A Taste of Waste
Then again, there are those who have dedicated their entire lives to creating heritage, some of it fashioned out of rubble, even. Nek Chand Saini, the creator of the globally feted Rock Garden in Chandigarh, is one such soul. Displaced during the partition of India in 1947, his family moved here at a time when the City Beautiful was being envisioned as India’s first planned settlement. Not much later, he found employment as a roads inspector with the Public Works Department. Thereon, he began picking up the pieces. Quite literally.
He ferreted through refuse material at construction sites and discarded waste mounds to collect broken china, bicycle parts, bangles, rusty coins, electrical plugs and used bottle caps, in order to create his ‘kingdom for gods and goddesses’. Working in complete secrecy, amidst a hidden forest clearing, this self-taught artist sculpted life-size figures of men, women, animals and birds; using stones, cement and an assortment of waste.
Following the chance discovery of his sensational albeit unlawful work in 1975, a good quarter of a century after he had commenced with it, he was appointed the Director of the Garden. Additional staff, and acreage, was provided to him so he could direct all his attention and energy towards further development. Even today, the sprightly octogenarian can be found strolling around his vast artistic domain – comprising thousands of sculptures, mosaic courtyards, walled paths and waterfalls – supervising amongst other things, and by sheer force of habit, the collection of litter!
A recent invite for their inaugural event by Child and Youth Friendly Chandigarh, a students’ initiative spearheaded by siblings Divjot and Harsimar Singh, resulted in an insightful interface with Mr. Nek Chand, too. Equipped with a keen sense of humour, evident through his exchange with the children from the SOS Village, Rajpura, he, justifiably so, displayed a great deal of pride in his amazing handiwork. He also took the subsequent photo-opportunity to encourage his eager young audience to adopt eco-friendly habits. Later, over tea in his den – a veritable cornucopia of memories – he regaled a somewhat older audience with countless stories from a life full of ‘wasted’ interests.
Quite a trip down memory lane!
I am perhaps the first journalist to have written about the rock garden soon after it was officially discovered. I was part of a group that included a documentary maker, as also photographer Pablo Bartholomew’s dad Richard, who wrote the script and directed the documentary.
On two evenings, Nek Chand invited us to his private den in the rock garden where he cooked a delicious chicken dinner to the drinks we brought with us.
But I must say that having seen the orignal, where the displays were at eye or below eye level, I was rather disappointed during my last visit there in 1998 to find the towering objects, like the waterfall. There was also evidence of crass commercialisation – but then, I guess that’s inevitable given the vast sums of meony that must be required to run the place.
That’s quite something, Vishnu! You obviously have memories of the pure art it must have been once.
While I have faint recollections of visiting the garden in the late seventies, documented, no less, by posed photographs in front of the artist’s undeniably creative artworks, I mostly remember it in its present, commercially sustainable, avatar.
I bow to his creativity.
Took children to the Rock Garden last summer. I feel the new additions are not that impressive compared to the original parts of the garden. But truly amazing creativity 🙂
You are right, the first phase was definitely his best; a fitting tribute as the ‘kingdom for gods and goddesses’ that the artist had originally envisaged.
Hi Puneet, From what I know, my father, the late Tribhuvan Nath who was The Times of India Special Correspondent posted in Chandigarh, broke the story on the Rock Garden. I was lucky to meet Mr Nek Chand in his office in Rock Garden, whenever my father went there. Our family had a standing invitation from the talented creator of the garden.
Those visits must make for amazing memories, right?
A few of mine own, especially during college days, are made up of a certain nonchalance towards his work. Probably a result of accompanying visitors on endless rounds of the garden when we would rather have been seeing and been seen in Sector 17 😉 Enlightenment would follow some years later…
Reminded me of the numerous visits we had to this wonderful garden during my childhood in city beautiful. Thanks for sending me down the memory lane.