Order, Chaos and Dreams.
Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab, is a city designed as a symbol of modernity, casting off what was seen as the superstitious baggage of the past. The anarchic streets of urban India would seem an impossible task for the orderly ideals of utilitarian architecture, yet here functionality dominates. However, from the tensions between these two extremes of life, a curious art form was created. Nek Chands Rock garden is a surreal labyrinth of figures, secretly constructed out of cast off material from the city. There is a childlike feeling to this world, nothing is quite even and straight lines are decidedly wonky, yet it is all totally immersive. The sense of space it creates is unreal, like it is several times bigger than it actually is. Every time you enter a new area, it feels like falling into a whole new reality. Having broken out of the confines of the orderly metropolis, the Rock Garden inevitably inspires people to see their home anew…
Immersion in Chaos
India, from the perspective of a confused Englishman, is an odd place. There is often an unrelenting flood of sensory overload and a disconcerting lack of personal space. Cultural/linguistic barriers can feel almost insurmountable, peoples body language is subtly but fundamentally rewritten and unfamiliar foods reinforce the sense of disorientation. However, one of South Asia’s stranger destinations holds a different set of eccentricities. Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab, is India’s only planned city. Commissioned by Nehru in the 1950s and orchestrated by utilitarian architect Le Corbusier, it was a brave bid to herald the coming of modernity to India.
There is a sharp contrast between the original section of the city and its chaotic suburbs. Outside the designated perimeter, live poorer communities who have gravitated towards wealth and opportunity. Here the diversity of life thrives; engines spew black smog and streets are lined with the detritus of everyday existence. Men stand idly on street corners engaging in animated banter and every conceivable industry is undertaken on the side of the road (mechanics, blacksmiths, mystical healers, ear cleaners, hairdressers, chai sellers, tailors, etc).
A Functional Entity
On passing into the carefully organized center of the city, things change instantly. Moving from the congested cacophony of the outskirts everything becomes calm. The buildings are arranged along wide boulevards and all is scrupulously clean. Concrete is the building material of choice and is applied with imposing geometric symmetry and precision. Cars drive at reasonable speeds on the correct side of the road. Everybody goes in the prescribed direction around roundabouts and no one unnecessarily uses their horn.
The city was designed as a grid system, with government buildings at one end, symbolizing the head of the organism. City blocks are arranged in sectors and assigned numbers. In the core of this residential area, is the commercial center, the heart of the city. To stand in a spacious pedestrianised shopping district is a strange experience after a few months spent immersed in India. Slightly disconcertingly, there are no rickshaws to dodge and haggling is supplanted by the modern innovation of price tags. In appearance it could be interchanged with any bland city center in the world. There is the usual assortment of chain shops and juice bars. People sip coffee from polystyrene cups, sit quietly on benches, and obediently go about their day. This is very much a progressive, middle class enclave and the only indication of poverty to be seen is the occasional old lady, cooking corn on hot coals to sell to hungry shoppers.
This ordered world, however, is not the full story of Chandigarh. While the city was in its infancy, built from scratch and born out Nehru’s utopian dreams, another man was pursuing his own vision.
A Space for Dreams
A young official called Nek Chand had begun, in 1957, unknown to the authorities, to create a unique garden on a concealed patch of land. Taking the excess material, the stuff rejected from the ordered reality of the new city, he began to construct a textured dreamscape of strange, irreverent gods. Using broken plug sockets, ceramics, concrete, wire, rope and barrels, he shaped an entire, self enclosed reality. Working by night, by the light of burning tires, he moved even the heaviest supplies using only his push bike. The surreal maze is filled with hundreds of characters from the mind of its creator, every figure is full of dynamic energy and each seems unnervingly alive. The straight lines and order of the city are banished here and replaced by complex organic forms which immediately capture the imagination.
Each courtyard is surrounded by a high wall, and the doors that take you from one area to the next are low enough that visitors must stoop. Its creator suggests that this compels visitors to enter each section in a manner that is deferential to its assortment of deities. It also adds to the uncanny feeling of immersion in this reality. The whole, carefully balanced landscape draws you through its varied courtyards with a strangely magnetic momentum, much like floating through a dream.
The genius of this creation is by no means constrained within its own bubble universe. It casts its spell over the entire city. After a few hours lost in this interlinking labyrinth of concrete idols and mischievous sprites born out of discarded bike frames, these unreal dreams begin to leach beyond its walls. The rough, textured universe of Nek Chand begins to bring the cityscape to life. Walking through the streets, inorganic shapes and dead materials begin to invoke the subtle ghosts of the mind. With your imagination revived, odd bits of piping begin to look like lost arms and faces peer out from entirely coincidental patterns. The accidental elegance of abstract forms is suddenly obvious and lucid. The utilitarian city has reawakened its lost gods.
In 1975, after 18 years of working in secrecy, the garden was revealed to the authorities. As an illegal development it was vulnerable to the threat of demolition. Unexpectedly, however, the outcome was very different. Chand was given a salary and a team of workers to realize his ambitions for the site. The garden now has its safety reasonably assured; it is protected from the whims of politicians and is growing faster than it ever has before. Giant swings, concrete trees and fish tanks have sprung up on the grounds. Nek Chand has gone from being an outsider artist and an eccentric loner, to being internationally praised for his vision and artistic talent. Since its discovery, there have been various attempts to truncate or demolish the garden. Each time a threat has arisen, public outcry, even human shields, have prevented damage. Talking to local people, the Rock garden is clearly highly valued. It is a defining monument, inextricably linked to Chandigarh’s unique character, and a space for dreams in this symbolically segmented city.