of cinder, hedges made up of upturned clay pots, beds in which broken pieces of electric fittings had been arranged to look like flowering bushes.

I was, together with a couple of friends, in the company of Nek Chand himself and, unable to resist, I turned to ask him what this structure was doing in that place. Completely at ease with the question, and looking me straight in the eye, he said in his low, quiet voice: “I can bring anything into this kingdom of mine, can’t I? And where else will I get water from if I were to wake up in the middle of the night?”

This is what it was: a “kingdom” of his dreams that Nek Chand, then a lowly road inspector, had been building on his
own, completely unauthorised, on sarkari land, shielded from sight by a wall of muddied coal tar drums that stood like a rampart all around it. Only a few privileged ones were allowed to enter the space, and that too by following a strict code of knocking on one specific drum with a stick for someone inside to swing it open like a door. But that was a long time ago.

So much has happened since. The Rock Garden was recognised and embraced by the administration and over time became one of the chief attractions of Chandigarh, an internationally known and celebrated creation, standing there like a wild space flailing its arms, defying the rigid geometry of Le Corbusier’s planned city. Reams have been written on the Rock Garden; dissertation after learned dissertation has had it as its theme. Streams of people come visiting and go back filled with wonder.

And, as if by some preordained edict, nearly everyone knows, by word of mouth to be sure, that it is the creation of a simple man of humble beginnings who came from a little village now in Pakistan, and used to go around on his bicycle collecting waste materials — lumps of cinder, broken glass bangles, discarded shards of ceramics, chipped pots — and then turning them into objects of fancy and placing them in the midst of enormous rocks rolled into
or transported to this illegally occupied space. There is something endearing about the thought of such a man having become a celebrity across continents, loaded with honours, unable to take up each offered commission, even, in fact, to answer each invitation. It is this man, visitors used to point out silently to one another when they happened to catch sight of him working with his hands, who created this. Out of nothing.

Few know that it was not easy for Nek Chand. All the honours and accolades were punctuated, at least in the early years, by periods when he had to suffer his share of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. A cloud hung over his creation for years, since it was all unauthorised. Even after it was officially recognised, some struggles continued, some battles remained to be fought, plain jealousies had to be contended with. But — and this is the
measure of the man — he always remained himself: self-effacing, humble to the core, and ceaselessly working.

The words you heard from him more often than not, when you asked him for something, were simple Punjabi affirmatives: “haan ji”, “kyun nahin ji?”, “hukum karo ji”. Nobody would know for long periods what he was doing behind screened off spaces and then one day, suddenly, one could be ushered into grounds where, as if by magic, artificially made waterfalls had appeared, swings were lowered from great heights, rickety bridges had been thrown across channels of water, an open-air theatre had sprung into being, rows upon rows of monkeys and bears and village lasses and cranes fashioned out of broken pieces of tile stood on slopes standing on guard.

Someone wrote after spending time with him that “what remains in [the] 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”. When Nek Chand passed away a few days ago, a pall of sadness descended upon the city to which he had left a great gift: a piece of his poetic imagination.

To its credit, the Chandigarh Administration rose to the occasion and paid him a rare tribute in the form of a state funeral, even declaring a public holiday to mark the day. He had received a Padma Shri from the president many years ago and, learning of this, somebody wrote that this honour was the equivalent of a knighthood. So, for all practical purposes, he was “Sir Nek Chand”, and that is how he left this world.

Afterword: I had almost forgotten the second object that I spoke about at the beginning as having been a part of my memory. It is that amazing sculptural creation quite close to the open air theatre in the garden: strings of rope-like, coiling, twisting, cemented “tubes” that hang down endlessly from above like aerial roots. A memory perhaps of a banyan tree left behind in a village in Pakistan a long time ago?

The writer is professor emeritus of art history at Panjab University, Chandigarh

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