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Hoard of Trash Becomes Works of Art : Indian Elevates Garbage to Sculpture

January 31, 1988|ROBERT MAHONEY | Reuters

CHANDIGARH, India — After years of secretly collecting old toilet bowls, broken bangles and bits of rock, Nek Chand finally made it.

Not as a scrap merchant but as an internationally acclaimed sculptor.

Each night after work for 12 years, Chand, a self-effacing municipal worker, hoarded trash on a secluded plot of land.

Far from prying eyes he built a garden filled with strange rocks and fantastic figures fashioned from junk.

Such is the international interest in Chand's work that the Washington Children's Museum had him build a smaller version in the U.S. capital two years ago.

The Smithsonian magazine compared him to such modern giants as Max Ernst and Joan Miro.

And the French government hired him to build an exhibit at the Paris Museum of Modern Art in 1980.

Chand's 12-acre garden is now the greatest attraction in Chandigarh, the garden city built by French architect Le Corbusier as capital of Punjab state in the 1950s.

He has converted scrap into lifelike figures. More than 20,000 sculptures sprout from rock formations, grottoes, waterfalls, canals and bridges that Chand and his wife started building in 1958.

On taking a closer look at the figures, visitors often blink in amazement.

A hat turns out to be a broken teacup, an arm a piece of an old porcelain toilet bowl.

The man himself is shy, soft spoken and slightly bewildered by the highbrow attention his garden has attracted.

"I have had no training in art, in drawing. Everything is in my brain, it is God's gift to me," Chand, a devout Hindu, said.

The 62-year-old former city road inspector works to no real plan and gets ideas once he has started working with the material.

"Waste is just lying around; I started carrying scrap home on my bicycle, and the garden just grew from there," he said.

Chand and his wife illegally took over a plot of deserted government land and built a mud hut from which to work.

"I was afraid that somebody might see what I was doing and shunt me out, but I continued in secret for 12 years.

"Then it came to light and government officers came over here to look, and they liked it."

Chand's surreal creation went down so well that the government took it over and opened it to the public 11 years ago.

Today, more than 2,000 people a day thread their way through the narrow passages between soft-curved boulders and ranks of human and animal statues.

Chand has more than 200 workers to help him with the garden, which he hopes to expand to 60 acres by the early 1990s.

He no longer needs to scavenge, as people now bring their scrap and industrial waste to him. But he still enjoys going to the nearby Himalayan foothills to collect unusual rocks.

In the right setting and with a little imagination, the natural formations in the rocks take on recognizable forms.

Beside the boulders Chand makes whole mosaic walls and figures with bits of broken china, glass bangles, neon tubes and other odds and ends.

Glass bottles and tin cans are not much in evidence, as they are never thrown away in India but sold.

Behind the garden, tons of sculptures and hundreds of rag dummies of people and animals wait in sheds for a place to be displayed.

Chand does not want to be called an artist, but he does believe he has breathed life into his creations. He prefers to call his project "The Kingdom of Gods and Goddesses," rather than its official name, Chandigarh Rock Garden.

He has forced visitors to bow frequently to the deities by constructing a series of deliberately low archways along the winding path through the rock maze.

Chand has no plans to give up his work even though he has officially retired.

"I've still got lots of junk out there," he said.

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