Nek Chand Saini, the world’s most celebrated self-taught artist, passed away on June 12, 2015, after a short illness. The funeral took place amidst unprecedented scenes in Chandigarh. His body was taken to the Rock Garden where it lay in state in a refrigerated coffin to allow throngs of mourners to pay their last respects. The next day it was taken in a cortege of vehicles, including a decorated float of sculptures, around the city before being carried to the funeral pyre which was lit by his son, Anuj Saini, to the accompaniment of a volley of rifle shots fired by a Chandigarh police contingent.
Everyone in India was aware of his death which was a major national event and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated: "Nek Chand-ji will always be remembered for his artistic genius and fabulous creation that is cherished by many. May his soul rest in peace."
The attention and respect given to Nek Chand is unusual for any artist, let alone someone who was self-taught and used to work as a roads inspector supervising labourers. It was not only the vast scope of his creation that led to such appreciation but also his humble and spiritual character which made even the most powerful and important visitor feel humility in his presence.
Nek Chand’s Rock Garden of Chandigarh encompasses 25 acres of over 2,000 sculptures set in mosaic chambers alongside waterfalls, gorges and wide open spaces. It has become the second most visited site in India after the Taj Mahal with over 5,000 visitors a day pouring through the narrow arched entrance. He created in secret for 15 years, working on strictly controlled government land before his creation was discovered. In spite of attempts to order its destruction, it was eventually embraced by the city of Chandigarh and inaugurated as the Rock Garden in 1976. Nek Chand was given a salary and 50 labourers by the city authorities to expand his creation which grew to be a modern wonder of the world.
People in Chandigarh are in shock at losing their most famous inhabitant but the responsibility of preserving the soul of the Rock Garden lies with them. The future of the Rock Garden is in the balance as the city authority does not have a good record of looking after their greatest asset. The large array of sculptures need conservation, the waterfalls need engineering maintenance, and visitors need to be supervised. The extraordinary creation of Nek Chand is a shining jewel for the whole world but his extraordinary legacy needs a real commitment from the city and professional care and conservation to survive into the future.
by John Maizels