I am a heretic. For an architect not to worship at Le Corbusier’s feet is bizarre and suspect, but for me it’s like being an atheist: I just can’t force myself to believe. Chandigardh was conjured out of Corb’s brain where nothing had stood before, so he had full rein to impose Los Angeles on India: discrete districts separated by wide avenues uncrossable by foot; strip malls instead of bazaars; acres of free-standing villa sprawl for housing. I’m being ungenerous — the city is also characterized by swathes of greenery envied by other cities, heightened standards of cleanliness, and straightforward navigation around its districts. But I can’t help resenting how Corb ignored the Indian genius loci. Clearly older Indian cities were constructed with inadequate sewer systems and traffic arteries and so something needed to change, but the I think the expression ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ applies. Maybe I’m just in culture shock. Is this India?
A hairdresser I chatted with while she was grooming me ( in an effort to make myself look more presentable after three months of being on the road…) bemoaned that Chandigardh has been growing more crowded and dirty. It seems to me that the model of low-density works well enough for an affluent populace — let’s face it, wealthier people don’t like to be as sociable — but the population boom is catching up even with enclaves like Chandigardh, and once you have past a certain number of people the sprawl ceases to work. I guess what I’m saying is that while I appreciate certain of Corb’s sculptural gestures and I think his free-standing villas for wealthy people can be beautiful, I consider him a terrible urban planner.
There is a built evironment in Chandigarh, however, that appeals to me immensely: the Rock Garden. In the sixties, a transport official by the name of Nek Chand began building himself a garden composed with refuse from the building of Chandigardh in secret on government land. It grew immensely, and by the time it was discovered it was judged to be a masterpiece, even if an illegal one, so instead of punishing him the government gave him a salary and underlings. Most of the photographs on his website (www.nekchand.com) focus on the armies of mosaic people and animals he’s constructed, but I was more struck by the sense of otherworldiness in the garden. You enter through low archways (in fact, you have to stoop whenever you move from one section of the garden to the next and even the ticket window is so low that you have to hunch over to hand over your ten rupees) and are led around winding paths enclosed by high rock walls. Surfaces are covered with potsherd mosaic and often anthropomorphic or animal in inspiration. There is shade and water everywhere, from small pools to huge waterfalls. The inherent organicism contrasts mightily with Corb’s strict grid.
I arrived here Friday morning to attend a wedding of a couple I had never met, friends of friends who had heard I was traveling and graciously invited me. I can’t say enough about how welcoming and affectionate the couple and the family of the groom were. I managed to actually be overdressed for wedding as it was Sikh, which is apparently different from Hindu weddings, but I was told repeatedly how much my dress was appreciated. Tonight I get on a bus for Manali, 10 hours on a sleeper over mountain roads. It will be cold there, a welcome change, but I’ll need to buy a sweater.Yes, I know I don’t deserve your pity… I’m currently sitting in the hotel restaurant ripping some cds I bought earlier. The general manager came along and asked if he could copy them too, then brought me a number of his own to copy. He’s also arranged for his car to take me to the bus station. Once again I’m taken aback by people’s generosity. When I complain about touts trying to rip me off I have to remember the flip side.