The year was 1974 and we were in our final year at the Government College for Girls in Sector 11, Chandigarh. Praveen Emile, one of our stylish classmates, came with the news that a happening couple from then Bombay (now Mumbai) was in town and wanted some girls to model for photographs in some outdoor location in the city the coming Sunday. Excited a few of us willingly agreed and Praveen asked us to reach her place and then we would move to the location.
We reached at the appointed time and Praveen had a carton of trendy clothes ready for all five of us. Soon the smart couple arrived. They were the late Madhur Mital and his wife Romi. The former was a film celebrity photographer and the latter a popular columnist with a magazine called ‘Star and Style’. We had not been told of the location and our guess was that it would either be Sukhna Lake or Rose Garden. Well, there was not much of a choice in the city of Chandigarh then just 22 years young. The Ambassador car that we had all piled into moved towards the lake but then turned off into a forest road a little short of it.
“Girls remember the location is a secret. Not a word about it,” Madhur warned. We promised secrecy but wondered in excitement at what this hushhush destiny would be. At that age it is always yes to adventure of any kind. We halted by a river-stone wall and one by one passed through a narrow and low opening into a wonderland, the like we had never seen before. Narrow alleyways led us serpent-like from one wondrous courtyard to another. By the village well the Mitals introduced us to a smiling middle-aged man who they said was the creator of this fantasy. We ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ in appreciation little knowing that in a couple of years the whole world would be doing so because the secret rendezvous that we had sneaked into was the first phase of Nek Chand’s Rock Garden.
Why was the destination to be kept secret? We asked this question and Romi told us that the government approval had not yet been given and it was built on forest land so the architect of the dream may get into trouble. So he did the very next year and the rocky paradise was nearly demolished. It was stopped only by the intervention of a couple of sensitive bureaucrats and an admiring public. Discovered by the Chandigarh administration in 1975 and thrown open to the people in 1976, its reputation grew and so did its size.
Some of those coloured pictures of aspiring models appeared in a magazine called ‘The Eve’s Weekly’ and were soon forgotten but the enchanting experience of the location stayed with us all through. Today, some 5,000 people visit Rock Garden daily but we girls carried a chip on our shoulders that we had not only seen it but had the privilege of being photographed in it before the others.