India's secret gardener reveals 18-year labour of love

Riding his bicycle after dark to a state-owned forest, Mr Chand spent night after night clearing patches of ground and transforming the landscape into a majestic garden that would eventually cover eight hectares. The self-taught sculptor, who turns 90 on Monday, started building the garden “as a hobby” in the 1950s but managed to keep it hidden from the authorities for nearly two decades.
This photo, taken on October 31, 2014, shows Indian visitors in the Rock Garden in Chandigarh, built by self-taught Indian artist and sculptor Nek Chand over the course of 18 years. NARINDER NANU/AFP PHOTO
This photo, taken on October 31, 2014, shows Indian visitors in the Rock Garden in Chandigarh, built by self-taught Indian artist and sculptor Nek Chand over the course of 18 years. NARINDER NANU/AFP PHOTO

CHANDIGARH, India // Deep inside his massive garden of handmade waterfalls and sculptures, Nek Chand recalls toiling away secretly in the dead of night for 18 years to create his wonderland in north India.

Riding his bicycle after dark to a state-owned forest, Mr Chand spent night after night clearing patches of ground and transforming the landscape into a majestic garden that would eventually cover eight hectares.

The self-taught sculptor, who turns 90 on Monday, started building the garden “as a hobby” in the 1950s but managed to keep it hidden from the authorities for nearly two decades.

“There was a forest here, who would come here and what for? There were no roads to come and go,” Mr Chand said on the eve of his 90th birthday, seated in the garden that has since become a major tourist attraction, drawing thousands of visitors a day.

After the deadly violence and upheaval of partition in 1947, India set about building a capital for Punjab state, carved out of a region that stretched across the border into newly formed Pakistan.

From the tonnes of building materials and rubbish that followed, Mr Chand carefully collected items that he considered to be gems while working as a roads inspector in the upcoming Chandigarh city.

Pottery pieces, glass, tiles and even broken bathroom sinks were used to make sculptures of men and women, fairies and demons, elephants, monkeys and gods.

“I had many ideas, I was thinking all the time. I began carrying all the material on my bicycle and collecting it here,” Mr Chand said of his garden of mosaic pathways, hidden chambers and courtyards.

“I did three to four rounds on my cycle each day. I saw beauty and art in what people said was junk.”

When Mr Chand’s secret garden was finally discovered in 1976, authorities threatened him with demolition, claiming he had violated strict land laws.

But an amazed public rallied behind the former roads inspector, leading to his appointment as head of the newly opened Rock Garden of Chandigarh.

Mr Chand then stepped up his creation of sculptures, mostly made from broken household materials and discarded personal items such as electric sockets, switches, bangles and bicycle frames. Ticket sales grew as word of Mr Chand’s secret garden spread. Today, some 3,000 people from across the country and overseas now visit daily.

With no formal education in art or sculpture, Mr Chand drew inspiration from his childhood when he played near a river flowing through his village in what is now Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Mr Chand and his family were forced to flee across the border during partition because they were Hindus, finally settling in Chandigarh, the shared capital of Punjab and Haryana states.

“That is why there is a childlike quality to the sculptures,” said Alan Cesarno, a British volunteer with the Nek Chand Foundation that was set up in 1997 to raise funds for the garden’s upkeep.

“When you look around you realise that it is actually a child’s version of a fantasy kingdom.”

Mr Chand’s statues have found their way into museums across the world, including the National Children’s Museum in Washington, the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the RIBA gallery in Liverpool.

Back home, however, the garden is facing conservation challenges, including a lack of funds from the state government which, volunteers say, takes the ticket sales.

“In a country known more for slums and garbage dumps, the rock garden stands as an exceptional example,” said Mani Dhillon, a volunteer involved in the garden’s upkeep.

“It is perhaps the only place of its kind in the entire world. The administration and the people must realise its importance, they must come forward and save it before it’s too late.”

While Mr Chand still oversees the garden with near daily visits, his age and failing eyesight mean he can no longer spend the long hours needed to create new sculptures.

Mr Chand is undaunted by the challenges facing his more than half a century’s work, however, saying he has faith in God from which he draws his strength.

“I am not scared of anything. Had I been scared, how would I have worked in the dead of the night in the jungle?”

* Agence France-Presse

Published: December 14, 2014 04:00 AM

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