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Francois Hollande's visit to Chandigarh's Rock Garden will evoke memories of India's Partition

Born in present-day Pakistan, Nek Chand fashioned the recycled dreamland to what he knew about Punjabi culture and his traditions.

 |  3-minute read |   25-01-2016
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Amidst the trauma caused by the partition of India, where Punjab and India lost the pre-eminent city of Lahore, a new dream was all set to emerge. The dream, called Chandigarh, was to be India’s first modern planned city.

And when French President François Hollande arrived as Chandigarh, it is fitting that he should be received at the Rock Garden, and not at the concrete entrances of the creations of Le Corbusier. 

Chandigarh, with its Parisian grid-like sectors always had a little bit of France in it. But in Holy Grail called the “Edict of Chandigarh,” there was no place for the Rock Garden. 

Unlike Delhi, which meandered its way according to the whims and fancies of the ruling dynasty, or Benares which grew as one of the oldest continuously inhabited city, or Hyderabad which symbolised the Deccan culture; Chandigarh was supposed to be different. It was based on Nehru’s vision of a modern India, and along with the Bhakra Dam symbolized his version of a new Punjab. While the Swiss-born French Architect Le Corbusier was charted to create this city of dreams, Chandigarh was not envisioned as an organic city, but it was very much an artificial construct where people’s lives would be boxed in sectors. 

However, the multitude of Chandigarh’s concrete buildings which reminded everyone of post-war Europe had however not counted for the temerity of this child of partition who was slowly creating a dreamland of his own. Nek Chand, a relatively junior official of the Public Works Department, sat in a junk yard and started chiselling his way to fame in a very unobtrusive manner. He created a wonder land of his own, bypassing authority, and the rules and regulations that were to define Chandigarh. 

In Corbusier’s Chandigarh, the entire city was divided into sectors. The rich would live in elite sectors, while the middle classes would live in another. The Northern part of the city would be ensconced near the foothills, while the rich and their riches would gradually taper towards the South. In Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, there was none of this, as his citizens rebelled against this regimentation. In his Rock Garden, the rich and the poor were made of the same recycled junk, and they lived together along with statues, figurines, birds, animals and gods – all made of recycled materials. In Corbusier’s Chandigarh, Nek Chand’s dreams had no place. The city bureaucracy, which would cringe on any violation of the Edict would have demolished Nek Chand’s Rock Garden at the first opportunity. Nek Chand’s generation, which had lost their homes during the partition, knew how to survive. He kept his secret hidden from the entire world, and it required serious intervention and ingenuity to safeguard his wondrous creation. 

Nek Chand, like Chandigarh, was a child of India’s partition. Born in Shakargarh in present-day Pakistan, he was one of the numerous Punjabis who made Chandigarh their new home. He fashioned it according to what he knew about Punjabi culture. The gods and goddesses at his Rock Garden reminded him of his traditions. The birds and animals in his Garden were replicas of the fauna he grew up with. His troupe of musicians would remind him of the folk dances and exuberance typical of his state. His Rock Garden was an earthy organic creation that was not supplanted from the architect’s blueprint. Rather, it reflected his life, culture, traditions and values. 

At a time, when development was synonymous with concrete, Nek Chand gave the world another term – recycling. Having lost virtually everything during the partition, his generation knew the value of recycling. They preserved their belongings and recycled them accordingly. As his fame grew, France called upon him and asked Nek Chand to create a Rock Garden replica in Paris. 

While the French gave India the new city of Chandigarh, the City repaid by giving the French the Rock Garden. That is why Hollande’s visit to Rock Garden is significant.

Writer

Bajinder Pal Singh Bajinder Pal Singh

He is a journalist based in Thailand, who specialises in south and southeast Asia. His interests include science, environment and education, and their interface with media.

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