The secret garden

Heritage

The secret garden

 The rock garden as most remember it.

He was a road inspector in Chandigarh, the city that represented the Nehruvian utopia in concrete. But he took a road less travelled by others. As Chandigarh rose out of forests and farmlands, humble genius Nek Chand Saini’s Rock Garden took shape stealthily, away from the public gaze, out of the rubble the city was rubbishing. He lived a double life — functionary by day and visionary by night — for quite some years. Building the roads leading to Le Corbusier’s capital during the day, he would peddle up to the site of what later came to be known as ‘Rock Garden’, a fantasy land that gives Chandigarh a pride of place.

Collecting every odd stone from the bed of the Ghaggar river, he would conceive a place for each of them. He would await trucks to offload the debris and disappear in the swirling dust to pick up choicest pieces of discarded pottery, sanitary ware, electric wires, handlebars and wheels of bicycles, bottles, and concrete. A reading of the city’s plan had guaranteed him a niche behind the PWD store at the edge of the expanding city. A small kutia (hovel) became his studio.

Years went by. Nek Chand Saini kept weaving his fantasy into concrete on the flat land. Rows of columns of upturned mud pots, rough hewn rocks and cinders went into creating statuaries of Gods, armies of mythical wars, drummers, dancers, village belles and what not. When taken on a trip to the secret paradise on a Sunday afternoon, the chief architect of Chandigarh administration (MN Sharma) had no heart to order a halt to the clandestine activity that seriously questioned modernity of the rising city. 

Though Nek Chand and Chandigarh shared the divinity represented by Chandi, the presiding deity of the ancient Chandi temple, the city and the Rock Garden had nothing in common.

The garden overturns the very conceptual tools employed by architects of Chandigarh that is linear, modular, symmetrical and flat basrelief. Nek Chand’s Rock Garden challenged the order held sacrosanct by modernism. It was curvilinear, labyrinthine, and high relief with hollows and projections represented by the rocks and the caves on a land that was invested with undulating characteristics on purpose. 

Nearly five decades later, the Rock Garden almost neared its completion and has come to be held iconic of Chandigarh. Not only this. Nek Chand has been commissioned for constructing its replicas in Berlin, Washington and Wisconsin (and latest to be taken up in Mysore). The first phase consisting of mainly nature-sculpted stones represents the raw emotion that witness the kingdom coming into being.

Says Nek Chand, “Every single stone here speaks (har patthar bolta hai). They are like living beings.” Cascading water and gurgling streams create great visual as well as aural impact. Thanks to a closed-circuit hydraulic system by him, these falls flow perennially, even during the torrid summer of Chandigarh. Nek Chand thought of water very early in the project and collected rainwater from an area where summer is long. He collected the water in a large vat, filtered in a purification plant and reused. Luxuriant vegetation also freshens the air. He has thus shown a pronounced taste for experimentation with an intuitive awareness not only of architecture and urbanism, but also of botany.

He also appreciates vegetation for its sculptural potential and also highlights its spiritual value. “No happiness without nature,” has been his mantra in designing the Rock Garden.

Nek Chand divided the garden spatially into galleries, courts and yards, with small portals ushering the visitors into large courts or amphitheatres. Forced to stoop through the low doorframes, the visitors are inculcated humility towards the divinities spread all across the garden. Zameen mein jhuk kar chalo, akad kar mat raho, is the message, he says. But for the visitor each portal while ending a visual phase, heralds the onset of another breathtakingly new visual.

Everything has been used aesthetically. At places the bulbous earthen pitchers (ghada) have been piled up high to make ornamental partitions, at others, the visitors have to meander through narrow alleys formed out of coarse rocks stacked high up to the heaven appearing like cliffs. The visitor experiences a movement from compact to open spaces and walks from shadow to light recurrently. The garden is not visible in its entirety from any single point as we can experience in Brindavan Garden at KRS or Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Mughal Garden.

Farther on, creepers made out of cement twist and turn into a lattice work and snake over a bridge spanning a river, entwine columns and the lintel of a richly decorated door. The rock is domed with a good number of structures symbolising Hindu shrines.

Nek Chand says Partition and forced migration and death of both of his parents soon after led to an existential crisis of seismic proportions in his life.

A young man of 23, he was gripped by an emptiness which spurred him to create a new universe around him. In his clandestine clearing, he reconstituted the far-off and forbidden village and his place of birth Berian-Kalan.

But soon he overcame this limitation and jettisoned this autobiographical element. Nek Chand was also saddened by the flattening of 20 villages to raise Chandigarh. His Rock Garden was, therefore, a protest against consumption, rural migration, overproduction and onset of consumerism. No wonder then why a bevy of artists around the world were working on similar themes around that time. Claude-Levi Strauss, Gaston Chaissac, Andre Robillard or Antonie Gaudi were transfiguring the pre-existing articles throughout Europe and America. However, Nek Chand was engaged in this work unaware of them. It was this passionate protest against mega economies, technocracy and consumerism that made him refuse to create ‘art for sale’. He sticks to it scrupulously.

The third and final phase of Nek Chand’s garden is an esplanade or a piazza lent with all characteristics that go with an Indian chowk or chaupal with seating, swinging, strolling and sauntering spaces for all kinds of people. A tall archway is juxtaposed with amphitheatre tiled with porcelain shards. The broad central piazza has swings, slides, palm grove and a pedestal to mount colourfully bedecked camels. Nek Chand is not sure if the work would ever stop. The third phase began in 1993 and the work is still on. “New ideas keep popping into my mind. I don’t think I will ever stop.” The kingdom of Gods and Goddesses will keep extending boundlessly.

Nek Chand at 83 still outlines the basic idea, proffers technical advice and continually monitors the progress of materialisation of his concepts into concrete. Clearly, the early work of Nek Chand depended on much humbler material, mostly refuse and rejects from the rising urbanscape of Chandigarh. Cement worn off the older sculptures bears tell-tale testimony of the ravages of the monsoon, searing heat and the depredations of the visitors. But as the work got official recognition and Rock Garden Society was given the go-ahead by the Chandigarh Administration, funds poured in and basic bulwark was lent monumental solidity with more durable material. However, the essential aesthetic quality of the façade remained intact. No wonder why a good number of columns appear built by solidified jute bags of cement.

Nek Chand’s Rock Garden may symbolise antithesis of Chandigarh, but in Swiss critic Lucienne Peiry’s words, “It was secreted by the city. Nek Chand countered its architectural extremism by a different kind of extremism. Inventiveness, liberty and splendour have turned this garden into a dazzling work of art — and yet it also speaks of a way of life rooted in philosophy and wisdom.”

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