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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Nek Chand: The Rock Garden Sculptures

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In 2015, Gallery Director Simon Martin visited Chandigarh, India, to meet Indian Outsider artist Nek Chand ahead of what was to be the artist’s final exhibition before his death on 12 June 2015.

Compared with the chaotic irregularity of most cities in India, Chandigarh in the north of the country is characterised by a sense of order. Known as ‘the city beautiful’ it was the first planned city in India following independence. Based on a city plan by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, it boasts a grid-like road system and iconic modernist architecture.

Le Corbusier conceived his plan as analogous to the human body, with the ‘intellect’ represented by a sector for cultural and educational organisations, the Capitol Complex housing the legislative and law-enforcing structures forming the ‘head’, parks forming the ‘lungs’ and the ‘heart’ being the commercial city centre with a circulatory system of roads and transport networks.

Whilst undoubtedly inspiring and beautiful, arguably this supremely rational plan for the city did not allow for intuition and spirit. And yet, just outside of the formal town plan these more elusive qualities are palpably present in one of the most remarkable and fantastical gardens in the world: Nek Chand’s Rock Garden.

Rows of sculptures of human figures made out of discarded pottery

There is something poetic in the fact that during the 1960s, whilst Le Corbusier’s grand, modern concrete city was being constructed, an unknown and self-taught artist was simultaneously building his own extraordinary environment in secret.

Like the characters in Salman Rushdie’s magic realist novel ‘Midnight’s Children’ Nek Chand’s personal history is tied to the brutal history of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and his life seems equally fantastical. Displaced by the drawing of national boundaries, the young Nek Chand (1924-2015) left behind his native village of Berian in what is now Pakistan and as a Hindu was forced to flee to India.

Later after marrying he settled in Chandigarh in 1955 where he became a roads inspector for the city’s Public Works Department. He never forgot the village of his youth and so sought to recreate a version of it in a secluded wooded area not far from the Capitol Complex, after a dream in which the area was revealed to have been the home to a ‘glorious dynasty’.

An elderly Indian man draws ina sketchbook surrounded by piles of paper, photographs and other ephemera

Chand worked at weekends and at night, using found materials from villages that were being demolished to make way for the new modern city. Travelling on his bicycle he collected oddly-shaped rocks and stones from the foothills of the Himalayas.

All the stones have a soul… They are alive… The stones are like gods and goddesses: there is life in them. Whenever I look at them or pass them, they touch my heart. When we look at them, they look at us too.

Nek Chand

He began to arrange the stones around a small hut, and sculpt figures from concrete and old bicycle parts with surfaces decorated with broken glass bangles. Over time it grew and grew until in the early 1970s several acres of extraordinary sculptures were discovered by senior officials in the Public Works Department and it was subsequently visited by hundreds of people who had heard about this remarkable place.

At first it seemed likely that it might be destroyed, but after senior figures supported Nek Chand by recommending that the garden be ‘preserved in its present form, free from the interference of architects and town planners’ the decision was taken not only to save the garden, but to provide funding and fifty staff to support its development.

At the end of the 1980s it was once again under threat, but after a court action it remains today one of the most powerful examples of an ‘outsider artist’ being accepted by the establishment and wider society.

Row of brightly decorated sculptures of people made from discarded pottery fragments

The Rock Garden is now one of the most visited sites in India, second only to the Taj Mahal.

Visiting the garden is an extraordinary experience: passing through a small doorway in an un-promising wall constructed of concrete-filled oil drums one finds oneself in a series of courtyards of varying sizes. The walls of these are lined with broken ceramic mosaic, electric plug sockets or terracotta pots: a form of recycling. The route through the garden leads the visitor through over 25 acres of narrow passages and wide gorges, past waterfalls and streams of running water, and concrete slopes or raised walls covered in statues.

It is a truly visionary space, unlike anything I have encountered elsewhere in the world. Whilst the city beyond is characterised by clean lines, the Rock Garden is full of organic forms of rocks and trees, and yet constructed from the same material – concrete. The spaces are peopled with over three thousand sculptures of birds, humans, gods and animals, which Chand called in Hindi a ‘devtyan de dunya’ (or ‘world of gods’). The figures have a raw energy: simplified forms with mask-like faces, and arranged in vast groupings or long lines as if part of ceremonial rituals, a form of modern folk art.

Three men stand beneath a huge concrete wall with recesses filled with abstract sculptures.

People are calling me ‘artist’. I don’t like the word ‘artist’, only God pushed me to do the work. I never knew who would see it. I just made it for my own pleasure.

Nek Chand

Visiting the Rock Garden in Chandigarh in the spring of 2015 and meeting Nek Chand, thanks to a British Council Connections Through Culture grant was a powerful experience: he was a man both humble, and yet clearly proud that his creative vision was enjoyed by so many.

Two somewhat abstract human figures made from discarded pottery fragments lean into the photo. Both the floor and background wall are inlaid with large pieces of discarded white pottery.

In the summer of 2015 over forty of these sculptures were displayed in the courtyard and Garden Gallery of Pallant House Gallery, on loan from the Nek Chand Foundation, and reflecting the ethos of the Gallery’s flagship project, and now independent charity, Outside In.

A set of four swan sculptures stand in a row in front a row os sculptures of human figures. All the sculptures are made from concrete and discarded pottery fragments

With the architectural backdrop of the Queen Anne townhouse and Colin St John Wilson’s modernist extension the Gallery’s courtyard garden is a formal setting. Designed by the award-winning minimalist garden designer Christopher Bradley-Hole, it is characterised by the hard lines of stone, slate and concrete.

Whilst nothing can compare with seeing Nek Chand’s sculptures in the remarkable setting of his fantastical rock garden, the Gallery’s courtyard provided a unique setting in which to experience Nek Chand’s remarkable sculptures of Indian gods, warriors, tea-wallahs, animals and birds.

In the perhaps unlikely setting of a Chichester courtyard Nek Chand’s sculptures powerfully demonstrated that creativity and intuition are not necessarily things that can be learned, but they can speak across cultures and appear in all kinds of unexpected settings.

This article was first published in Pallant House Gallery Magazine, summer 2015.  Nek Chand: The Rock Garden Sculptures was on display between 13 June – 25 October 2015.