CHANDIGARH: The creator of an astounding world which he conjured out of waste, discarded material and household items, Nek Chand rose from humble beginnings as a Department of Roads official to become a self-taught craftsman whose genius drove the blossoming of the iconic Rock Garden here.
Born in 1924 in Shakargarh in present-day Pakistan, Nek Chand and his family settled in Punjab after the Partition as his family moved to Chandigarh in 1947.
The city at the time was being redesigned as a modern utopia by the Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier. It was to be the first planned city in India and Nek Chand found work with the Chandigarh administration in 1951 as a roads inspector in the Public Works Department.
Soon, Nek Chand went to work on a small garden tucked away in a little forest patch near Sukhna lake which his efforts and dedication would turn into a magic kingdom.
In his spare time, he began collecting materials from demolition sites around the city and recycled these to fit into his own vision.
He toiled away secretly in the dead of the night for close to two decades to create the marvel that is the Rock Garden. The artist in Nek Chand discovered in the building and industrial waste, novel resources for his creativity.
On holidays, he would ignore his domestic duties and instead of spending time with family, would bicycle down to river beds or up into the mountains and jungles in search for his 'treasure'.
After 20 years of sheer hard work, the light of dawn finally shone on him when some bureaucrats woke up to his awe-inspiring creation.
It was after the laying of the Lake Road (name of the stretch on which the Rock Garden is located) and during the process to wrap up the works that the administration discovered this so called "Store Garden".
But when it was first discovered, in 1975, the authorities threatened to demolish it as they claimed it had violated the strict planning laws which protected Le Corbusier's 'City Beautiful', where everything had to be a part of the master plan.
According to the Chand Foundation, many politicians, too, had demanded that the Rock Garden be dismantled as they termed it an illegal development.
However, others -- who followed public opinion and their own tolerant enlightenment -- ensured that Nek Chand's creation became a well-funded public park.
Nek Chand was relieved of his duties as government roads inspector and given a salary to continue with the expansion of the Rock Garden with the designation, 'Creator-Director'.
In addition, city authorities funded a force of labourers to help instal all his sculptures in the mosaic courtyards.
To build the Rock Garden, Nek Chand used discarded objects like broken crockery, electrical fittings, glass bangles and bicycle frames.
He had started on his dream project by clearing a little patch of jungle to make himself a small garden. He set stones around the little clearing and, before long, had sculpted a few figures from discarded material which he had collected.
Gradually Nek Chand's creation grew and covered several acres dotted with hundreds of sculptures set in a series of interlinking courtyards.
MN Sharma, the first Chief Architect of Chandigarh, was amazed at this creation. He liked the ambience so much that instead of ordering its demolition, which he could; he started visiting the place regularly.
In 1976, Chief Engineer Kulbir Singh inaugurated the Rock Garden for general public. In the same year, TN Chaturvedi, the then chief commissioner of Chandigarh, handed Nek Chand his first recognition -- a cash award of Rs. 5,000 and a certificate.
The Rock Garden became immensely popular during the 1980s with Nek Chand receiving the Padma Shri in 1983. A sculpture from Rock Garden also appeared on an Indian postage stamp.
Soon, Nek Chand began receiving attention from outside of India and was awarded the Grande Médaille de Vermeil in Paris in 1980, following an exhibition in the French capital.
After a visit to the Rock Garden by Ann Lewin, the Director of the Children's Museum in Washington DC, Nek Chand was requested to construct a garden at the museum in the American capital.
Nek Chand Saini, was born in 1924 in a family of landlords in Berian-Kalan,( now in Pakistan) located 90-km north of Lahore. He did his matriculation from Lahore University.
In August of 1947, at the age of 23, when India was partitioned, he left his native village with his family to come to the 'Indian side', where he settled in Gurdaspur.
In 1949, he joined the Highway Department through the Refugee Employment Programme and lived in Panipat and Faridabad, Haryana.
In 1950, he got married to Kamla from Delhi. He has two children, daughter Neelam and son Anuj.
More than 2.5 lakh people visit Rock Garden every year and the annual revenue generated from ticket sales is around Rs 1.8 crore. The garden is now maintained by the Nek Chand Foundation, a registered charity formed in 1997 with the aim of supporting the artist's work and raising awareness about the garden world-wide.
Nek Chand's 90th birthday in December last year was celebrated with great enthusiasm by the Chandigarh administration and the people here.
To mark the occasion, crowds had gathered at the Rock Garden for festivities during which Nek Chand was greeted by well-wishers.
For more than 15 years now, international volunteer groups have been visiting and working at the Rock Garden, completing a wide variety of tasks, including large-scale mosaic work, as well as forming important connections with Rock Garden staff and visitors.
The Rock Gardens is an iconic testimony to the creative vision of Nek Chand, who died here today at a hospital following health complaints. He was 90.
In a departure from protocol, Chandigarh administration today declared a holiday in its offices as a mark of respect for the creator of the Rock Garden.