2021-09-24 01:00:31 Gira Sarabhai, Designer Who Helped Shape Modern India, Dies at 97

Gira Sarabhai, Designer Who Helped Shape Modern India, Dies at 97

Gira Sarabhai, an architect, designer, curator, and historian who helped establish some of the most important design institutions in postcolonial India, influencing generations of designers, artists, and craftspeople, died on July 15 at her home in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in western India. She was 97 years old.

Suhrid Sarabhai, her nephew, confirmed her death.

Ms. Sarabhai was friends with a who’s who of modernist designers and architects as a young woman, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, B.V. Doshi, Buckminster Fuller, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and Alexander Calder.

She and her brother Gautam Sarabhai received their training from Wright at Taliesin, his estate in Wisconsin, and were part of the team that worked on Wright’s spiral design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. (While in New York, they befriended composer John Cage, who tutored their musician sister, Gita.)

Ms. Sarabhai returned to a newly independent India with her brother in the late 1940s and discovered that the country needed designers who could bridge the traditional and modern. She became involved in a variety of projects, including the design of modernist residential buildings and the collection of Indian textiles.

In 1949, she and her brother Gautam founded the Calico Museum of Textiles, which is widely regarded as housing the world’s best collection of Indian textiles. Ms. Sarabhai’s catalogs on Indian prints and fabrics have become an invaluable resource for researchers and designers.

“All of us in contemporary India’s design space owe Gira Sarabhai a huge debt of gratitude for her selfless, perfectionist, single-minded work,” craft activist Laila Tyabji wrote in an Architectural Digest tribute.

Ms. Sarabhai also designed the geodesic Calico Dome, which houses the Calico Mills store and showroom, a textile mill owned by her family.

Charles and Ray Eames wrote a report for the Indian government in 1958 recommending design training programs for Indians. Ms. Sarabhai collaborated with the government and the Ford Foundation to establish an institution based on the Bauhaus modernist design movement, and she and her brother founded the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in 1961.

Ms. Sarabhai was instrumental in the design of the building and campus, as well as in the establishment of libraries and the selection of faculty members. As a design college, the institute became enormously influential in India, and she remained closely involved with it until the early 1970s.

Gira Sarabhai was born on December 11, 1923, in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, the youngest of eight children to Sarala Devi and Ambalal Sarabhai, a prominent industrialist who made his fortune in Gujarat’s textile mills.

The Sarabhais were Mahatma Gandhi’s progressive followers and early supporters of the Indian independence movement, and they welcomed many twentieth-century luminaries, including the poet, playwright, and composer Rabindranath Tagore, the politically powerful Nehru family, the socialist Annie Besant, the writer E.M. Forster, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and the educator Ma.

These connections, as well as the family’s patronage, aided in the transformation of Ahmedabad into a center for education, arts, and design. Vikram Sarabhai, Ms. Sarabhai’s older brother, was a physicist and astronomer who founded India’s space program.

Gira and her siblings were home-schooled, but while some of them went to university, Gira did not. She packed a bag of books and traveled to the Kashmir region in her late teens, where she lived in a houseboat and taught herself history. She became interested in architecture and contacted Wright, who agreed to train her.

“She was a firm believer in learning through apprenticeship with a master, rather than learning in a traditional university with classrooms,” her nephew Suhrid explained via email. That conviction drove her and her brother Gautam’s decision to prioritize experiential learning over textbook studies at the National Institute of Design.

Ms. Sarabhai worked with the Sarabhai conglomerate’s various divisions, including its advertising agency, Shilpi Advertising, which had widespread influence in India during the 1960s and 1970s.

She ran the Sarabhai Foundation galleries and the Calico Textile Museum in her final decades.

According to her close friend, photographer and filmmaker Navroze Contractor, Ms. Sarabhai was an intensely private person who avoided the spotlight and refused to document her own life’s work.

She never married and spent the majority of her life at The Retreat, her family’s estate. She is survived by two other nephews and four nieces, in addition to Suhrid Sarabhai.

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Gira Sarabhai, Designer Who Helped Shape Modern India, Dies at 97