Some may call it junk, but to India's Nek Chand Saini, it's grist for the gods.
Since 1958, the former municipal public works inspector has been quietly collecting rocks, broken dinner plates, cast iron and anything donors throw his way and transforming them into what the Indian government has officially labeled a national treasure: the rock garden at Chandigarh near Delhi, a 12-acre area of waterfalls, canals, bridges, mountains, and figures of people and animals made out of found materials. Now his work can be seen at the Capital Children's Museum, where he is creating a smaller scale garden, scheduled for completion late next month.
Chand, a soft-spoken man of 60, started the Chandigarh Garden in India with only his wife and a rickety bicycle for help. There has been more than physical energy driving him, he says.
"When I'm working, I simply feel if God is not pushing me, am I able to do this work? No," says Chand, a sun-stained man with graying hair. "Something is pushing behind me which is not visible."
Pointing to photographs of the original Chandigarh Garden lining the walls in a museum hallway, Chand refers to the figures with the reverence of a high priest. "This is the well of the kingdom," he says indicating a concrete structure, "where the gods come to take the water and go back to their place." Of another: "The king comes from his palace through these arches to sit on the throne." Beneath the gods is Chand's complicated water system, starting with a water source, which also serves as the bath of the gods, and then flowing via waterfalls and canals back to its source. "It is done in such a way that you cannot dream it is recycled."
Chand asks that Chandigarh visitors join him in acknowledging the deities. The garden is surrounded by walls with deliberately low arches so that "people have to bow to get through, to give respect to the king and the kingdom of gods and goddesses."
Chand is getting an earthly push from the almighty dollar for the Washington garden. The Washington business community, led by Sigal Construction Corp., is financing the project to the unprecedented tune (locally) of more than a million dollars in donated time, labor and materials. Already much is in evidence: the poured concrete foundations for Chand's miniature villages and figures, over which a roof with skylights has been erected; the volunteers preparing the statues in a shed; other workers tamping the sand flat outside the museum for a brick walk -- all of this gratis. And, as he walks around the museum observing this activity, Chand seems more like a benign foreman than a visionary mind.
"Here will be villages in India made from rags," says Chand, pointing to a construction area that will be enclosed by glass. "As well as men, women, animals, bullocks, whatever we have in India. Around it will be glass and here the door."
He has taught some of the volunteers, mostly local students, how to make the statues. "It's easy . . . This takes no partaking of degrees. You learn in a day," he says leaning over the face of one of his statues, his finger inscribing the familiar straight eyelids, lips and nose of a Buddha. "First you do like this, then this, then this.
"I don't do drawings. I directly work on everything . . . Without material, there is no idea," says Chand, picking up two plastic U-shaped objects on the ground. "First material, then idea. These will be something," he says holding up the found pieces. He points to an unspectacular black rubber object sitting on a workbench, which will also be used somewhere (it is identified later as part of an automotive brake). Sitting unceremoniously in dusty boxes by the entrance are soda bottles that eventually will festoon some of the museum's outer walls. Chand is waiting for an additional 10 metric tons of soon-to-be-artistic flotsam that will be delivered, free, from India by the Indian government. Altogether, the government will have shipped an estimated 30 metric tons of material for the new garden.
Applying a half-kilo glob of cement or layers of cloth rags to a scrap metal frame, and making spare, but strategic, delineations, the untutored Chand makes his statues with a primitive eloquence, with the child's eye that Picasso valued so highly. One stalwart figure, in pith helmet and truncheon, conveys the Gurkha rigidity of an Indian policeman. Female figures arch their backs in a graceful human parabola, holding flowerpots on their heads or behind their backs. Colored pieces of glass or slate that were once beer bottles or bathroom tiles adorn the backs and breasts of animals or birds in a mosaic design. Chand gives junk the Midas touch.
"When the rays of the sun come up," says Chand, pointing to the mosaics, "they light up, and when the rays of the moon shine, then they shine like candlelight. I consider these as jewels of the rock garden."
Chand is one of a diverse group of untrained visionaries who show up on various points of the globe from time to time having created art from trash. Sam Rodia, an uneducated Italian immigrant who lived in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the 1920s, worked more than 30 years building the exotic, almost Babylonian, Watts Towers out of similar refuse. James Hampton, a janitor for the General Services Administration, whose gold foil and tinfoil work, "Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly" (exhibited at the National Museum of American Art), was constructed in a garage over a period of 14 years.
They construct obsessively for reasons best articulated within their own minds. Their art is more than just a triumph over trash: it's a calling.
"Simply," says Chand, "I am doing."
When Pakistan was partitioned from India in 1947, Chand's Hindustani family moved from Moslem Pakistan to Chandigarh, near Delhi, where the pronounced architectural and social decay already was doing its best to belie Le Corbusier's original design for the city. It was there the garden project began.
"It was a wasteland," says Chand of the area where he began collecting his objects. "It was only my hobby. I had not told anybody about it . . . I never had an idea people would come and see this."
Chand's idea was simple: To make a humble paean to "all the gods and goddesses of the world . . . those who have gone to Heaven, or who are gods."
He had been put in charge of a warehouse and dump in the area, which gave him immediate materials. He persuaded people to donate additional rejects from factories, tailor shops, homes and the streets. Building a shanty on the premises, Chand and his wife braved heat and a swampy terrain -- with its accompanying mosquitoes and cobras -- to work on the project. Over the years, the area became both a city dump and a shrine for the gods. Out of a junk heap came the garden.
The "donations" increased, as did the visitors. "Factory owners and mill owners everywhere would send it materials to me. Or they'd call for me and I'd get it," says Chand. Familiar with building large infrastructures, Chand built whole mountains more than 50 feet high, carrying what stones he could on his bicycle and accepting the help of friends with jeeps and trucks. Gradually a hidden society of deities and animals, living in a landscaped maze of exotic vegetation, slate footpaths, waterways and courtyards, was formed. It had already become a national attraction by the time the government inaugurated the Nek Chand Rock Garden in 1976 and awarded Chand the prestigious Padma Shri award for achievement.
"There are 200 people and a truck now working," says Chand, whom the government appointed to run the garden at a rate of $150 a month. With the support, Chand was able to expand the area to a 12-acre kingdom, which now boasts more than 2,000 visitors a day. In five to six years, says Chand, the garden will be a 60-acre spread.
After reading about Chand's garden, Ann Lewin, president of the National Learning Center -- which operates the Capital Children's Museum -- visited Chandigarh last fall. After seeing the rock garden, she invited Chand to do a similar venture in Washington.
"She said, 'Can you come?' I said, 'I'll see to it,' " says Chand.
"I'd never seen anything like it," says Lewin about the Chandigarh garden. "There's an amazing sense of peace and tranquility, almost a spiritual quality. Twelve acres is a lot of space. His passageways lead you back and forth and you get the impression it's even more space."
Lewin found that Chand doesn't take just anything. On a planning visit with architects and contractors in January, Chand told them he needed to find a natural rock for the garden. The trouble was, he told them, "American rocks have no soul."
So "a group of us," says Lewin, "got in a truck and tried to find rocks with soul." They drove to Great Falls, passing rock after soulless rock, until Chand finally spotted the perfect one. But "it turned out to be one mass of bedrock." They eventually found a four-ton rock that satisfied Chand and brought it back, thanks to a donated flatbed truck and crane.
"Look how many shapes it has," says Chand, pointing to the rock. "It speaks."
Chand, a venerated figure in his country, carries none of the prima donna's baggage, however. He supervises the Washington volunteers quietly, almost shyly. He is also reluctant to accept the label of artist so readily applied to him, insisting his work is nothing more than a hobby. Smithsonian magazine, however, compared his works to those of Miro', Ernst and Arp. The French government commissioned him to build an exhibit at the Paris Museum of Modern Art and awarded him the Grande Me'daille de Vermeil in 1980.
He has no great ponderings to impart, he said, except perhaps "a message to the world that they should not waste things. In the United States and the world nobody should waste."
Chand, who has been here since May, will remain until the garden's completion, scheduled for the end of next month. After its unveiling, he will return to Chandigarh for the 60-acre finale of the garden there. Although the government recently retired him as concierge for the Chandigarh Garden, Chand will not stop his work. Without his continued help at Chandigarh, he says, the garden "is not possible."