On Saturday I visited an art exhibition titled Le Royaume de Nek Chand – The Kingdom of Nek Chand.
This Indian, whom I had never heard of until I came upon the museum’s website, has been called the world’s greatest living artist. Intrigued, I began to read the history behind the man and his work.
Nek Chand came to Chandigarh in the nineteen fiftees, around the time Le Corbusier was architecting his initial plans for the city. After his work during the day as a Road Inspector, Nek Chand would ride on his bicycle each evening to a nearby forest area he had cleared, where he would work on building life-size sculptures using stones and refuse material collected from the city: broken crockery, rusty coins, used bottle caps, broken electrical plugs, bangles, bicycle parts and other material the city had discarded was put to use by Nek Chand through construction techniques he had learned while building roads. Thus, working in secrecy in a hidden patch of jungle measuring 2500 square metres, he slowly created what he later called “The Kingdom of Gods and Goddesses” – a garden of his imagination, filled with sculpted figures of men, women, birds and animals blending in harmony with surrounding nature.
Nek Chand’s well-hidden secret came out in 1975, when authorities planning to extend the city’s boundaries stumbled upon this treasure in the jungle. The sensational news of the discovery spread quickly through the city. Although built illegally, the government took the stance of nationalizing the area – called “Rock Garden” thenceforth – and appointed Nek Chand its “Creator-Director”. He was allotted some staff to maintain and continue development of the garden, a task Nek Chand could finally devote his full time to. In 1984, the President of India awarded him the Padma Shri for his contribution to art.
Today the Rock Garden attracts around 3000 visitors each day. It is the second most visited site in India next only to the Taj Mahal.
As I read the summary in the exhibition’s press-release, I was amazed and elated. Here was a man who worked on his passion in near isolation for over fifteen years, without a thought on getting his work understood or recognized. And the exhibition of his collection was presently in Lausanne, overlapping with my short trip! I took out my map of Lausanne and located the gallery hosting the exhibition.
Collection de l’Art Brut, the museum for “Art Brut” – Outsider Art – is a large sloped roof cottage that stands in contrast to the straight-lined commercial buildings that surround it.Through the translucent window at the entrance, there emerged outlines of a man in between a pair of ducks – obviously from the Rock Garden. I stepped inside and found myself in a short, wide room with stacks of books on one side and small post-cards on the other. Opposite the bookshelf was the reception desk, where a young, bearded man welcomed visitors with a smile. Is there a guided tour? I enquired. No, he replied, there is no guided tour; you need to find your own inspiration. I smiled at the manner he put it; I had done my homework, and had found sufficient inspiration already.
The size of the collection was a disappointment – there were only a few dozen assorted sculptures arranged in a hall – but it gave a first-hand impression of what I had read earlier. Two aspects struck instantly: the simplicity behind each creation, and the strange effect of symmetry conveyed by the array of similar figures placed in juxtaposition. If a small sample could have this effect, how would the real environment be?
A large screen in a corner was showing a documentary on Nek Chand and his garden. A simple-looking old man directed some workers as they bent some rods into the shape of a head and arms. A group of girls asked him about the inspiration behind his creation. Tourists wandered around, chatting merrily. As I watched these images, there grew a longing to visit India.
Back home, I browsed through the book I purchased before leaving: Nek Chand’s Outsider Art, co-authored by Lucienne Peiry and Philippe Lespinasse. In the first half of the book Lucienne, the director of Collection de l’Art Brut, sketches a biography of Nek Chand, and later delves into the work and its significance. She also compares and contrasts Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh – built on the principle of orthogonality – and Nek Chand’s Rock Garden – espousing the curvilinear. But when she explores the reasons behind Nek Chand’s pursuit, she disappoints.
Early in the book, a quote from Nek Chand explains his view on his artwork:
“I regarded myself neither as an artist nor as a craftsman. I myself was completely insignificant. I had no idea about anything, except for the fact that I was devoting my time to a task I was passionate about. I worked to the limits of my strength. […] It all came from my heart and my imagination. My intention was to build a kingdom for gods and goddesses. It is a gift from God. [This garden] is more than an offering to God.”
Religious inspiration in art is not an Eastern concept, but the nature of the artist to consider oneself insignificant in the larger scheme of things is more common in the East. So it is easy to understand and accept Nek Chand’s ideal of insignificance and his dedication towards God. The religious motive explains, sufficiently, all what the artist set out to create.
But Lucienne is not satisfied with this answer; she needs to place Nek Chand within the framework of Western theory of art. To this end, she invokes Claude Levi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage in his study of pensee sauvage – the Savage Mind.
[Levi Strauss] rejected the idea that bricolage is nothing but instinctual, uncontrolled creativity and regarded it as an artistic method in its own right, as one of the many expressions of the intellect. Nek Chand corresponds closely to the figure of the bricoleur in the sense Levi-Strauss gives the term.
It is Levi-Strauss’s contention that the fundamental characteristic of mythic thought, and likewise of bricolage, is that “it builds up structured sets […] by using remains and debris of events: in French des bribes et des morceaux, in English ‘odds and ends,’ fossilled evidence of the history of an individual or society.
The shards and bottle caps, the fragments of crockery, and the old bicycle handlebars – which Nek Chand uses like “heterogeneous objects of which [a] treasure is composed” – correspond precisely to the “remains of events” to which the anthropologist refers.
Sifting through the garbage dumps and building sites of Chandigarh, Nek Chand recuperated waste products and built rejects as a reaction against the blandishments of consumption, the ownership of goods, and overproduction, in protest (though perhaps without fully being aware of what he was doing) against the onset of consumerism.
Nek Chand was militating against the dominance of the economy, of technocrats, of the profit motive.
Placed next to the image of Nek Chand and his simple intentions, this theory that he was “militating against the dominance of the economy, of technocrats, of the profit motive” seems difficult to digest. The author, unfortunately, does not probe Nek Chand on his reaction to such theories.
This desire to attribute some reason behind every human enterprise brings to mind the scenes from Forrest Gump where Forrest one day breaks out into a run for “no particular reason”:
“That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.”
On his fourth run across the U.S, a group of reporters surround Forrest with questions about his motive:
“Sir, why are you running? Are you doing this for world peace? Are you doing this for women’s right? Or for the environment? Or for animals? Or for nuclear arms?”
Forrest doesn’t understand it.
“They just couldn’t believe that somebody would do all that running for no particular reason.”
Is it simplicity of mind that makes one do things for no particular reason (or for a simple enough reason like devotion to God)? Must our responses to today’s complex world be necessarily complex, or have complex underpinnings? Why can’t we accept that pure art is possible, that art for art’s sake is not always a reactive stance or a declaration of artistic independence, but can arise out of the simple desire to create?
Critics need a theory; creators don’t. More books will be written on Nek Chand and his art, but what remains in mind is not the analysis but that simple image of a man sitting by his hut in a forest clearing, mixing cement, mortar and odds-and-ends discarded by civilization, creating one after another, year after year, hundreds of figures of men, women, monkeys, ducks, horses, soldiers – giving shape to elements of his imagination like no one else had done before.