Volunteer Report August 2015

by John Francis Cross

I shook hands with the high and mighty of Chandigarh, and met many old friends. This was a different kind of volunteer visit and this is a different kind of report.

My mission was to see and report what is going on at the Rock Garden following Nek Chand’s death in June, and meet people who may help complete and preserve his legacy of work.

Starting at the top, I had a brief meeting with Mr Anurag Agarwal, Home Secretary of Chandigarh. To meet such officials, you go to the large set of buildings that house the government of Chandigarh, the Union Territory Secretariat, and make an application for a visiting permit at reception. You need to show ID and have a photograph taken. Permit in hand I went to the office of Mr Agarwal’s Under Secretary, Mr Gooshen Gilder and presented my Nek Chand Foundation card. After some waiting I was ushered into the presence of Mr Agarwal, who was wearing exactly the same sandals as me. A good omen, surely.

The Home Secretary was very gracious and positive. He seemed genuinely interested in the Rock Garden and supportive of the NCF. Very different from some previous administrators I met. He said he hoped more overseas volunteer groups would visit in future. He also said he wanted Phase 3 of the Garden to be finished. He said the administration was very carefully considering how to manage the Rock Garden now that the original Creator & Director post of Nek Chand is vacant.

As I was leaving I asked for a favour. This was the only moment any sign of a frown crossed Mr Agarwal’s brow. But he was all smiles when I said the favour was a photograph together. He chose to stand under the portrait of Gandhi.

The same afternoon, in a new glass and concrete mall-cum-office complex in Chandigarh’s Industrial Area 1, I was received by Mr David Lelliott OBE, British Deputy High Commissioner, and served a most excellent cup of tea. Mr Lelliott was friendly and offered to help the NCF and the Rock Garden. For his photo he stood next to some Nek Chand statues outside the British Council offices.

I also met and had several conversations with a fervent Chandigarh-based supporter of the Rock Garden, Professor Mani Dhillon. Professor Dhillon has been helpful and hospitable to a number of NCF international volunteers in the past couple years and is a gracious lady from the elite of Chandigarh society. At her elegant home she gave me a nutritious dinner and useful advice on a wide range of matters. Professor Dhillon has a long-term commitment to the NCF.

Another important local supporter the Rock Garden is Mr R K Bedi, an old friend of Nek Chand, and the prime ally of Nek Chand’s son, Anuj Saini, in his application to become the second Director of the Rock Garden. Mr Bedi is a very capable businessman and organizer with significant work experience overseas as evidenced by his fondness for German-brand coffee. We had a long discussion over coffee (Mr Bedi) and chai and biscuits (myself).

Mr Bedi introduced me to Mr Harsh Kumar, a retired city engineer who worked side-by-side with Nek Chand on the construction of the Rock Garden in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When the administration of Chandigarh took the enlightened decision to preserve and expand Nek Chand’s hitherto secret creation, it appointed civil engineers to work on the project, and Mr Harsh was one of the first. We toured the Rock Garden together and he spoke passionately of the joy and excitement he had working every day for six or seven years with the man he still calls ‘leader’. He said almost every single stone was put in position under the individual direction of Nek Chand. Mr Harsh is an important source of information of the Rock Garden, its construction, its meaning and its intended final form.

To offer my condolences to Nek Chand’s family I paid a short visit to their home. I could not help being amazed and delighted to see a kind of ‘rabbit world’ at the front of the house. A protected rabbit-friendly terrain including a tiny flowing stream (a very Nek Chand touch, I think) and several burrows (almost certainly dug by the rabbits themselves) from which emerged a dozen or so lively and unafraid tri-coloured rabbits. Maybe they thought I was bringing timothy hay.

At the Rock Garden I met some old friends of mine and of many previous volunteers. Mr Ramraj Gupta was found sweeping in high places and shouting at misbehaving visitors. Never too busy to offer me chai, of course.

Smt. Shakuntla Devi and her family have been friends to many volunteers, overcoming language and cultural barriers with ease. They are still living in the Rock Garden, and their continued presence has been assured by Anuj Saini.

Information boards put in place by NCF volunteers in March 2012 are still mainly intact. The first board, near the Rock Garden entrance is in the worst condition, and the tree that previously supported it has fallen. But people are still reading it. Five others are in good condition and in their original places. One sign has been dumped in the back of a souvenir shop just before the second waterfall.

On a Saturday morning I made my first ever visit to the Chandigarh Secretariat, Le Corbusier’s architectural masterpiece. I got a visit permit from the newly built tourist office in Sector 1 and as I exited the office I was aware of a man on bamboo scaffolding above my head. I looked up to him and he looked in my direction. That sentence sums up our relationship. It was Ranjid, the daily-wage worker who patiently taught and helped many volunteers at the Rock Garden with sculpting and tiling. He cannot speak English but can communicate with anybody. Many of the calm, timeless faces of the ‘white men’ statues are Ranjid’s work. Of all the people I have met at the Rock Garden, apart from Nek Chand himself, Ranjid is the one who makes me feel most humble and respectful.

Ranjid is still labouring for the city of Chandigarh but has been shifted from Rock Garden work. He doesn’t have an address. I will send his photo to him via Shakuntla Devi.

Two friendly tourist policemen spent a Saturday morning with me touring the buildings, open hand and ponds of Le Corbusier’s monumental work. They were new to the police and one had been a call centre worker for Scottish Power. I mentioned Chetan Bhagat’s novel ‘One Night @ the Call Centre’ and he laughed and said, ‘Almost everything in that book is true’.

Another old friend of NCF volunteers is the artist and (currently) PhD student, Shifa Mahajan. She introduced me to the snack and sweets café Bikanervala. The rose petal confection was one of Shifa’s recommendations and it conveyed the fragrance of one hundred rose blooms on to my tastebuds.

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