When Nek Chand visited a folk art environment in Wisconsin, during the Kohler Art Center’s 2000 conference in Sheboygan, he was asked what he thought of the site. “Mine is bigger,” he said.
In fact, Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India, is undoubtably the largest folk art environment in the world – with various estimates of its size ranging from 14 to 40 acres. We had seen many photographs of the Rock Garden but nothing prepared us for its monumental scale.
In the five November days spent there, we never fully learned the layout or grasped the plan of the labyrinthine passageways, bridges, tunnels, giant waterfalls, city-scapes, sheer concrete walls and the thousands of sculptured figures of rollicking monkeys, dancing bears, bangled-ladies, giraffes, ducks, horses, strangely shaped rocks, terra-cotta pots – the list could go on and on. It is like a giant fun-house replete with a hall of distorting mirrors, giant swings, narrow walkways across streams, mosaic-covered horses to ride and many other wonders. We saw families with children enjoying themselves throughout the garden every day. Second only to the celebrated Taj Mahal in number of daily visitors, the Rock Garden was crowded with thousands of people during the annual festival of lights, Diwali, which began on November 9 during our visit. (Diwali in India is as important as Christmas in the U.S.)
As most know by now, Nek Chand was displaced from his homeland when India was granted independence from the British Empire and partitioned from Pakistan in 1947, and he fled with his family to Chandigarh. The old city was torn down and rebuilt under plans developed by the Swiss architect, Le Courbusier, in the early 1950s. Nek Chand became a road builder and inspector, but his work after hours consisted of carrying away pieces of the former city’s debris by bicycle to a site on government-owned land where he clandestinely began to build what eventually became the Rock Garden.
Using discards and castoffs in the traditional methods of a self-taught environmental artist, Nek Chand utilized broken pottery, ceramic tiles, electrical fixtures, cement, Rebar, broken glass, mirrors and innumerable other found materials. After many brushes with destruction, the garden is now protected by the city as one of its best-known tourist attractions. The enormity of Nek Chand’s concept and the grandiose scope of his imagination is incomprehensible until one actually experiences it.
One night, after the Wadali Brothers’ Sufi musical performance attended by thousands of spectators in the garden’s huge mosaic-tiled amphitheater, we attempted to find our way out of the garden and took a wrong turn. For a while, we traversed fields of figures lit by strings of sparking lights, and we were enchanted by the fairyland we had entered. As we got deeper into the garden, however, we realized we had no idea where we were, and the lights were far behind us. I could imagine the headlines, “Seven members of the Folk Art Society lost and never found while exploring the Rock Garden in India.” When we were about to abandon all hope, a group of Indians came along and turned on their cell phones to light our way out. It was a magical moment in a magical place.