‘Vernacular Architecture’ in Chandigarh: Nek Chand’s Rock Garden

Guest blogger Tracy Buck visits the Nek Chand Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India

Chandigarh: In a project that paralleled Le Corbusier’s ‘master plan’ for the creation of Chandigarh, an Indian Government roads inspector named Nek Chand created and populated a fanciful, labyrinthine city from the refuse of the nationalist, official project of capital-building. Started in secret in 1958 and opened to the public in 1976, this sculpture garden popularly called Nek Chand’s Rock Garden occupies some 18 acres of land and is supported by the Nek Chand Foundation.

Working with urban and industrial waste – the cast-offs of the project to build an Indian capital for the post-Partition state of Punjab – Chand claimed and fashioned a landscape that might be thought of as a replacement for the village he left behind in what became Pakistan after the events of Partition. At its heart, the Rock Garden is a project of location amidst displacement, a coming to terms with and reorienting oneself during upheaval, of shifting together a new world in the wake of nation-building and Nehruvian positivist politics. It is a fantastical act of world-creation, that, while Le Corbusier’s ‘master plan’ operated at the official, highly visible, and nation-building level, Chand enacted in secret, a personal vision that would be today called ‘outsider art’ for its folk style and existence beyond the established borders of the art world.

In a manner perhaps similar to Vivan Sundaram’s trash projects of recent years (living.it.out.in.delhi, 2005; Trash, 2009; and Gagawaka, 2011), Chand’s work is in dialogue with issues of world-creation, waste and value, and the personification of discarded items that once had lives intimately connected to those of their owners. In Chand’s created world, people are fashioned out of broken glass bangles and bits of shattered pottery – refuse is assembled to resemble those who discarded it – and recognizable animals are placed alongside multiple-headed fantasy beasts. Fields of people and creatures are on display and oriented towards the pathway, while others seem to exist more for their own accord, positioned almost beyond sight atop a waterfall or behind a serpentine wall structure. To the visitor, the Rock Garden reads like a place that would exist whether anyone were there to see it or not, a created realm that is not contingent on viewership but that feels autonomous in its pleasantly rather haphazard construction.

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A small, hand-painted sign near the exit of the garden announces that Chand, aged 89, will meet with visitors to discuss the project and answer questions by appointment. A project that was threatened with destruction upon its discovery in 1975, ultimately supported by the government and opened to the public in 1976, and featured on an Indian postage stamp in 1983, today sees an estimated 5,000 visitors a day. Situated in Sector 1 of Le Corbusier’s planned city – beyond the official buildings of modernist architecture and the designed gardens that reflect Nehru’s efforts to ‘catch up’ with the West – the Rock Garden stands as a monument to the personal vision of Nek Chand.  An informal architect and ‘outsider’ artist, Chand has created a world that gives voice to the impulses of memory, fantasy, to the continuing lives of discarded objects, and to the unofficial projects that attempted to sort out at a personal level a post-colonial, post-Partition India.

For further reading, consider Nek Chand’s outsider art: the rock garden of Chandigarh, by Lucienne Peiry, John Maizels, Philippe Lespinasse, Nek Chand. Published by Flammarion, 2006.

For some spectacular  interactive panoramas of the Garden, visit the Nek Chand Foundation’s website.

Guest Contributor Tracy Buck is currently pursing a PhD in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She holds MA degrees in South Asian Cultures and Languages and in Museum Studies, and has worked as Collections Manager and Curator in several history and art museums in Seattle and Los Angeles.

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