Gira Sarabhai, designer who helped shape modern India, dies at 97

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Gira Sarabhai, designer who helped shape modern India, dies at 97
Gira Sarabhai, second from right, in an undated photo with the designer Deborah Sussman and the artist Haku Shah. Sarabhai, an architect, designer, curator and historian who helped establish some of the most important design institutions in postcolonial India, giving her a hand in shaping generations of designers, artists and craftspeople, died on July 15 at her home in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat. She was 97. National Institute of Design via The New York Times.

by Shalini Venugopal Bhagat

NEW YORK, NY.- Gira Sarabhai, an architect, designer, curator and historian who helped establish some of the most important design institutions in postcolonial India, giving her a hand in shaping generations of designers, artists and craftspeople, died July 15 at her home in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat. She was 97.

Her death was confirmed by her nephew Suhrid Sarabhai.

As a young woman, Sarabhai was friends with a who’s who of the world’s top modernist designers and architects — 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 trained under 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 Manhattan. (While in New York, they struck up a friendship with composer John Cage, who tutored their musician sister, Gita.)

Gira Sarabhai returned with her brother to a newly independent India in the late 1940s and found that the country needed designers who could bridge the traditional with modernity. She plunged into numerous projects, designing modernist residential buildings and collecting Indian textiles.

Along with her brother Gautam, she founded the Calico Museum of Textiles in 1949, which is widely regarded as housing the best collection of Indian textiles in the world. Its catalogs on Indian prints and fabrics, all curated by Gira Sarabhai, have become an invaluable resource for researchers and designers.

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

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

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

Gira Sarabhai was instrumental in designing the building and its campus, setting up its libraries and handpicking faculty members. The institute became immensely influential in India as a design college, and she remained closely involved with it until the early 1970s.

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

The Sarabhais were progressive followers of Mahatma Gandhi and early supporters of the Indian independence movement, and they opened their home to many luminaries of the 20th century, including poet, playwright and composer Rabindranath Tagore, the politically prominent Nehru family, socialist Annie Besant, writer E.M. Forster, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and educator Maria Montessori.

These relationships and the family’s patronage helped transform Ahmedabad into a center for education, arts and design. Sarabhai’s older brother Vikram was a physicist and astronomer who founded India’s space program.

Gira and her siblings were home-schooled, but while several of them attended university, Gira had no formal education. In her late teens, she packed a bag of books and traveled to Kashmir, where she lived in a houseboat and taught herself history. She developed an interest in architecture and wrote to Wright, who agreed to train her.

“She was a firm believer in learning by apprenticeship with a master, not by learning in a conventional university with classrooms,” her nephew Suhrid said by email. That conviction lay behind her and her brother Gautam’s decision to emphasize learning by doing over textbook studies at the National Institute of Design.

Over her career Gira Sarabhai worked with the various divisions of the Sarabhai conglomerate, including its advertising agency, Shilpi Advertising, which had wide influence in India during the 1960s and ’70s.

In the last decades of her life she ran the Sarabhai Foundation galleries as well as the Calico Textile Museum.

An intensely private person, Sarabhai avoided the limelight and refused to document her own life’s work, according to photographer and filmmaker Navroze Contractor, a close friend.

She never married and lived most of her life on her family’s estate, The Retreat. In addition to Suhrid Sarabhai, she is survived by two other nephews and four nieces.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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