Fantastic Trash, Modular Man, and the Postcolonial City
While the city of Chandigarh -- modular man -- marched visibly, unabashedly into scientific modernity, Nek Chand -- the trash man -- began secretly transforming his odd collection of junk into art.
From Chand's Rock Garden
"Let this be a new city symbolic of the freedom of India. Unfettered by the traditions of the past . . . an expression of the nation's faith in the future." Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India, describing his vision for Chandigarh in 1951.
1947 was a year of both cautious exultation and absolute horror in South Asia. Independence from British rule arrived with a catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions. The partition of the former subcontinental administrative unit into India and Pakistan precipitated a nightmare of displacement, migration, rioting, and communal killing that left few pockets of the region untouched. Thus was the country of India born; amidst this bloodshed and division the first generation of post-colonial Indian leaders had to scramble to fulfill the imperative of imagining into existence a new national community.
Mahatma Gandhi, of course, had accompanied his performance as the symbolic head of the subcontinental freedom movement with a sustained call for a nationwide return to the agrarian, simple life of traditional India. The village, he argued, should be the heart of newly independent India. In India's immediate post-partition era of transformation, rebuilding, and building anew, however, Prime Minister Nehru abandoned Gandhi's traditionalism. Scientific socialism, non-alignment, industrialization these became the words and ideas that peppered the new Indian political landscape, the language that sculpted the official vision of the country's future. In the wake of partition's devastation, though, Nehru's aggressive gaze toward a technological, planned modernity needed an arena in which to physically establish itself, in order to prove its viability.
In all of the new country of India, no region had been more completely devastated by partition's violence than the Punjab. The historic capital of the fertile plains of the northwestern state, Lahore, had been reincarnated as the capital of Pakistan, leaving the region clogged with thousands of Hindu refugees from the north. A new capital city of the state of Punjab would have to be built from scratch. What better opportunity to construct an urban space that would epitomize Nehru's forward-looking modernization drive? In 1951, a state committee commissioned famed Swiss architect Le Corbusier, then approaching the twilight of an illustrious career, to lead a team of European planners in designing such a city: Chandigarh.
Le Corbusier imagined a capital that would be a perfect incarnation of aesthetic modernism and global modernity. His city would be constructed as a rectangular grid based on a system of proportions adopted from the metaphor of a human body, called the Modular Man. The Capitol building and administrative structures would comprise the head of the city-man, industrial and educational belts would form the limbs, the commercial center would be the heart. The grid would be divided into numbered sectors based, again, on a specific proportional system (with dimensions taken from Paris). Even the roads were categorized into seven different types, based on projected speed and type of traffic. To Le Corbusier, Chandigarh's design was a paragon of scientific planning. Order and technology would be humanized by green spaces in a decongested city "heart"; a steady urban heartbeat would ensure the healthy functioning of the city's limbs and head. To Nehru and India's new technocratic leaders, Chandigarh would epitomize progress and the country's future a future "unfettered by the chains of the past."
Construction of the new city began immediately. Chandigarh, however, did not arise from a space of nothingness; some 20 pre-existing villages were razed and their residents displaced to make way for this revolutionary urban experiment. In 1951, the year that this process of destruction and construction was initiated, a young man named Nek Chand moved to the site of the future Chandigarh, where he gained employment as one of the thousands building the city. By 1958 Chand was a Roads Inspector for the by then functional city of Chandigarh, and had begun to work on the construction of his own city of sorts. He cleared a small area in the wooded area on Chandigarh's outskirts where he began collecting trash. Chand's assortment of garbage, gleaned from the construction and functioning of the urban machine, consisted of everything from bits of steel furniture and cycle tires to broken tube lights and plumbing fixtures. To these discarded shreds of modern civilization he added debris representative of traditional Indian life; shattered glass bangles and shards of handmade pottery. To top it off, Chand aggregated a hoard of pebbles, unusually formed stones, and fossil rocks.
While the city of Chandigarh modular man marched visibly, unabashedly into scientific modernity, Nek Chand the trash man began secretly transforming his odd collection of junk into art. He worked by night, and soon had amassed hundred of stone and garbage sculptures and erected a growing environment of interlinking courtyards in which to house them. Unlike Le Corbusier, who obsessively planned the city of Chandigarh on paper according to precise mathematics, Chand built his miniature kingdom without a blueprint or formal plan. As Chand's fantastic creation grew, so did the likelihood that officials would discover his very illegal sculpture garden. The day finally came in 1972, when a Government working party stumbled across the garden of thousands of stones and statues while clearing the forest. The publicizing of what would quickly become know as the Rock Garden began, as hundreds flocked to Chand's space to view his fantastic, almost surrealist kingdom in the forest. Simultaneously, an official uproar arose, ostensibly over how to treat such a baffling use of forbidden goods in a forbidden area.
But the tamasha (racket) over the official discovery of Chand's project was, at its heart, about more than violated zoning laws. The event comprised an unprecedented encounter between contrapuntal forces an encounter between an ordered, standardized, "official" universe, on one hand, and a secret, irrational, unplanned imagination, on the other. The gleaming new, modern city of Chandigarh had expanded to reach, on its border, a miniature haven constructed from the very waste that the city of the future could not acknowledge in its single-minded march into the machine age. To complicate things further, the Rock Garden soon won international acclaim as a brilliant fusion of art and nature, a symbolically rich and powerful act of reinvesting waste with beauty. The Garden, enthusiasts asserted, offered an alternative vision of an ideal modernity; organic, dynamic, grounded in history (waste being emblematic of the past), and environmentally sustainable. Such a vision, according to this reading, held particular resonance in the context of a newly independent country struggling to define its postcolonial identity as it graduates from rural traditionalism into autonomous modernity.
So what happened? Officials decided to treat this perplexing phenomenon by sanctioning the Garden and effectively legitimizing it, and in 1976 city authorities even relieved Chand of his duties as Road Inspector so that he could work full time on developing his Rock Garden. Armed with a salary and a paid cadre of 50 laborers and a truck, Chand was able to expand his initial courtyards and sculpture collection into the vast, 20-plus acre wonderland containing thousands of individual works of art that it is today.
Indeed, the Rock Garden presently comprises one of Chandigarh's primary attractions and welcomes hundreds of visitors every day. The verdant space consists of three "phases" that visitors traverse in chronological order, following winding paths under lowered arches and through massive clearings, surrounded by trees, waterfalls, and, of course, sculpture. Phase I's entrance, though modest, acts as a portal of sorts from the well-ordered, gridded streets of the city to the labyrinthine walkways of Chand's fantasyland. The earliest, simpler walled courtyards of the garden's first phase (completed in 1965) lead into Phase II (completed in 1983) Chand's "lost kingdom". Spacious plazas house massive, otherworldly arrangements of rocks piled high; lush gardens pair manicured greenery with breathtaking sculptures consisting of concrete poured over imposing serpentine tree roots pulled above the ground; an entire miniature village contains homes, temples, and thousands of tiny human and creature figures.
Chand's sculptures, like most of the garden's walls, are concrete and trash mosaics, composed of carefully arranged shards of pottery, glass, and junk from Chandigarh's waste sites. The statues are oddly surrealist in some ways, yet their construction of the living human and animal form is immediately reminiscent of the distinct style of the tribal sculpture and art of the plains of Central India. Similarly, the Rock Garden's buildings evoke various modes of traditional Indian architecture ranging from the arches and domes of Mughal palaces to the simple robustness of the village home. Despite the weirdly futuristic and alien aura of some of the rock compositions, the garden feels grounded in both a traditional Indian context and in nature itself. The towers of plumbing fixtures are populated by birds and other resident creatures of this living forest, the statues are humanized by the addition of actual human hair (from barber shops) and pieces of women's colorful bangles. The gurgling of running water adds a living soundtrack to the art.
In Phase III (nearing completion) the Rock Garden morphs from an intricate wooded kingdom of nature into a vast, epic playground for its human visitors. Here paths open into an enormous clearing, containing huge pavilions, an open-air theater, and an aquarium. Most incredible, though, are the giant swings hung from massive concrete arches designed like ancient Roman aqueducts, on which hundreds of people can play, gather, and soar. Phase III, in fact, transforms art into city; the Rock Garden becomes more than an installation here it grows into an unhampered, physically beautiful forum for unorganized human activity.
Of course, it is at this point that it becomes easy to conceive of the Rock Garden as defined against the other against which it is fortified by its surrounding wall namely, the city of Chandigarh itself. Today Chandigarh, while undeniably one of India's wealthiest and organized urban spaces, is just as contentious a site as it was while still a blueprint on paper in 1951. The main criticism of the city is precisely that it doesn't allow for the sort of dynamic human movement that is integrated with the design of Chand's space. The argument goes thus: Chandigarh's conception represented a forced attempt to graft grids and scientific maps onto a living, moving India. Today, accordingly, the city's residents must squeeze themselves into a fundamentally Western version of the ordered "radiant city" (Le Corbusier's term) and therefore deny the cultural and historical context of the space itself as well as the shifting vitality of their own lives.
Chandigarh is indeed unlike any other large city in India, enjoying a most improbable existence in a country of sprawling, pulsing, and disordered urban spaces that consistently walk the fine line between coherence and chaos, functionality and irrationality. Conspicuously absent from Le Corbusier's Modular Man design is space for that glorious arena of India's poorer majority, the informal economy. The true beauty of Indian cities, arguably, lies not in their grand mosques, temples, or colonial structures, but in their crowded, vibrant chowk (bazaar) sections. Chandigarh lacks such noisy, colorful, and dirty public spaces for gathering, haggling, praying, and living. The city can be aptly described as green and clean, but sterile. Le Corbusier's Modular Man design does in fact pay shockingly little attention to the exigencies of the modern Indian content, in both a spiritual and material sense.
Criticisms of Chandigarh are not limited to the fact that the "open hand" theme and modernist buildings of Le Corbusier's design that Nehru so avidly celebrated have little relevance to the city's local citizens. Nor is the debate centered solely around Chandigarh's deliberate effort to obscure the history of the city's space: the 20 villages that were razed to make way for urban construction, the agrarian origins of the Punjabi people, the disruption of partition. Actually, the most pressing crisis facing Chandigarh today is that the city's excessive planning has left no room for a population that, as across North India, is exploding at an exponential rate. While Chandigarh's sectors, shopping malls, and housing colonies account for the city's wealthier residents' high quality of life, the growing poorer segment of the population is crowding into insalubrious slums and squatter colonies at the outskirts of the planned "heart" of the "radiant city".
What is clear, above all, is that in order to maintain itself as a socially viable, healthy city in coming years, Chandigarh will have to adapt. Is a city based on abstract proportions taken from Western contexts and scientifically planned from scratch equipped for such change? Skeptics will find an easy contrast to Le Corbusier's rigid, technocratic planning in the Rock Garden, which grew rather spontaneously, gradually, and organically, while incorporating the human and living landscape of its site as it expanded.
While Le Corbusier arrived in the Punjab as a Westerner, an elite, and a professional, Chand grew into his current status of "artist" from unassuming amateur origins. Accordingly, the latter has been accorded the title of "outsider artist" a designation, of course, that is not without its own problems, but that is significant in light of its contrast to the specialized cadre of designers that imagined Chandigarh into existence. While Chandigarh was conceived of as being, in Nehru's words, "unfettered to the past", the Rock Garden depends on the past, incorporates the past, and is actually constructed by physical evidence of the past: debris, garbage, human and technological waste. The binary opposites that Chandigarh and the Rock Garden represent can be construed seemingly endlessly: planning versus spontaneity, order versus the irrational, the standard versus the fantastic, the inaccessible versus the participatory, the static versus the dynamic, the new versus the recycled, the technological versus the organic, and so on.
But is such categorization and polarization ultimately useful? The complexity of postcolonial cities such as Chandigarh cannot be appreciated without attention to their contradictions and their ambivalence. In 1951 Le Corbusier introduced an abstract, Western-originated design to the Punjab based on an originally Western understanding of Modernism and modernity. But Chandigarh in 2003 has grown to become an unmistakably Indian city. To view Nehru's socialism, Chandigarh's Modernism, and India's post-independence drives towards urbanization and non-alignment and away from Gandhian traditionalism as examples of ideological importations that stifled the development of an authentic, indigenous Indian identity is, at best, reductive. At worst, it represents dangerous cultural essentializing and stereotyping.
More productive than placing Le Corbusier's city and Chand's fantastic project in opposition to each other is a re-evaluation of their shared qualities. In fact, the two intersect in many places, and effectively supplement each other where their deficiencies lie. Aesthetically, both Le Corbusier and Chand have much in common: the fluid use of concrete and the love of greenness and natural complements to the man-made. Philosophically, too, comparisons are possible if attempted without a myopic eye. Both the "Radiant city" and the Rock Garden are utopian adventures; both recognize the transformative potential of shaping spaces; and both acknowledge the political stake of artistic decisions. At their best, both Le Corbusier and Chand were attempting to explore new ways to define a healthy mode of human existence in concert with the natural environment. Finally, both were consciously embarking on a search for cultural, national, and human identity in a new technological, global, urban era, while appreciating that such identity is fluid; created in the erection and functioning of such living spaces.
The brief history lesson that opened this column introduced the loaded political context in which the issues raised above played out in the heady era of post-independence India. The dialogue, however, continues today with equal resonance. The contradictions of Chandigarh and its Rock Garden demonstrate that the larger debate over what shape the new, global city should take is still unresolved. To what extent should the built environment interact with its living inhabitants? How flexible should the skeleton of cities and technologies be to the mercurial demands of an expanding populace? Can order and modernization be sustained alongside tradition? And, finally, how should history be treated in the postcolonial nation? Should it be discarded in favor of a tabula rasa or recycled into the construction of a new, yet contextualized and specific identity?
Though of particular significance to the developing world, the Chandigarh debate touches also upon issues of universal accord. India is still predominantly rural and still undergoing enormous cultural upheavals and identity transformations as it urbanizes, modernizes, and enters the global sphere. The issues it faces as it does so call for large-minded analysis and a healthy, Chand-like imagination. It is such thinking that will carry the city of Chandigarh successfully into the 21st century. And it is with such thinking that the myriad problems of a quickly globalizing world in these weird and wonderful times should be tackled.