Nek Chand and the secret statues of Chandigarh

In 1996 I was assigned by the Independent on Sunday Magazine to photograph and write a story about Chandigarh, a city in India’s Punjab that had been entirely designed and planned along Modernist lines by the architect and planner, Le Corbusier. I first wrote about that assignment on this blog in 2010 – see here.

During that assignment, my driver recommended that I go and visit a rather dubious sounding rock garden that had been created. Bored and irritable under the blazing sun I turned up asking for a chap called Nick – responsible for what I believed was a inconvenience between me and my hotel room. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nek Chand, the charming elderly man that met me had, in his spare time – in secret – over the last two decades, built the most extraordinary statue kingdom out of waste materials. By the time the authorities had discovered it, it had grown into a 13-acre complex of interlinked courtyards, each filled with hundreds of pottery-covered concrete sculptures of dancers, musicians, and animals. It was extraordinary. The garden had been embroiled in a fantastic tale of urban corruption, vandalism and official obfuscation but like all good Indian fables, right had triumphed and the forces of destruction had been defeated. The garden would become one of the most iconic sights in that city and Chandigarh would become proud of its amateur artist and his bizarre dream. This morning I learned that Nek Chand, one of the world’s dreamers had passed away at the grand old age of 90. What a sad loss.


India - Chandigarh - Nek Chand in his Rock Garden.
India – Chandigarh – Nek Chand in his Rock Garden.


Selling the family silver

I first went to Chandigarh in 1996 to shoot a story for the Independent on Sunday Magazine. A fascinating place, it was chosen as the capital of the Punjab after India lost Lahore to Pakistan after Partition. Nehru famously said that Chandigarh should to be “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future.” The originally commissioned architect, Matthew Nowicki, died in a ‘plane crash and the rather difficult Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris replaced him. Jeanneret-Gris was better known as Le Corbusier. He made a bold modernist statement of concrete and angles and by the time I got there, it had started to decay nicely under the unforgiving Indian sun. It was however a rather wondrous if slightly odd beauty to behold: a thoroughly Indianised but planned city that worked. Recently it has transformed itself again into a successful metropolis of New India: plush bars, hotels and now has India’s highest per capita income. However, shortly after I left (and I had nothing to do with this, honestly) some enterprising wags started selling off anything that wasn’t bolted down to Western collectors desperate for anything Corbusier. Lamps, manhole covers and as much furniture as could be, ahem… ‘lost’ have been turning up in auction houses mostly in the UK. Andrew Buncombe in today’s Independent has a good write up on it and how many in the Indian government have been trying to lobby to stop this rather sad episode.

Anyway, here’s some of my favourite pictures…

India - Chandigarh - A man cycles past The Open Hand statue
India - Chandigarh - A column and window of the Parliament Building
India - Chandigarh - A man carries a bundle of clothing past the High Court building
India - Chandigarh - In the middle of the day, an Indian man sleeps amidst the concrete of Chandigarh
India - Chandigarh - Chief architect Jaspreet Prakash and map of Chandigarth
India - Chandigarh - A man sweeps the pavement in Chandigarh
India - Chandigarh - A man walks through a pedestrian zone in Chandigarh
India - Chandigarh - A man sleeps under some stairs in the modernist city of Chandigarh
India - Chandigarh - A man bowls a cricket ball to his friend in a car park
India - Chandigarh - A man rests by a concrere pillar in Chandigarh
India - Chandigarh - Detail of the High Court building