An Indian artist who created the Rock Garden of Chandigarh, a visionary landscape of sculpture and architecture.
Nek Chand, who has died aged 90, was the creator of the extraordinary Rock Garden of Chandigarh, a 25-acre environment in northern India that contains more than 2,000 statues. A combination of sculpture, architecture and visionary landscape, the garden takes the form of a series of chambers and courtyards, with winding walkways suddenly opening out to large vistas and high waterfalls.
Having embarked on a mission to turn waste into beauty, Chand used broken crockery, iron foundry clinker, electric plug moulds, fluorescent tubes, bicycle frames, bottles, glass bangles, shells, cooking pots and smashed up bathroom fittings to create his wonderland.
His figures of queens and courtiers, beggars and ministers, schoolchildren, revellers and dancers, monkeys, elephants and camels are set in different chambers linked by low arches and covered in mosaic. There are also hundreds of strange-shaped rocks installed in meandering lanes, two huge waterfalls, deep gorges, rushing streams, a model Punjabi village, an amphitheatre and a colonnade of giant swings. More than 5,000 visitors a day cram the pathways and dramatic gorges.
Chand began his vast creation in secrecy. From 1952 he was working as a roads inspector as part of Le Corbusier’s huge construction project of Chandigarh, the new capital of the half of Punjab remaining in independent India after partition in 1947. Outside that work, however, he had begun to build his clandestine garden in a forest clearing in 1958. Hardly anyone knew about it until, after 15 years, it was discovered by the city authorities. He was potentially in serious trouble: he had been building illegally on city land in an area under strict control, and he was a city employee to boot.
For a while his creation was under threat of destruction, but eventually enough support was garnered for it to be saved, and it was officially inaugurated in 1976 under city control. Chand was relieved of his duties as a roads inspector, given a salary to direct the project full time, and was provided with 50 labourers to take it into new realms.
His use of waste materials rocketed, and collection centres were set up around the city to provide what he needed. He started to make larger statues with the help of assistants, bringing untrained labourers up to the standard of skilled craftsmen. A pumping station and waterfalls were constructed, and Chand made use of the building methods he had observed when working under Le Corbusier, especially shuttering to form reinforced concrete.
His work appeared on a postage stamp in 1982, and he was honoured with a Padma Shri award in 1984 by the Indian government for his contribution to the arts. He was invited to exhibit his work in Paris and Berlin, and in 1986 spent six months in Washington making sculptures at the National Children’s Museum.
However, as Chand’s fame spread so did jealousy of his elevated status and even though the city authorities were collecting and keeping the garden’s entrance money, funding for the completion of his great vision dried up in the late 1980s. Starved of resources, the garden was left to a skeleton staff and things gradually ground to a halt. There followed a period of neglect – and even hostility – from the city authorities, who at one point attempted to build a road through the garden, only to be halted by popular protest.
While he was on a visit to his exhibitions in the US in 1996, his few remaining staff were taken away, leaving the garden unattended. As a result, vandals damaged many of the sculptures. Eventually Chand’s international admirers formed the Nek Chand Foundation and sent volunteers to work at the garden. The attraction is now as popular as it has ever been.
His vision for the garden appeared to emerge when he was a child. Born into a Hindu farming family in a rural village in the Shakargarh region of the Punjab in British India, he was entranced by his mother’s tales of kings and queens in a beautiful kingdom, and he would play in the local forests, making model buildings by the river bed. He made his first sculptures from broken bangles he had collected on the ground in a market.
Chand was the first person in his village to go to high school, and after studies in Lahore returned to work on the family farm, where he built huge scarecrows out of cloth and rag. But his peaceful existence received an almighty jolt with partition, when sectarian violence forced his family to leave the ancestral home. They trekked in a refugee column for three weeks before finding safety, and Chand eventually found employment in Chandigarh, supervising road construction.
After the trauma of partition he felt an extra need not only to express himself but to rebuild his childhood experience, and it is no coincidence that the early parts of his garden resembled the streets of a Punjabi village. The sheer scale and complexity of his creativity was astounding.
In more recent years his work was shown at exhibitions in Lausanne (Collection de l’Art Brut, 2005), Paris (Halle Saint Pierre, 2006) and London (Hayward Gallery, 2013), and his sculptures are held by museums around the world. A retrospective of almost 50 of his works is on display until 25 October at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex.
He is survived by his wife, Kamla, son, Anuj, daughter, Neelam, and four grandchildren.
Nek Chand Saini, artist, born 15 December 1924; died 11 June 2015.
Souce: The Guardian