Written by Dr S S BHATTI
“HERE’S MAN at his creative best. There is vision, versatility, creativity, capped by a disarming sense of humility. We in the country and more particularly in Chandigarh are fortunate that such a great one: an artist of tremendous calibre is amidst us. But let’s give him his due, for the sake of art, of life, of beauty, for our own sake!” I wrote these lines in the visitors’ comments register when I visited Nek Chand’s Rock Garden on November 24, 1975.
From 1975 to 1983, I paid many visits to the Rock Garden and held innumerable interviews and discussions with Nek Chand to identify the sources of his inspiration and ideas and the inextinguishable impulse that sustained his uncommon creativity, that had its genesis in 1958. I discovered a strain of perennial nostalgia in his talks that opened many doors to the past, Punjabi life in the rural habitat with its unmatched placid timelessness. This nostalgia was not a romantic reminiscence of life he had himself lived in the village in yesteryears, but an active outburst of folk art that recreated it in palpable emotion, making plants and stones tell tales of India’s priceless rusticity, transcending boundaries of ethnic eccentricities and nasty nationalities. What distinguished this genius was his pristine innocence, unspoilt by urbanism that stirred creativity afresh each morning he came to the garden.
Nek Chand confided that he let go of his work when he returned home and had deep sleep. I asked him quizzically how he could generate new ideas without premeditation or planning. He said his mind did the curious job. When he returned to the garden after a good night’s sleep, he brought with him a new wakefulness which spontaneously threw up concepts when he looked at heaps of urban and industrial waste. While this uncommon experience made him a self-taught, creative artist of enormous potential, it was his awesome daring to do what on impulse he irresistibly felt he ought to do. He used art as a language of global communication – the love that he had infused in his artefacts came to life in the viewers’ hearts when they contemplated his innumerable creations because the power of his love was unsullied by the lust for fame or fortune.
As his gratitude for my divine madness that urged me to create a parallel written language to his artistic creations, in order to reveal and communicate the timeless-universal significance of his work, Nek Chand gifted me innumerable rock forms, cement sculptures, pots and plants which adorned our official residence of Principal of Chandigarh College Architecture for over 14 years. But, on retirement, I had to gift a large number to friends, who valued the art because my 10-marla house in Sector 15 couldn’t accommodate them.
I still have with me some mini sculptures, a rag doll, over two dozen pots…which have since been maintained with tender care by my wife Rita Virdi. Perhaps, the best gift from Nek Chand was for our three daughters when they were not even teenagers. One afternoon, Nek Chand came with his team and set up a full-scale play cottage furnished with dolls and plants and sculptures for them, to give them a grand and pleasant surprise.
In an interview to an American magazine, I had summed up my assessment of Nek Chand Rock Garden as, “His work is as significant as the Taj Mahal. There is nothing of importance in between.”