It’s ironic that in a city famous the world over for its planned and regulated development, its biggest attraction was totally unplanned. Nearly 40 years after it was formally inaugurated, Nek Chand Saini’s Rock Garden is still the most popular tourist destination in Chandigarh.
While Le Corbusier and his team fashioned what is described as a Mecca for students of architecture, Nek Chand, who had no degrees to flaunt after his matriculation, created a wonderland from rocks and the waste that was discarded as the new city was being built.
An unassuming and soft-spoken man from a small town in Punjab, Nek Chand was appointed as a road inspector by the Punjab government in 1951. He was transferred to Chandigarh a few years later and was made in-charge of a store and dumpyard near the Capitol Complex, which comprised of the Secretariat, the Assembly building and the High Court.
It was there that Nek Chand began to visualise art forms in the broken pieces of porcelain, tiles, crockery, wash basins, commodes and almost everything else that was being dumped as the city was built.
Unknown to his superiors, he set up a small thatched hut within the compound of the yard. And, during several interactions over more than three decades, he narrated the struggle that went into making what he called his “kingdom”.
For instance, he used to collect rocks for the garden from nearby rivulets and transport them to the site on his bicycle – single-handedly.
His hut, which still exists and where he used to spend considerable time until recently, was his abode and meditation centre. For company, he often had snakes and monkeys.
“The fire I used to light to work at night also attracted insects and I got bitten several times,” Nek Chand, called “bauji” by friends and workers there, recalled once.
Watch video of Nek Chand’s funeral procession in Chandigarh:
And yet, all this effort almost came to nought decades ago, when some senior officials stumbled upon this developing “township” of figures made out of waste. They reported the matter to their seniors who in turn, declared it illegal and ordered its demolition.
But fortunately, by then, a few art lovers – IAS officers, artists, professionals and media persons — had also discovered the site located between the Capitol Complex and the Sukhna lake. They met the then Chief Commissioner M S Randhawa, himself a connoisseur of art, and convinced him to pay a visit to the site.
Subsequently, Randhawa declared that the site should be preserved even though it violated all rules in the book – the park was formally inaugurated in 1976.
READ: The Waste Maker
However, over the years, Nek Chand’s desire to expand his creation met with resistance. At one stage, a part of the retaining wall of the Rock Garden was sought to be demolished to pave the way for a new road to the High Court.
But an association, called ‘Lovers of Rock Garden’, joined hands to protest the order, which was subsequently cancelled.
By now, Nek Chand’s fame had spread far and wide. He received invitations to create miniature rock gardens in the US and some European countries. He was feted by art lovers from across the world, and his creations were put on display in museums abroad.
In fact, starting later this month, an exhibition of 40 of his figurative mosaic sculptures are slated to be put on display for the first time in the UK — in London and at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester (West Sussex).
Nek Chand was conferred with the Padma Shri in 1984 and given the honorary lifetime rank of Secretary. Subsequently, he was made lifetime director of the Rock Garden, now spread over 25 acres, which was also named after him.
Yet, he remained remarkably humble as he interacted with visitors, particularly children, to explain some of his creations and the material used.
Despite his age and failing health, he was keen on completing the third part of the Rock Garden and bring about some structural changes.
“Mein chha peen areya haan (I’m coming over for a cup of tea),” he would tell me over the phone and arrive sitting next to the driver in a truck meant to collect the waste that was so precious for his creations.
At my home, a miniature doll and a life-sized concrete chowkidar, presented by him nearly three decades ago when my reporting in The Indian Express contributed to saving part of the Rock Garden from demolition, remain the centre of attraction. I cherish them just as I do my numerous interactions with their creator.