Nek Chand’s Rock Garden and Le Corbusier in Chandigarh: reconsidering the primitive

Bandyopadhyay, S., & Jackson, I., 2007. Nek Chand’s Rock Garden and Le Corbusier in Chandigarh: reconsidering the primitive. South African Journal of Art History, 22(3), pp.116-137.


This paper is concerned with two personalities, Le Corbusier and Nek Chand, occupying, as it would appear, the extreme polarities of the creative spectrum, yet sharing the same geographic space of artistic production. Following India’s independence in 1947, and the untimely death of Matthew Nowicki that marked the demise of the Mayer-Nowicki plan, Le Corbusier was invited by the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru to design Chandigarh, a city which was to act as the new capital city of the partitioned state of Punjab. Nek Chand – a self-taught sculptor – who began life as a road inspector in Chandigarh at a time when the city was being built, constructed the Rock Garden in Chandigarh – initially illegally and as a private hobby – out of found natural rocks and the fragmented remains of the villages that once occupied the site of Chandigarh. The Garden set within 18 acres of modified landscape and ceramic-clad terrain, exists at the edge of Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex and consists of over 3000 sculptures and architectural follies. It was discovered in 1972 and eventually legalised in 1976. The garden is still under development and continues to receive around 2000 visitors each day. In spite of their widely differing backgrounds – Le Corbusier, already a world renowned architect, well-travelled and widely read, and Nek Chand, a migrant from what is now the Pakistani part of Punjab, a road inspector and a self-taught sculptor of limited education and experience – the Capitol Complex and the Rock Garden share a common ground of aesthetics. As we explore and argue in this paper, arriving from the opposite ends of the artistic horizon, their shared aesthetics is characterised by a broad negation of the classical and modernist normative aesthetic tradition and vocabulary and the embracing of primitivism, a fascination with the grotesque and the unfinished, and a tendency to treat the identifiable components of the tectonics as elements of the aesthetic. Such an implicit questioning, we argue, has been a key characteristic of avant-garde art movements from the early-twentieth century. The two personalities enter the common critical territory from two distinct directions; while Chandigarh is the result of a significant shift away from Le Corbusier’s pre-war approach, that also made the chapel at Ronchamp possible, Nek Chand began life as a self-taught ‘Outsider Artist’, whose work was ‘institutionalised’ by post-independence Indian politics. It is important to stress from the outset that the aim here is not to ‘compare and contrast’ the two creative outputs. There are, of course, many areas where Le Corbusier has received criticism (some of which we have discussed elsewhere Jackson 2003; Bandyopadhyay and Jackson 2007), and Nek Chand’s work has been positioned as an involuntary critique of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh (Prakash 2002; Jackson 2003) however, the aim here is more delicate. It is the areas of overlap and the superimposition of the creative processes of Le Corbusier and Nek Chand that will be discussed, beginning with the natural rock collections and Le Corbusier’s sketches, before considering the larger built fabric. The Rock Garden is almost as old as the city of Chandigarh; the first objects were gathered around 1958, a year before the city Edict was published. It has developed alongside the city, integrally part of it and fabricated using the same materials, yet remaining distinct and peripheral. Leah Ulansey in her review of Peter Burger’s much celebrated work, ‘Theory of the Avant-Garde’, suggests that Burger managed to recast, ‘. . . in the form of general theory of art some of the Avant-Garde’s specific concerns … : 1) the role of engagement (political commitment) of art; and 2) the self-critique of art as an institution and the problematization of art’s claim to autonomy, a claim . . . finding its apex in 19 th century Aestheticism’ (Ulansey 1984: 1192). We suggest that the latent avant-gardism in Le Corbusier’s late work and the ‘Outsider Artist’ in Nek Chand, arriving from two opposed directions, equally display political commitment and above all, question some of the established notions of aesthetics. The work of Le Corbusier post- WWII began to take a different path. Whilst still retaining a fascination with the machine and aspects of the scientific and mathematical in his architectural thought and representation – a passion that underpinned the development of Purism (with Ozenfant) and coloured his artistic and architectural works and urban speculations of the 1920s and 1930s – his later work showed an interest in the grotesque, the primitive and the unfinished. One could clearly detect the effect his brief foray into the world of avant-garde arts – Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism – had had on his creative psyche, even though, arguably, much of this influence might have contributed to the development of an aesthetic that SAJAH, ISSN 0258-3542, volume 22, number 3,2007: 116-137.

Author(s) Soumyen Bandyopadhyay
Iain Jackson
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Postcolonial Indian architecture
Area covered Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Art
Publisher Art Historical Work Group of South Africa
Publication date January 2007
Type Journal Paper
Pages 115-126