From the entrance to Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, we are forced along its twisting, miniature ravines. This is not a garden to wander and lose yourself in. Everything is a stage, a platform, a plinth, a bridge. We, the visitors, are not the principal players, despite the fact that everyone around me is engaged in portrait or selfie: ‘here’s me in front of a waterfall, in front of a strange, headless horse-shaped rock, in an amphitheatre, a cave…’ Against this vanity project, rocks with uncanny, animal shapes are presented to our view. In fact, a combination of found rocks and objects from the twenty-four villages that Chandigarh erased, and objects fabricated using materials with which Chandigarh was built (and often both), fuse into this adult dream-world.
This ‘derelict kingdom’ burgeoned in secret, starting to grow in 1957, the folly of a government official in charge of the Public Works Department stores on the Northern edge of the emergent Chandigarh (Jackson 2002:52). This was India’s first planned city: Nehru’s project for a new post-colonial regional centre to replace Lahore (now part of Pakistan). Designed as a modernist statement for a forward-looking India, the design was led by Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier as a break with the past. Yet as Le Corbusier’s city grew, so did Chand’s reclaimed kingdom of ‘Sukrani’, a secret for 18 years before its discovery and eventual government sanction.
Phase-1 is the opening section, the earliest in design. Phase-3, encountered next, is the most recent, with the exit through the intervening period, Phase-2.
The miniature village in Phase-1 is reminiscent of those Nek Chand’s family left behind when forced out of the new country, Pakistan (Bandyopadhyay and Jackson 2007). Unlike most miniature villages, that give us a godlike view down onto their chimney tops, this village looks down on us. It seems to be seen at a distance, a village on a mountain ridge. It makes the narrow path into a deep crevasse.
In Phase-3 it all opens out, and the selfies diminish for a time, as people picnic in the amphitheatre, swing beneath the arches, laugh at the distorting mirrors, admire the fish in the aquarium and explore the ‘Doll Museum’. Oh, the dolls! So many of them, made from scraps acquired from tailors in the city, the sheer excess of their numbers is what makes them so insistent (like everything here). Their almost life-sized stuffed bodies are positioned to represent scenes of village life, reminding me of those tableaux of stuffed animals the Victorians loved to put in glass cases, playing cards or taking tea. There is a certain deathliness and indignity, the humour sitting oddly with the obsessive hours of labour they represent.
But it is in the ranks of watchers in Phase-2, the watchers who line the paths as we go out, that the work comes together. As if the displaced masses, adults, children and animals, hold us to account. It is in this section alone that I overhear comments on the work: ‘all the broken bangles left behind…’; ‘imagine how long this must have taken…’ and here the sense is confirmed that this garden bears witness to Partition, independence and the hard, progressive lines of the new city.
Soumen Bandopadhyay and Iain Jackson (2007), The Collection, the Ruin and the Theatre: Architecture, sculpture and landscape in Nek Chand’s Rock garden, Chandigarh, Liverpool University Press.
Jackson, Iain (2002) ‘Politicised Territory: Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh, Global Built Environment Review 2 (2), 51-68.