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LOOK: Nek Chand's Rock Garden

Art takes many forms, but often, the media remain the same. Not so in Chandigarh, India, where an unlikely artist, 82-year-old...

Art takes many forms, but often, the media remain the same. Not so in Chandigarh, India, where an unlikely artist, 82-year-old Nek Chand, uses the earth itself to forge his masterpiece. His Rock Garden is a 25-acre maze of mosaic pathways, waterfalls, and hidden chambers that's home to thousands of surreal human and animal figurines. The garden is constructed entirely of industrial waste, organic materials, and other recycled items, making it one of Asia's largest recycling projects.

In the late 1950s, Chand, a road inspector from what is now Pakistan, began collecting electrical sockets, broken bangles, burnt-out bulbs, blown tires, and other bits of waste that had accumulated around Chandigarh. By 1965, working nights and weekends to avoid police detection, Chand had constructed an illicit sculpture garden, reworking found rubbish into hundreds of male, female, and animal figurines-some with real hair collected from barber shops-in a jungle clearing behind his home.Amazingly, the secret garden wasn't discovered until 1973, almost 15 years after he'd started the project. Officials found themselves in a bit of a pickle: Technically, it was illegally-occupying government land. Fortunately for Chand, and for us, a few enlightened officers weren't opposed to bending the rules. Not only was the project saved, Chand was given a salary and 50 laborers to dedicate himself full-time to the project, which was officially opened in 1976.
While official city support has waned over the years, the thousands of admirers from India and around the world have worked together to maintain the project-fighting to preserve access roads and restore it after brushes with vandalism. In 1997, Nek Chand Foundation was officially formed in London to work with Indian politicians to keep the park open. The Foundation also recruits foreign volunteers to help Chand clean, restore, and build new sculptures throughout the garden."People love the garden and the way it reveals itself to the visitor," says Professor Tony Rajer, U.S. director of the Nek Chand Foundation. Besides being a great source of pride for Chandigarh, the Rock Garden's inspired eco-friendly projects outside of India, such as the Children's Rock Garden in Washington, D.C. "Hundreds of school kids recycled broken pottery to make the garden," Rajer tells us. "It was a green effort." (Unfortunately, that garden was destroyed by vandals, although some of the individual sculpture was saved.)Now, an average of 3,000 people visit the Rock Garden each day, which makes it one of India's most-visited tourist attractions. And Nek Chand, who turns 83 this December, is still hard at work in the studio behind the garden, fixing mosaics and making new sculptures, and forcing us to reconsider the definition of trash.
The Rock Garden is located in north Chandigarh, Sector 1, and open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from October to March and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. between April and September. From New Delhi, the Shatabdi Express train runs two or three times daily to Chandigarh. The journey lasts about three hours. The foundation is always looking for volunteers. Fill out this form to apply.

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