The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola [in Shelf Awareness]
As a boy, Nek Chand “played and planted, laughed and listened … [to] the ancient stories”: tales of wise kings from his father, graceful goddesses from his mother, magical geese from his sisters, fierce jackals from his brothers, and even hidden temples and secret gardens from traveling minstrels. “Season by season, Nek’s head filled with stories, until it overflowed” into a world of his own that he created on the banks of a nearby stream. “Until the men with guns came.”
The 1947 Partition that violently cleaved the Indian subcontinent into Pakistan and India forced Nek’s family to flee their remote village home. During the family’s 24-day trek to India, “Nek carried only village stories in his broken heart.” He eventually became a government road inspector in “India’s first modern city, Chandigarh,” but “[n]othing in [that] modern place tugged at Nek’s village heart.” Feeling lost in the “sharp-edged city of colorless concrete,” Nek Chand “dreamed of a place to belong,” and found a hidden wilderness just north of the city where he could escape.
For seven years, Nek Chand got on his bike before work and “roamed the roadsides, picking up the broken pieces of village life under the modern city.” With these discarded, recovered items, he began to re-create the memories of his faraway childhood, molding curving paths, carving niched walls, sculpting jackals, monkeys, and geese, forging goddesses and queens from twisted bikes and rusty pipes, to construct an entire “secret kingdom.” When the government inevitably discovered his illegal hideaway, officials threatened destruction – “Until the people of Chandigarh came.” Curiosity turned to appreciation, support, and preservation, and “[t]he people saved the secret kingdom.”
A lover of true stories, author Barb Rosenstock (The Camping Trip That Changed America) clearly revels in Nek Chand’s remarkable journey from village farmer to world-renowned folk artist. To comprehend the phenomenal scale of his achievement requires visuals, provided here with artistic accuracy and charming detail by Claire A. Nivola (Planting the Trees of Kenya); the four-panel, photo-collaged foldout as the story concludes offers vivid testimony to the wondrous grandeur and utter delight of Nek Chand’s Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Rosenstock’s author’s note adds historical context and biographical information, while her two-page bibliography encourages further exploration.
Nek Chand’s portrait smiles out at book’s end: his secret garden is “a child’s dream.” The temporary worlds he envisioned along the village riverbanks of his youth have morphed into a permanent wonderland for the world to visit … and protect and conserve. That Nek Chand never stopped building on his dream throughout his long life – he died in 2015 at age 90 – remains an exemplary lesson in imaginative perseverance that will galvanize readers of all ages.
Shelf Talker: Folk artist Nek Chand’s remarkable journey to create the phenomenal Rock Garden of Chandigarh, India, is an inspiring tale of tenacious creativity.