This piece first appeared in The Hindu.
I arrive at the Rock Garden on a hot, sultry evening shortly after Nek Chand’s demise. His death has been closely and eerily followed by Le Corbusier’s and has expedited my forever pending trip to Chandigarh. And I do not seem to be the only one: the place is swarming with people of all shapes and sizes, age and gender; the spacious parking lot is full, and the queue in front of the ticket booth serpentine.
The Rock Garden looks ordinary from outside. It has high, cemented boundary walls and a low, narrow gate to get inside. The only unusual thing I spot is a row of geese sitting atop the boundary, dressed in pieces of ceramic.
All the pictures I have ever seen of the Rock Garden have given me an impression of a wide-open space with the famous cement figures jutting out of concrete floor. Since someone had once told me there was landscaping and a waterfall too, I had imagined those to be a part of the background. Presently I can neither see the statuettes, nor any open space: the low, arched gate has led me into a winding alley whose walls seem to be closing in on me: it is so narrow that only one person can walk through it at a time. Expecting to find a waterfall here seems out of the question.
I walk through the alley and reach a small juncture with a little pond to the left and a walkway to the right. A young couple clicks selfies by the pond and the steady stream of visitors duck their heads to walk through the walkway. Adjacent to the walkway is a tiny room; with low ceiling and dark interior, it looks more like the mouth of a cave. A signboard tells me this is the room where Nek Chand had begun the creation of the Rock Garden back in 1958.
The story of how Rock Garden came about is a legend in its own right.
Shortly after independence, with Lahore moving to Pakistan, Punjab needed a new capital. Nehru, it is believed, wanted a to create a city that would be India’s answer to the modern capital cities of the west and handed over this responsibility to the renowned French-Swiss architect, Le Corbusier. Well known for his designs and symmetry, Corbusier created an architectural masterpiece with perfect squares and boulevards, distinct residential and business districts; iconic office complexes, lakes, parks, marketplaces, and, decorated it with lots and lots of greenery. This city was called Chandigarh.
Alongside the construction of the modern marvel of Corbusier, another story was unfolding. While the famous French architect was painstakingly creating Nehru’s dream city, a humble Pakistan born Indian man called Nek Chand was busy giving shape to a world of his own, right in the backyard of Corbusier’s perfectly planned township.
Nek Chand, who worked as a road inspector with the Public Works Department, had witnessed the destruction of scores of villages to make space for the city. He had also noticed the waste that came with the destruction: broken roofs, tiles, cement bags, pipes, stones, wires, metal sheets, drums, ceramic switches, pottery and a lot more. Nek Chand, who had been fond of modeling and remodeling since his childhood, secretly started gathering all the waste material on a piece of unused land and toying with it in the dead of the night. His game of hide and seek went on for about eighteen years, until the site was accidently discovered.
The barren piece of land had, by now, been transformed into a work of art, although the authorities did not think so. They were outraged by a humble road inspector’s audacity to use government land, and threatened to raze his creation to ground. Thankfully better sense prevailed. This piece of land went on to become one of the biggest icons of Chandigarh and Nek Chand’s story a tale of the legend. Which, after his death, seems to have become popular once again.
I follow the visitors through a long, narrow tunnel and arrive at a landing. I can hardly believe what I see next. Two large waterfalls stand right in front of me facing each other. They are rocky, they are high, and they look inaccessible, and yet hoards of people stand in and around the water squealing with joy, like children who have discovered a hidden treasure. Some not-so-enthusiastic ones meanwhile can be seen sitting on the stairs of an amphitheatre like space adjacent to the falls gazing at the deep grey abstract murals.
If there is a pattern to the Rock Garden, it is in its haphazardness: none of the walkways is straight, or broad, or levelled; no two spaces look similar, and you don’t know what to expect next. There are fort like high walls made up of cement sacks, there are low boundaries created with upturned clay pots and electrical fuses, there are arterial root like structures made with hosepipes, there are steep staircases made with pebbles; there are also waterfalls, tunnels, ponds, wells, hutments, canals, caves, and everything is carved out of some sort of waste.
After having witnessed the furor and excitement at the waterfall, I walk through a rocky cave with a pebbly floor next. Ahead of me is a Bengali family along with the grandmother in her eighties unperturbed by the steep stairs and the slippery stones beneath her feet, behind me is a Sikh family with noisy toddlers; along with me are boys from IIM, girls from a local college, and a young swooning couple holding hands and giggling from time to time. The Rock Garden, whose name is an oxymoron in itself, is clearly a place for everyone.
The rocky cave leads to another narrow clearing with a high cliff. On top of the cliff are models of big and small houses, wells and a temple. The cliff is made of cinder and the houses with discarded roof tiles and stones. The set up, engulfed in silence unlike the noisy waterfall, looks like a cluster of homes in a village. Most of Nek Chand’s work, in fact, is believed to have been modelled after the memories of his village in pre-partitioned Punjab.
With ponds, wells, hutments, temples, narrow lanes, uneven surfaces, and arched doors the place indeed recreates an interesting ecology; the cliffs and waterfalls only add to the drama, but my eyes are looking for Nek Chand’s trademark statuettes.
The statuettes, which are made of cement and adorned with broken bangles, or pieces of ceramic cups and saucers, have been the face of Chandigarh and Nek Chand as far as an outsider is concerned, and I am no exception. I had come here looking for them, hours later I have yet to lay my eyes on them. I can now spot exit signs and wonder if I have missed a crucial turn and with it the figurines. When I ask, I am directed towards the exit again. Wondering what the matter could be, I arrive in another part of the rock garden totally different from what I have seen until now.
If the first part of the Rock Garden was a disorganized village with unrelated parts of ecology coming together, this part is order and symmetry personified. Considered as phase one of the 25-acre complex, this is also where I finally come face to face with his famous statuettes. Contrary to my imagination, they are neither jutting out of a large flat surface, nor have waterfalls in the background. Instead, they stand elegantly on flat inclined surfaces on either side of a broad lane with barren walls behind them.
On one platform I see a cluster of young boys in half-pants and bush shirts, standing in orderly files like students awaiting their P.T teacher’s command to march ahead, on another is a group of men squatting on the floor, smoking chillams and hukkahs. There are more men and boys around: a band party with drums, trumpets, tambourines and dancers; a group of revelers with food and beer, priests with dhotis and turbans, and qawwals with caps, they are dressed in terracotta, broken tiles, glass bangles, cups and saucers; some are wearing inverted bowls as caps, some have pointed hats made up of pebbles.
Just when I am getting a little tired of the male dominance, I spot a platform full of women covered in stones, their children attached to their sides – a metaphor I can totally relate to as a mother. On another platform I spot a happy groups of girls in skirts dancing gracefully, perhaps to the music that the men from the band party on the opposite platform are playing.
But not everyone seems happy here: a few yards away from the motley group are hundreds of men and women looking dejected. They stand listlessly staring into nothingness. Some are dressed in deep grey concrete, some covered with light grey cement; some stand in attention, while some have drooping shoulders and bent backs. Their faces are expressionless and their eyes blank. Some of them look lonely, some scary, and some very, very sad; together they seem to be mourning their creator, Nek Chand.