Nek Chand Saini, who died on June 12, will be remembered for humanising the city of Chandigarh. It was designed by a town-planner cum architect who was usually bereft of commissions for his rather drastic commitment to modernist principles that insisted on homogenising and removing individuality. Nehruvian India had hired this architect, Le Corbusier, because he was the cheapest available then.
It needed a large number of people to build Chandigarh. Nek Chand was one of them. Forcibly displaced from his home in Lahore district of present-day Pakistan because of Partition, he found work as a roads inspector with the public works department of Punjab. A few years later, he was assigned to be part of the team that managed the yard where the PWD stored its material. Here, inside a small ravine, Nek Chand built for himself a single room hut and began to potter about with things.
Broken pieces of electrical fittings, sanitary-ware, waste from the smelters, empty drums of coal tar, pieces of wood and wire, cemented this way and that, covered with broken pieces of glass bangles and other things, began to take life in his hands. Some were shaped into birds and animals, some into men and women, some designed as trees. He began to arrange them in the form of a display in the undulating ravine where he now spent his spare time. These rather rough pieces of art were, for him, of transitory value, destined for destruction at the slightest change of circumstance — much like the sand castles children make. Soon he ran out of waste material that was coming to
the yard on its own. Now he began to scout the city for construction waste and built more of his creations. In the two decades that followed, he had made thousands of images and figures and arranged them in groups spread over 5 hectares. There was even a small water feature with a waterfall and a stream.
Meanwhile, Chandigarh, as it was taking shape, caused much consternation among its first-generation inhabitants. Much like Nek Chand, they had been forced by circumstances to come to Chandigarh. No one seemed to like it at that time. The most galling was the drastic departure of the layout of the new city and its buildings from traditional Indian towns. In a traditional town, everyone was within hailing distance, people constantly chatted with everyone else. In Chandigarh, anonymity and privacy were built into the design.
Imposing grey concrete buildings were coming up in public spaces. Broad roads, which would take five decades to fill up with enough traffic, were criss-crossing the city in almost straight lines. Only the blank back walls of houses were visible to a passerby, since that alone was allowed in Chandigarh. Mostly, houses were built to a uniform design where even the breadth of a staircase and the height of a room was determined by the government. Such was the resistance that the first generation of its residents had to the new city that they were willing to dislike almost everything about it. Then, they discovered Nek Chand. It was almost as if something humane had been found in this town without a soul.
The credit for discovering Nek Chand goes to M.N. Sharma, who was part of the team of architects that helped Corbusier in his Chandigarh project. Sharma, by now, had become the city’s chief architect. The architects, too, were aware of the criticism that people heaped on Corbusier’s town. On discovering Nek Chand’s garden of images, Sharma noticed that he had put the final touch to Corbusier’s designs. Sharma refused to have Nek Chand’s images cleared out for the purpose of restoring the ravine to its designated use as a “forest buffer”. The administrators of the city concurred with Sharma’s judgement. They provided Nek Chand with much-needed freedom, some monies and manpower, to carry on with his creative work.
Nek Chand’s garden now came to be known as “Rock Garden”. Situated close to Sukhna Lake, Rock Garden became a place where citizens could come and wonder at the creativity of a self-taught artist and the diverse uses to which waste could be put to. The most important thing about Nek Chand’s Rock Garden was that there was no artistic artifice to it. Many an artist in Punjab took inspiration from Nek Chand and was persuaded to create art that was accessible to people.
Not that everyone appreciated the humongous repetitiveness of Nek Chand’s simple images. In fact, some took such offence that, in the 1980s, they even tried to have the entire place demolished. They were, however, stopped in their tracks by a public that by now adored Nek Chand and thought of his Rock Garden as being part of the quintessential character of their, the people’s, Chandigarh.
Through the 1990s, Nek Chand and his Rock Garden came to signify the people’s struggle with what seemed to be an uncaring administration for control over public spaces. The amphitheatre at Rock Garden became the venue for many a play. In line with the idea of making art accessible to the public, well-known Chandigarh-based theatre artiste Neelam Mansingh kept the entry free for her productions that were performed there, only demanding that people not use their cell phones while the performance was on. Nek Chand would often be seen sitting in the audience.
By this time, admirers of Nek Chand from abroad had begun to take an interest in the affairs of Rock Garden. Awards were bestowed upon him by the French government, by city governments in America and he was invited to make similar creations for their people. The foreign imprimatur has always played a large role in encouraging Indians to recognise something as important. A programme was started for volunteers to come and help in the upkeep of Rock Garden. As far as the city of Chandigarh was concerned, Nek Chand had managed
to create one of the first opportunities to involve people in the upkeep of a public space. Nek Chand, one could say, played an important role in linking the city of Chandigarh to its people.
The writer, professor of history at Panjab University, Chandigarh, is co-author of ‘Chandigarh Lifescape: Brief Social History of a Planned City’