The secret sculpture garden

Nek Chand's Rock Garden (top) covers 35 acres, and is still growing Apna Arts / Paul Rogers
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It was "just a hobby", says Nek Chand, self-deprecatingly. Hardly an apposite word. A "hobby" suggests some small and inoffensive activity - like stamp-collecting or train-spotting. It does not begin to cover the creation of a whole secret empire, peopled by literally hundreds of sculptures, all made out of waste.

Nek Chand, now 72, is a quiet, self-contained man, unimpressed by the international status his "hobby" has brought him. "I am not an artist - that is just what people call me now. I am a worker, like my father."

The son of a small farmer from North India, Chand has always felt the urge to make things, he explains, but he left school early, eventually becoming a supervisor of road construction around the city of Chandigarh, in the far north of the country. The desire to create never deserted him, however, and the idea slowly grew of making objects from natural materials. Stones were his first inspiration - strange-shaped boulders that his fantasy would transform into all sorts of imagined beings. Chand began to collect suitable stones, searching the Himalayan foothills and riverbeds, and transporting promising specimens back home on the back of his bicycle. His living conditions were hardly suitable for a studio, though, so he took the bold step of covertly clearing a space in the middle of a large area of untamed undergrowth. His first act there was to build himself a small hut - 8ft square - "for sitting in", he says gravely. In this secret and illegal spot, he then began to amass his material.

Between 1958 and 1976, Chand gathered up shattered pottery shards, old bike frames, lime-kiln and metal-workshop waste, discarded street lamps, reject lavatory bowls. To him, nothing was useless. And, as the years went by, his forest clearing gradually became bigger and bigger, to accommodate his growing "kingdom" of life-size sculptures: animals, humans and fantasy creations.

Sitting in his hut after work - burning cycle tyres when the natural light failed - he would study his latest finds to see what they suggested. Bears peered out at him from cycle frames; bicycle seats became rows of manikins; hair swept up from barbershop floors decorated his human figures; waste cement provided the foundation for his statues.

Slowly, whole armies of figures grew up around him, battalions of birds. The acreage of his empire continued to spread. When 10 years or so had gone by, he let his wife and two children in on the secret, and after that they all worked away together in what he called his "rock garden". They were all careful to keep the secret - their very livelihood, they thought, depended on it. "I was afraid I might be shunted out of my job for encroaching on government land," says Chand.

Then, in 1974, disaster loomed. The government started clearing the wilderness land: discovery was inevitable. "When they came," Chand recalls, "they saw some of what I had created in the forest." They must have been surprised? "More than surprised," he says, with the ghost of a smile.

It could all have ended in tragedy. But such was the impact on the public of the revelation of Nek Chand's amazing "rock garden" that no one dared to knock it down. Chand did lose his job on the road works, but was given a grant to carry on sculpting instead, with a team of assistants and a truck into the bargain.

Since those days, the Rock Garden has gone on burgeoning. Today, it covers 35 acres and is still growing, though Chand no longer does the physical work himself. Access is gained through a series of low doorways, designed, says Chand, so that visitors have to duck down, so increasing their sense of magic. Twisting paths are also designed to confuse their sense of direction. Thus disoriented, many visitors little realise, as they emerge, that they are only feet away from where they first went in. "When they come out," says Chand with satisfaction, "they are smiling."

Fame and official acceptance have given Chand other advantages. Thanks to tractors and trucks, he's been able to construct a 100ft mountain, complete with waterfalls (using recycled rainwater), while huge spectral trees have sprouted up, constructed from concrete. He has also been commissioned to create a fantasy garden for the Children's Museum in Washington.

And Chand has been visiting Britain to open exhibitions of his work in London and Nottingham, where he has also been leading workshops on behalf of Apna Arts, a Nottingham-based body that has consistently sought high-profile opportunities for local Asian arts and artists. So it was that in May I found Chand in the middle of a huge grassy sward in front of Nottingham's Wollaton Hall, at the still eye of a storm. Around him, a camp of marquees was being set up for the city's annual mela. Sound towers were growing, men were noisily rigging up lights. Chand himself was in a quiet tent full of rubbish - tangles of metal, mounds of miscellaneous junk, heaps of odd items (a gross of shiny plastic imitation lipsticks, a pile of redundant circuit-boards). These were the raw materials for a week-long workshopwith four up-and-coming British artists, all of Asian origin. Within that week, they were to see what they could come up with, using Chand and his work as their inspiration and catalyst.

It was Chand's generosity of nature - that distinctive brand of innocence which shines through all his work - that most impacted on the artists rather than any particular teaching skill. None of the four were working in the "Nek Chand style". Anu Patel, for instance, had responded to the slim grace of lengths of steel piping and was beginning to make a slender and indeterminate animal. Chandsuggested that she might think about covering over the elegant skeletal shape, but he did not press his point. It's his simplicity that is so impressive, observed Said Adruss, as he worked on his own plans for a sharp comment on civic neatness. Usha Mahenthiralingam agreed: an ex-screen printer who had been forced to give it up when the chemicals disagreed with her, she welcomed the environmental friendliness of the work. But the most telling vignette came with the fourth artist, Krishan Alageswaran. A ceramicist, he had never before had to deal with a down-to-earth material like cement, and was nervously preparing to mix some, when Chand quietly squatted down beside him and proceeded to deftly mix cement and sharp sand together with a few economic movements of his bare hands. "And how do you know how much water to add?" asked Krishna anxiously. "You just pour," said Chand, in the kindly, reassuring tone of a man telling a child how to boil an egg, "and you will know."

That little exchange spoke volumes: the simplicity of the technique, the single-mindedness of the vision, the unerring determination to make bricks out of straw (or whatever else was to hand), as well as Nek Chand's generous openness. By the end of the session, Alageswaran had absorbed the new technique into his own method of making moulds, and the interchange had moved that bit further on.

`Nek Chand Shows the Way' an exhibition of photographs and sculpture from the Rock Gardens, is at Watermans Arts Centre, Middx (0181-847 5651) to 17 August; Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham (0121-440 4221), 26 July- 14 Sept