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In India, a secret garden that rocks

Nek Chand became a road inspector in Chandigarh six decades ago, when India’s only planned city, a geometric dream of clean lines and modernist buildings designed in part by French architect Le Corbusier, was just taking shape.

One day, using his access to city maps, Chand spotted some forest land out of sight that wasn’t slated for development.

He set about creating a wonderland, a bit of beautiful chaos in tidy Chandigarh.

On his rickety bicycle, he slipped into the woods after work with scrounged stones, chunks of concrete and discarded wire. For six months, he didn’t even tell his wife as he laboriously crafted a surreal rock garden populated by mosaic animals, Indian gods, birds, figures with broken teapots for hats, woozy drunks holding broken bottles.

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Over the next 18 years, he created a folk art retreat with echoes of Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, the soaring Los Angeles fantasy made from steel rods. He says there was no particular spark — it was a project from the gods.

“It was just a hobby,” he said. “I didn’t think people would ever see it.”

But the low-level Indian bureaucrat’s gift for turning trash into treasure has since delighted millions of visitors to Nek Chand Rock Garden, a down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy world reached by paying 30 cents at a teeny window and then ducking through a small doorway.

“It was a bit of trouble bringing these things from the mountain,” said the 85-year-old with silver hair, wrinkled face and elongated ears. “But I’m very fond of trouble.”

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Chand’s reluctance to throw things away is evident in his office, filled with old newspapers, tissue boxes and medicine bottles. This instinct to recycle, long before it was trendy, has served him well, propelling him onto the global art stage.

But Chand wasn’t thinking of such acclaim 60 years ago, when he helped build Chandigarh by day and doggedly recycled its waste by night, crafting his “town of gods and goddesses.”

Aware he could be fired, even prosecuted, for unauthorized use of government land, he hid his fantasy world behind rusting 55-gallon drums whose “Public Works Department” logos lent an illusion of officialdom.

In the early 1970s, wary of being caught, he approached Chandigarh’s then-chief architect to solicit his support.

M.N. Sharma, busy realizing Le Corbusier’s master plan, initially brushed Chand off. But the lowly road inspector persisted. Eventually, Sharma agreed to accompany the humble man who appeared at his door.

Chand led Sharma to the forest and showed him how part of the wall of 55-gallon drums would lift up almost effortlessly using a wooden counterweight, allowing him to pass through what seemed like an impenetrable barrier. Sharma’s curiosity piqued, Chand led him to a small pool with carefully rounded stones and hundreds of strangely beautiful figures.

“I was overwhelmed,” Sharma said. “It’s a small wonderland in forbidden territory.”

Believing those in charge would quickly destroy the “junk pile” amid Le Corbusier’s masterpieces, Sharma advised discretion until the arrival of a more open-minded city administration.

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In 1975, that plan was undermined when a survey team ventured into Chand’s secret world. After much debate, a majority within the generally rigid Indian bureaucracy decided that, illegal or not, this was a gem. The city assumed control of the project and paid Chand to expand his outlandish dream. In 1976, the garden opened to the public, and now reportedly ranks behind the Taj Mahal as one of India’s most visited sites.

But resistance to the project remained. Over the next 15 years, Chand fought off attacks on the garden by government workers and a lawyers association that coveted the now-60-acre site for new roads and a parking lot. In 1990, a bulldozer was stopped in its tracks by a wall of children, artists and residents.

As Chand’s fame spread, Paris and Washington commissioned similar gardens. A commendation letter in Chand’s office, signed by then-Washington Mayor Marion Barry, designates Oct. 5, 1985, as Nek Chand Day there.

But Chand’s relationship with local authorities remained uneasy. Driving it, some say, was envy that the largely uneducated Chand was getting so much foreign attention. “The administration was jealous and insecure,” said Chand, who still works at the garden most days.

Gautam Kaul, Chandigarh’s senior police superintendent in the late 1970s, said many officials were charmed after seeing the oddity. “I can’t recall too many senior officials objecting to the garden,” said Kaul, now retired. “It was mostly jealous coworkers.”

John Maizels, editor of Raw Vision magazine and a member of a foundation charged with protecting the garden, describes it as a “wonder of the modern world.”

Chand, who modestly says he’s not an artist, says he never plans in advance, shaping the scraps as the spirit moves him.

At its best, his vision suggests a childlike magic, with walls embedded with broken electrical switches, fragments of plates, porcelain toilet bits, broken bangles. At its worst, said the critics who spoke up before it gained international recognition, it’s a waste of space, a mess, a glorified junk heap.

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“He built what his heart desired,” said his son Anuj Saini, 47, a businessman. “He was like a little child building sandcastles.”

Chand said he wanted to avoid the vistas found in traditional gardens so visitors would keep wondering what was around the next corner. He believes there are gods in the rocks and trees — a feature of Hinduism — but says he respects all religions. The small doors, he says, are so visitors are forced to, in effect, bow to the deities.

Sitting on a rickety chair in his small office in the garden, he graciously meets with tourists, autographing books and mustering enough English to charm some foreign guests. “You’re an inspiration to the spirit of the individual,” a Canadian tourist said recently.

Seema Bawa, an art critic, historian and curator, said Chand has never been appreciated much in Indian art circles for his innovation and aesthetic.

“Unfortunately, he’s still not considered mainstream but more as an eccentric using bits of toilets,” she said. “It’s a very significant piece of architectural space he’s created, although it remains to be seen with time what’s the actual aesthetic value of this, as with any art piece.”

Chand said he saw but never met Le Corbusier, although he once brought rabbits to the designer’s nephew after hearing that French people liked to eat them.

Chand’s garden has been called a Le Corbusier alter ego compared with the famous architect’s clean lines and 1960s concrete. Chand’s work is a riot of color, form, exuberance.

Chand believes Le Corbusier would have liked his garden if he’d lived long enough. Sharma, who knew him well, agrees, saying, “A good look is a good look.”

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Tanvi Sharma of The Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.


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