Nek Chand's Rock Garden, Chandigarh India
This site is about the work produced by Nek Chand at his 'Rock Garden' in Chandigarh, India. Many thanks to Nek Chand for allowing us to document and catalogue his work between 2003-7. Also thanks to Raw Vision for all their support and help in planning the field trips and encouraging this research.
New monograph available from Amazon:
Nek Chand's Rock Garden is to feature on a new BBC television series called 'Around the World in 80 Gardens', presented by Monty Don. It looks like a great production, a book is also released under the same title.
Nek Chand Saini was born on 15th December 1924, in a village called Barian Kalan, near Tehsil Shakargarh (Aulakh 1986, 12). At the age of twelve he was sent to live with his uncle in the Gurdaspur region attending the Ghula≠m Deen Mangri High School. He was educated up to matriculation and left in 1943 . Upon returning to his village he began working on his father’s farm. Following India’s independence from Britain, the Act of Partition divided the nation and as a Hindu, Nek Chand and his family left their village, located in what is now Pakistan and moved into the Indian territory. They went to Jammu and tried to settle in Gurdaspur.
Nek Chand took advantage of a Government programme to employ refugees and moved with his wife to Chandigarh. He started work on Chandigarh Capitol Project, part of the Public Works Department [PWD] on the 10th October 1950, as a road inspector and continues to reside in the city.
Shortly after the Sukhna Lake was constructed in 1958, Nek Chand began making rafts and vessels to sail upon the lake. After this was banned by the official sailing club and peddle boats were available for rent, Nek Chand devoted more time to his passion for natural rocks and stones. It was around this time that he began to actively occupy a piece of land beside the PWD stores he was in charge of. The land was located near the High Court building in Sector-1, at the northern edge of the city, and is the current site of the Rock Garden. The stores were set back from the road and provided Nek Chand with plenty of material, space and eventually labour, which he would use to develop a small patch of land. He formed a collection of rocks, gathered from the Shivalik hills and the seasonal Sukhna Cho, Patiala Rao and Ghaggar rivers. The largest river Nek Chand quarried is the Ghaggar, located approximately eight miles from Chandigarh that Nek Chand would visit on his bicycle.
In addition to the rocks other materials were collected. The material came from the villages destroyed to make way for the new city of Chandigarh. Certain fragments of these villages caught Nek Chand’s eye and he began actively searching and collecting particular discarded objects. These fragments were the remains of the villages, and consisted largely of everyday mundane possessions such as broken pots and bottles.
At some stage in 1965 a more conscious effort was made to transform the found fragments and to arrange the rocks into a formal display (Bhatti 1989). The site was also in a dense area of vegetation and needed to be cleared. Concrete and mud flooring was prepared and initial structures made up of oil drums and iron shuttering were constructed. With the PWD stores acting as a suitable decoy an alternative Chandigarh was being constructed behind the shuttering and scrap materials. The salvaging of scrap by Nek Chand is well reported, however, less mentioned is the pilfering of building materials. The PWD stores provided Nek Chand with a free supply of cement, bitumen, steel reinforcement bars and oil drums that he needed to develop the site. He was also able to second labourers who should have been building the roads, to work on his project instead (see Bhatti 1982, p224 & 234). The massive construction site that was Chandigarh provided a suitable decoy for Nek Chand’s covert hobby. Provided everyone was ‘working’ or ‘looking busy’ it seems that very few questions were asked.
After four years work, involving daily commitment to the project working evenings and ‘by the light of burning tyres’ (Bhatti 1982), Nek Chand started to become nervous about his actions . It was possible that his employment could be terminated should his garden be discovered. However, this awareness did not stop the project or prevent Nek Chand from building and expanding the garden.
At this point sometime in 1969 Nek Chand decided to visit the city’s chief architect, M.N. Sharma, a disciple of Le Corbusier. Sharma was initially too busy to see Nek Chand but, following his persistence he agreed to meet him one Sunday and was taken to the garden.
Although M.N Sharma should have arranged for the garden to be demolished, he claimed that his admiration for the work and Nek Chand’s ‘creative potential’ conflicted with his position as Chief Architect and Secretary of Chandigarh Administration because the work was illegal and unauthorised. In a Raw Vision article MN Sharma wrote that he, ‘didn’t have the heart to go by the rules and advised him to continue his work in secret. I made up my mind to help him get recognised, and although it took a year or so, I fulfilled my promise in 1972’ (Sharma 2001, 28).
It was an unusual position for the architect to take. In 1969 the garden would not have been very large, the structures more akin to garden sheds and the displays were of a small scale made up of natural components. As a new and busy Chief Architect, why would MN Sharma object to a road inspector decorating and improving the area around the PWD stores? He probably wasn’t aware of Nek Chand’s ambition for the site and the informal sanctioning the work accelerated Nek Chand’s production rate.
The creation stories of acts such as the making of secret gardens are always wrapped in mystery, alternative origins and claims of authorship and discovery rights. The Rock Garden is no exception. Upon reading Bhatti’s story of the Rock Garden’s discovery there is no mention of MN Sharma and his Sunday afternoon visit to the garden in 1969. According to Bhatti, the garden was discovered by a team of government malarial research workers, under the direction of Dr. SK Sharma, the Assistant Director of Chandigarh Administration Health Services on 24th February 1973 (Bhatti 1982, XVII). This is also the official story of the Rock Garden Souvenir booklet produced by Chandigarh tourism. SK Sharma claimed he was, ‘very much impressed to see such a hidden art treasure’ (Bhatti 1982, XX) and informed Dr. MS Randhawa. Randhawa was part of the Indian Civil Service as the first Chief Commissioner of Chandigarh and was instrumental in the landscaping of Chandigarh as well as securing its art collections. On 23rd June 1973, as Chairman of the Chandigarh Landscape Advisory Committee he recommended that the garden be saved and, ‘preserved in its present form, free from the interference of architects and town planners’ (Bhatti 1982, XX; Aulakh 1986, 21) .
M.S. Randhawa named the site, ‘The Rock Garden’, but in a later interview Nek Chand said that this was not what he had in mind, ‘it’s a child’s dream and not a garden of cold rocks…it is my poetry with rocks’ (Tribune-news-service September 2 1996).
In an interview held with Bhatti in March 2005 at the City Art Museum, Chandigarh, Jackson asked him about MN Sharma’s discovery claims  . Bhatti was adamant that it was only after 1973 that MN Sharma became involved and that Randhawa made the final decision because of the landscape nature of the project 4].
Between Randhawa’s declaration and the inauguration by Chief Engineer Kulbir Singh on the 24th January 1976 there is a gap of over two years. During this time Nek Chand continued working on the garden and producing sculptures, with the positive support of the then Chief Commissioner Sh. T. N Chaturvedi . ‘Phase-2’ of the project was also made during this time, which contains most of the sculptures currently on display . The exact layout of the garden at this time is unknown, however by 1980 a perimeter wall was constructed and all of phases one and two, including the café were fully finished and similar to the current layout . The café was designed in conjunction with MN Sharma, at the request of Nek Chand (Sharma 2001, 28) and a commemoration plaque is positioned in the café entrance to mark the collaboration. Following the discovery in 1973 labour was made available to prepare the garden for the opening. TN Chaturvedi suggested that Nek Chand be released from other ‘mundane duties’ made the ‘creator-director’ of the garden to work on it fulltime .
The Rock Garden was immensely popular during the 1980’s with Nek Chand receiving the Padam Shri in 1983 and a sculpture appearing on an Indian postage stamp.
Nek Chand also began receiving attention from outside of India and was awarded the Grande Médaille de Vermeil in Paris in 1980, following an exhibition held in Paris. After a visit by Ann Lewin, the Director of the Children’s Museum Washington DC, to the Rock Garden Nek Chand was also requested to construct a garden at the museum. Nek Chand accepted the commission with working starting in 1986 with sculptures exported from India (Crosbie 1986) .
An estimated 2,000 visitors enter the Rock Garden daily, many travelling long distances from all over India and abroad.
Despite the success and popularity of the Rock Garden, it was in danger of partial-demolition. In 1988 the High Court applied for permission to demolish the embryonic Phase-3 to make way for a ‘Botanic park’ linking the car park of the court to the Sukhna Lake (The-Tribune-Bureau April 21 1990). In a Times of India article, Nek Chand said that the former advisor to the Administrator, Mr. Ashok Pradhan had deliberately initiated the botanical garden scheme to truncate the Rock Garden. The Bar Association argued that the “expansion [of the Rock Garden] violated the Masterplan [of the city] and sought to encroach on land earmarked for the High Court” (Bhardwaj November 4 1991) .
Following outcry from the city’s residents and a court appearance by Nek Chand, the petition was unconditionally withdrawn by the Bar Association with the final ruling on the 18th October 1989 (Ahmed October 20 1989).
However, further attempts were made to demolish the garden, this time to make way for a road to Kaimbwala village just north of the Sukhna Lake. The road would have reduced the travel distance to the village by only ‘two hundred yards’ (The-Tribune April 24 1990).
Bulldozers were sent to start the demolition process on the 20th April 1990, but ‘human shields’ encircled the site protecting it from the machinery (The-Tribune-Bureau April 21 1990). After the issue was discussed in the Assembly Building, the route was altered and Mr. Pradhan was transferred to another department. Nek Chand took the events as a personal attack claiming that the whole episode, ‘was done to humiliate me’ (Bhardwaj November 4 1991). All these events were ‘played out’ in the local media.
Progress on Phase-III [1983 onwards] was delayed by a lack of resources and the opening ceremony was postponed due to incomplete work (Express-news-service October 7 1992) and substandard cement (The-Tribune March 29 1992). The garden also come under attack over the large amounts of finance the city was providing to develop the latest phase. Nek Chand frequently replied to such criticism in the press, citing figures and expenses incurred (Chand February 16 1993) .
It wasn’t until the 23rd September 1993, that Phase-3 was inaugurated by Mr. Ramesh Chandra, Advisor to the Administrator (Tribune-news-service September 24 1993, see also the plaque in the entrance to phase-3). The third phase was however, incomplete at the time of the inauguration, and remains so to date.
Shortly after the inauguration Nek Chand featured in the local papers asking the Administration for additional funds and support to complete the work. In an unusual reversal Nek Chand became ‘the client’, demanding the work be completed on time, even challenging the city’s chief engineers (Express-news-service June 14 1992; Express-news-service October 7 1992).
The local papers also reported on the delays and the lack of progress with headings such as, ‘Whatever happened to Rock Garden-III’ (Parihar February 9 1993; Chandigarh-Newsline February 16 1994). There have also been problems with the aquariums in phase-3 which still leak, Nek Chand blamed the city engineers for providing incorrect calculations (Singh September 12 1996).
The garden has also faced some criticism over the latest phase, mainly with regard to the lack of recycling and a shift away from the intimate spaces of the previous two phases (Parihar April 22 1992; Saxena November 18 1995). The main concept of the Rock Garden is remaking art out of junk, yet phase-III contains very little recycled material and considerable steel and cement.
The main concern of Nek Chand during the last ten years has been a lack of maintenance coupled with staff shortages. This has led to dilapidation and resulted in damage to some of the sculptures.
During the 1990’s when Nek Chand was increasingly away from the Rock Garden on foreign visits the Administration would remove the garden’s workers, who are still employed by the PWD, onto other duties around the city leaving the Rock Garden without adequate staff. The Rock Garden staff act as security and prevent the visitors from climbing on the sculpture podiums, as well as helping Nek Chand make the sculptures and buildings. Without their presence several sculptures were damaged and there were allegations that the sculptures may have been deliberately vandalised (Menon August 3 1997; Chandigarh-Newsline July 20 1996; Chandigarh-Heartbeat Nov 19 1993) . The lack of maintenance has resulted in some of the works not receiving adequate care and becoming weakened as a result. It should also be stressed that the metal armatures of the older sculptures are recycled, often rusty and likely to perish in the extreme conditions of the region. The cement is not of high quality and of insufficient depth to protect the metal reinforcement from rusting within. When the sculptures are this vulnerable they are particularly susceptible to damage by visitors handling and sitting on them.
Following the damage sustained whilst Nek Chand was away, Raw Vision Magazine published a full page statement asking readers to write to the Prime Minister and President of India to support the Rock Garden. Nek Chand replied in an open letter to the readers of the magazine, an excerpt is below,
‘My worst enemy is the top bureaucrat of Chandigarh, Mr. Pardeep Mehra, Advisor to the Administrator. Although he is supposed to have complete control over public property he never visits the Rock Garden, even though he goes to every nook and corner of Chandigarh. Three times I have tried to see him and on each occasion he has kept me waiting outside his office for over two hours and still claims to be too busy to see me. He and others in the I.A.S. (Indian Administration Service) have done everything to hinder the progress of the Rock Garden. Since 1988 work has only been able to continue in fits and starts, depending on the fancies of administrative officers. I have seen that any sympathetic official is soon transferred elsewhere. It is a pure burning red jealousy, defying all the norms of rationality. They will not even allow me to use the entrance money for the maintenance of the Garden and now there are no funds at all to finish the construction’.
The damage in the garden prompted the formation of the, The Nek Chand Foundation in the UK and later in the US, with the aim of preserving the garden and encouraging its development .
It is only in the last two years [since 2004] that work on phase-3 has re-started, with new floors being laid and large sculptures being installed on top of the family-sized swings. Fences have also been installed to improve the security around the sculptures.
This exhibition forms part of the cataloguing and documentation research that has taken place during the last three years. Prior to this research the physical make-up of the Rock Garden was an unknown factor. Nek Chand has worked entirely without plans and only rough estimates were made with regard to the quantity of sculptures produced.
The research-catalogue allows dimensions, materials, location and arrangements to be discussed with all works recorded in the same format and the measured drawings enable spatial investigations, patterns and construction methods to be revealed and discussed. In addition to the above the catalogue also assists in the preservation and maintenance of the site, highlights any future developments or modifications and the rate at which these are taking place. It is also hoped that the research methods can be used as a guide for the documentation of other ‘visionary environments’ that are increasingly facing destruction and dilapidation (see Manley and Sloan 1997 p3; Cardinal 2000-1).
Manley also makes a strong case for works of this nature to be recorded and properly documented, ‘in any available medium – even rough sketched site plans are useful for understanding these evanescent creations as composite wholes’ (Manley and Sloan 1997, p109). There is an urgency to Manley’s plea as so many gardens and environments have been destroyed or sold.
The field research had two main components . The first was to catalogue each sculpture currently on permanent display in the Rock Garden, including the natural rock collection in phase-1. This process involved measuring and photographing each piece coupled with recording other information such as materiality and dilapidation. The second aspect of the research dealt with the larger scaled elements of the garden, such as the landscaping and architecture. Survey drawings were made of each area as well as extensive photographic documentation, Virtual Reality Models and film. GPS was also deployed to calculate the area of the garden. The surveys were drawn to scale and represented through elevational and axonometric projections, as well as plans and sectional drawings.
The documentation of the garden has been used to generate additional understanding of Nek Chand’s work and to position it within the postcolonial canon of Indian art.
Collection, Ruin and Theatre have been chosen as three lenses through which the Rock Garden can be viewed and better understood.
The first of which treats the Rock Garden as a collection, or informal museum. Whilst it may seem contradictory for a new India and a rejection of the museumisation of India to be explored through this notion, the Rock Garden has taken its basic precepts. It can be considered an archive, not of rare objects or naturalia, but a record of people, their personal belongings and histories expressed through the sculptures. Museums are used to unify, to produce collective identities and bridge gaps between people. Governments utilise museums to create a common heritage and to build nations. The Rock Garden functions in a similar way through the use of found objects and collected rocks, and has been more successful than certain ‘conventional’ museums in India in this respect. The limitations of museums in representing diverse and varied populations are well known, however through using everyday mundane objects and narrative the dissemination and construction of a common identity is possible.
The entire garden could also be considered a ruin, or deserted settlement. The ruins in the Rock Garden are under construction, they morph, adapt and are unlikely to ever be fully complete. They make references to Mughal architecture and fortified structures, yet their sham ruin status alienates them from a historical past. Ruins are about making links to the past, they reveal voids, and they evoke hazy recollections transported into the present. They communicate a living tradition suggesting the previous usage of the land before Chandigarh [i.e. before imposed modernity arrived].
The theatre is a way of seeing and representing the world. It has the ability to indulge in the make-believe and can transgress societies norms. The Rock Garden can be thought of as a theatre and also a theatrical intervention or performance. The garden is experienced as a dramatic journey broken down into smaller acts and scenes, and evokes traditional Indian theatre whereby the audience is taken on a journey through a place, each destination revealing a new aspect of the plot. The garden also contains three amphitheatres suggesting that Nek Chand intends the space to be used for performance and theatre. Theatre is a powerful medium for expressing transgressions, deviance and political appraisal.
I checked this information with Nek Chand during my stays at the Rock Garden between 2004-6. See also Bhatti, S. S. (1982). Rock Garden in Chandigarh: a critical evaluation of the work of Nek Chand. Queensland, The University of Queensland. Preface, page XX. This is also confirmed by John Maizels in an interview he held with Nek Chand. See Maizels, J. (2003). Creator of a Magical World. Vernacular Visionaries, International outsider art. A. Carlano, Yale University Press. Page 67.
 I wrote to Sh. TN Chaturvedi and in his correspondence dated 9th August 2006 he confirmed that he visited the garden many times during the late 1970’s in his official role as Chief Commissioner 1976-78.
He wrote that he was able to give Nek Chand the support and protection he needed to establish the garden.
TN Chaturvedi was moved to the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1981 where he was able to assist Nek Chand and ensure consistent financial support. He also orchestrated Nek Chand’s visit to Washington DC, to install the sculptures in the city’s Children’s Museum, where he delivered an opening address.
 Nek Chand describes the incremental construction of the garden according to three phases. The first phase contains the early rock collection, phase-2 contains the sculptures and in phase-3 the larger landscape and architectural works are found. Describing the garden according to phases of production relates back to Nek Chand’s time in the construction industry and also to the method of constructing Chandigarh.
Ahmed, S. K. (October 20 1989). Nek Chand wins battle against lawyers. Indian Express: 3.
Aulakh, M. S. (1986). The Rock Garden: A panorama of the life-work of Padam Shri Nek Chand. Ludhiana, Tagore Publishers.
Bhardwaj, A. (November 4 1991). Nek Chand allowed to expand garden. The Times of India: pagination unknown.
Bhatti, S. S. (1982). Rock Garden in Chandigarh: a critical evaluation of the work of Nek Chand. Queensland, The University of Queensland.
Bhatti, S. S. (1989). The Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Raw Vision Magazine. 1: 22-31.
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The-Tribune (March 29 1992). Spurious Cement stalls work at Rock Garden. The Tribune. Chandigarh: 12.
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Tribune-news-service (September 24 1993). Third Phase of Rock Garden opened. The Tribune. Chandigarh: no pagination.