The figures surrounded onlookers on all sides, fixing them with their impassive gaze. Clad in a colorful outfit reminiscent of African or Caribbean dancers, one is tempted to see them move effortlessly to an unknown beat. Nearby, a row of traditional Indian dancers donning ceramic tiles stopped visitors in their tracks; their active, dynamic poses making an impression.
The dancers are among the thousands of sculptures that enliven the Chandigarh Rock Garden, located in the city of Chandigarh in northern India. Built in 1957, the garden was the brainchild of road inspector Nek Chand, who started off by collecting stones and debris from villages that were demolished to make way for Chandigarh, an new city built up from the ground based on the design of architects Le Corbusier and Albert Myers.
“The garden was an area of jungle when Chand began his work here, so much so that he had to work by the light of recycled tires. His aim, since the Rock Garden’s inception, was to recreate nature and thousands of years of human civilization,” said Vikrant, a park guide.
“But he did so in a dynamic, innovative manner. The Rock Garden’s construction is entirely based on concrete. The material was used as a basis for work in other materials, among them natural materials like stones and pebbles as well as artificial items like bottle caps, neon lights, bangles and rice sacks.”
Looking around the garden, which is made in three parts or phases, one can’t help but admire Chand’s skill with concrete. In one corner, what looks like meandering liana vines and roots of jungle trees jut out from higher ground. Nearby, the recreated ruins of a palace also loom in the heights, while a nearby waterfall cascades down to the ground below. The garden’s architect also managed to recreate the natural look of his concrete trees by putting rice sacks on the material before they dried, giving it the organic, natural feel of the real thing.
“Chand is an innovator when it comes to using recycled materials, which also include bricks, metal rods, pots and even human hair. Even the waterfalls use rainwater that is recycled and kept year round,” Vikrant said. “He also observed Le Corbusier’s building methods and developed them [for the Rock Garden].”
Chand’s take on natural wonders also includes his menagerie of wild animals. In another side of the 8.9-hectare park, splendid peacocks in their multicolored foliage strut in time and space, waiting to unfurl their tails and impress onlookers. In another area, giraffes graze on feed that is all but invisible to the naked eye.
Chand also managed to recreate the splendor of the Greek and Roman civilizations, particularly with his reconstructed amphitheater. Strolling by a wall adorned with colorful mosaics, one could easily believe one was walking around ancient sites like Pompeii or Antioch. The entire area is sprinkled by columns that bear more than a passing resemblance to their age-old counterparts.
Over the years, the Rock Garden survived the authorities’ attempt to demolish it in 1975 and other challenges, to thrive and win accolades from the likes of the Baltimore Museum of Folk Art and the French government’s Grande Medaille de Vermeil, as well as the 1984 Padam Shri award from late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.
While the garden has more than its fair share of wonders, Vikrant pointed out that it is still a work in progress.
“Chand and his assistants are still working on the third part of the Rock Garden, even at the ripe old age of 90. We have yet to find out what it will look like, as it is still confidential,” he said.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on March 4, 2014