Nek Chand’s Rock Garden
Chandigarh is unique for a number of reasons. It is the capital of two states, Punjab and Haryana, and it is also one of India’s first planned cities. Its creation was necessitated by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947: the new borders put Lahore in Pakistan and left Punjab without a capital.
Plans were thus put in place to build Chandigarh. It would be an entirely new city for a new India. A team of European planners and architects, led by Le Corbusier, were brought in to design it. The location for the new city annexed twelve towns that were demolished in order to make way for it – there was evidently no place for the old in India’s new symbol of modernity. Appallingly, none of the residents of these towns were offered any compensation for the destruction of their homes.
Le Corbusier’s plan for the city was comprised of two main areas: the capitol complex and a residential complex of uniform ‘sectors’ divided by wide avenues with roundabouts at the intersections. Each sector was designed to be self-contained, providing residents with all the basic amenities required within walking distance. As such, each sector has clusters of inward-looking residences at the centre and strips of shops along the avenues that connect them.
The result is a city very different to the majority of other Indian cities. There is certainly less traffic on the streets, but arguably, there is less life as well. This is perhaps the most common criticism of the design, one summarised well by Ravi Kalia in his work Chandigarh: In Search of an Identity:
Chandigarh was meant to be something beyond a new state capital. But it lacks a culture. It lacks the excitement of Indian streets. It lacks bustling colourful bazaars. It lacks the noise and din of Lahore. It lacks the intimacy of Delhi. It is a stay-at-home city. It is not Indian. It is the anti-city.
Kalia’s reference to the ‘intimacy’ of Delhi is critical. While Delhi is an enormous city, its labyrinthine networks of narrow backstreets give it a feeling of intimacy. As Architect Jan Gehl explains in the wonderful documentary, The Human Scale, the speed at which we travel through a city affects the way that we experience it.
Narrow pedestrian passageways are more conducive to human interaction: they force people to slow down, take things in, look at the people around them more. When streets are wide, people pass by each other in such numbers that intimacy is lost to anonymity. Next to other Indian cities, Chandigarh is organised, but sterile. It is a city where people drive rather than walk, and it is not surprising that it has the highest number of cars per capita in India.
Situated right next to the capitol complex – the symbol of Le Corbusier’s modernist vision – is Nek Chand’s Rock Garden. Chand, a civil servant by day, began building the garden illegally on government land in 1957 by collecting materials from demolition sites around the city. His work continued undiscovered until 1975, by which it had grown to cover an area of twelve acres.
Once it was discovered, it risked being demolished given that it was on government land and also because it went against the strict planning guidelines put into place by Le Corbusier and his cohort. The following year, due to immense public pressure, the Rock Garden was officially recognised and Chand given a team of fifty people to work on it.
It is not a garden in the classical sense, or at least, not the kind of garden that one wanders through at leisure. It is rather a journey through a series of meticulously designed spaces connected by walkways, bridges and tunnels. This linear pathway allows for a certain conceptual progression: many of the forms that one sees early in the journey are rocks collected by Chand on the basis of their anthropomorphism – they are rocks that look like sculptures:
They are alive. I brought them here myself, one by one, on my bike. The stones are like gods and goddesses: there is life in them. Whenever I look at them or pass them, they touch my heart. When we look at them, they look at us too. – Nek Chand, from Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds
As the journey progresses, the forms become more clearly figurative. They emerge from earth and stone, take on increasingly human forms, they multiply in number. There is certainly the sense, as Chand suggests, that one is being watched rather than watching oneself. Alone, together, his figures look on from everywhere, they peer from behind the foliage, from atop high vantage points.
Chand’s ingenuity is completely without question. He is not just an artist, but a master craftsman. The detail of the forms and spaces throughout is intricate and carefully executed. Most of the works are created from found materials and objects. There are figures covered with broken pieces of crockery, walls made from terracotta pots and ceramic light fixtures and stunning mosaics made from recovered tiles.
The Rock Garden is not just a work of art, it is a public space. There are amphitheatres and seats throughout the journey where one can sit and contemplate the surrounds. There is a hall enclosed by a arched colonnade in which one can find magic mirrors and other amusements.
The Rock Garden could be seen as Chand’s critique of Le Corbusier’s plan for Chandigarh. Its narrow, winding passageways are reminiscent of the old cities of India and resist Le Corbusier’s linearity. Its sculptures are anthropomorphic rather than geometric. Most importantly, however, it is made from materials discarded during the construction of the new city: Chand has gathered together the pieces of the past, those discarded to make way for Le Corbusier’s vision, and reassembled them into something of great beauty.
Ravi Kalia, Chandigarh: In Search of an Identity, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987