Nek Chand Saini (1924-2015): King of his kingdom, unaware of his own greatness

Having known and loved him for 30 years, I can say that an inexplicable affection had grown between us.

Chandigarh | Published: June 14, 2015 3:38:15 am
Nek Chand Saini, Padam Shir Nek Chand Saini, india news, city news, national news, nation news, Indian Express Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar pays tribute to Nek Chand in Chandigarh on Saturday. (Source: Express Photo by Jasbir Malhi)

By: Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry

Nek Chand always greeted me cheerfully, but always prefaced it with “Tu Kone Hai?” (Who are you?). This would certainly throw me off-balance as that very morning we would have had breakfast together and fixed a meeting for the evening. This sort of contradiction made him not only endearing, but was also part of his whimsy. Whenever I met him the image that came to mind was of Alice in Wonderland — Always exploring, always curious, waiting for surprises.

Having known and loved him for 30 years, I can say that an inexplicable affection had grown between us and was nurtured over time. I had claimed his amphitheatre as my personal performance space, and it goes to Nek Chand’s generosity and lack of ownership, that he gave me the run of that space, letting me bask in the illusion of belonging. “Tus hi malik ho, Jo jee which aye karo.”( You are the master, do whatever you like.)

Prior to a show, we would move into the Rock Garden days in advance, rehearsing at night, with Nek Chand sitting on a ledge, making himself almost invisible. He would observe the stress of opening night, with its accompanying shenanigans, and quietly support us, providing endless cups of chai.

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What never ceased to amaze me was how a man without a background in architecture or theatre could have created such a technically sound theatre, with its porous rocks providing the perfect acoustics and the stage/audience relationship worked out with mathematical precision.

Performing in the Rock Garden is not easy and I am constantly asked why I don’t move into the more comfortable environment of an air-conditioned auditorium, rather than face the vagaries of the weather, the discomfort of making an audience sit on seats carved out of rock, as well as force them to traverse a cobbled alleyway to reach the performance space. But I always say that theatre is about experience, not comfort.

I am fairly shocked that the Rock Garden, despite bringing huge revenue to the Administration’s coffers, has not been electrified. The expenses involved in setting up a show there are mind-boggling. Despite all these insignificant quibbles, the magic, the alchemy of water, sky and lights, rocks and foliage can’t be replicated anywhere in the world. I cannot even think of an alternative venue as the amphitheatre has become an extension of my working tools.

How does one mourn a friend who is still ‘alive’ in your mind and heart? A self-effacing man, with twinkling eyes who was always happy to feed me and engage with me whenever I visited Garden. He single-handedly transformed the texture, sensibility and aesthetics of the city of Chandigarh by providing us with a starting point, almost a centre through which we can trace and understand the sensibility and temperament of the city. Today, the Rock Garden has become an iconic feature of the city that Le Corbusier built and designed.

I saw him as a revolutionary, an anarchist who actually cocked a snook at the ordered regularity of Chandigarh. I am sure he never saw it this way. But to me the creation of the Rock Garden was a subversive act – carried through by an underground agent, in the middle of the night, far away from family, defying the law and order machinery to create works of art — that would put Chandigarh on the international map. I don’t think this is what he set out to do, but this is the way it became. Devoid of any template to dip into, he created through his unique imagination a world peopled by dancing women, cement monkeys, gorges, artificial waterfalls, animals, birds, flora and fauna, all animated by his profound imagination.

Going to the Rock Garden is a journey, a pilgrimage really – as the walk progresses, one is surprised and overwhelmed by the unexpectedness of the sights and sounds that one is greeted with. A tree with its aerials pointing towards the sky, remind us of something forgotten. Valleys, miniature villages, amphitheatre, a wall made of cement bags that has been douched with water , colonnades with swings, an endless array of ramps, slides and steps, an exhilarating world of movement. Exiting the Rock Garden gives you the sensation of having been through a meta journey – a journey that has changed you, unclogged you. Perhaps even freed you.

Nek Chand had no template before him, no degree in art history, no training in the visual language and no theory to support his overwhelming creations. Nek Chand’s life story has today become part of the folklore of Chandigarh, but to reiterate his story once again would be not only relevant but also inspirational and a reminder.

His humble beginnings from a village that is now in Pakistan, his job as a road inspector, the nocturnal visits conducted under the cover of the night with utmost secrecy, to the governmental dump from where his creation started have now become part of our collective memory. He saw beauty in shards of glass, broken bangles, old sinks and toilet seats… Cups and saucers fused light tubes all fed his imagination and from the broken discarded debris he fashioned figures of immense beauty of ‘high’ aesthetic value. We are also aware how this wonderful island of creativity was in danger of being bulldozed and reduced to rubble by an unimaginative bureaucracy. It was only by the intervention of enlightened citizens that the situation was saved.

One is always scared of making a friend into a hagiographic cut-out, for fear of leeching the flesh and blood that makes a person human. But certain things need to be said. He was not only a wonderful creator of figures and animals, one would be amiss in not acknowledging his immense understanding of ecology and his intuitive relationship with the world of plants. This made him instinctively comprehend how a tree should be planted in relationship to another tree. Decorative trees, medicinal trees, trees that purify the atmosphere – they were all identified, located and planted to create an ecological balance. Birds could sing, nest and breed in the leafy interiors of the trees. While traversing the Rock Garden, you feel as if you have walked for miles, but actually it is encapsulated in a fairly compressed space and it is only due to his architectural genius that he managed to simulate an illusion of immense vastness far beyond its actual dimensions.

While writing this piece, an image from memory kept recurring in my mind. Nek Chand, self effacing, unaware of his own greatness ringing a copper bell to arrange for chai and snacks for us. Sitting in his office surrounded by memorabilia and dust, this man was the king of his kingdom but walked with the common touch.

(The writer is a renowned Chandigarh-based theatre artist)

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