Designer who helped shape modern India, Gir Sarabhai dies at 97
Jeera Sarabhai, an architect, designer, curator and historian who helped establish some of the most important design institutions in postcolonial India, helping them shape generations of designers, artists and craftspeople, died in Ahmedabad on July 15. I died at his home. The western Indian state of Gujarat. She was 97 years old.
His death was confirmed by his nephew Suhrid Sarabhai.
As a young woman, Ms. Sarabhai met the world’s top modernist designers and architects – Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, B.
He and his brother Gautam Sarabhai trained under Wright at his estate in Taliesin, Wisconsin, and were part of the team that worked on Wright’s spiral design for the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. (While in New York, he befriended composer John Cage, who tutored his musician sister, Geeta.)
Ms. Sarabhai returned with her brother to a newly independent India in the late 1940s and found that the country needed designers who could combine the traditional with the modern. He worked on several projects, designing modernist residential buildings and collecting Indian textiles.
Along with his brother Gautam, he founded the Calico Museum of Textiles in 1949, widely regarded as the best collection of Indian textiles in the world. Its catalogs on Indian prints and fabrics, created by Ms. Sarabhai, have become an invaluable resource for researchers and designers.
“All of us in the design space in contemporary India owe a great debt of gratitude to Gira Sarabhai’s selfless, perfectionist, one-minded work,” crafts activist Laila Tyabji wrote in a tribute to Architectural Digest.
Ms 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 Ames wrote a report commissioned by the Government of India recommending design training programs for Indians. Ms. Sarabhai worked with the government and the Ford Foundation to build an institute based on the Bauhaus modernist design movement, and in 1961 she and her brother opened the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.
Ms. Sarabhai was instrumental in designing the building and its premises, setting up the library and selecting the faculty members. The institute became highly influential in India as a design college and was closely associated with it until the early 1970s.
Gira Sarabhai was born on December 11, 1923 in Ahmedabad, the youngest of eight children of Sarala Devi and Ambalal Sarabhai, a prominent industrialist who made his fortune in the textile mills of Gujarat.
Sarabhai was a progressive follower of Mahatma Gandhi and an early supporter of the Indian independence movement, and opened his home to many stalwarts of the 20th century, including poet, playwright and musician Rabindranath Tagore, the politically prominent Nehru family, socialist Annie Besant. , author EM Forster, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and teacher Maria Montessori.
These relationships and family patronage helped transform Ahmedabad into a center of education, art and design. Ms. Sarabhai’s elder brother Vikram was a physicist and astronomer who founded India’s space programme.
Gir and his siblings studied at home, but while many of them attended university, Gir had no formal education. In her teens, she packed a bag of books and traveled to the Kashmir region, 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’s, not in learning at a traditional university with classes,” her nephew Suhrid said by email. This belief was behind him and his brother Gautam’s decision to emphasize learning by studying textbooks at the National Institute of Design.
During her career, Ms. Sarabhai worked with various divisions of the Sarabhai Group, including its advertising agency, Shilpi Advertising, which had a massive influence in India during the 1960s and ’70s.
In the last decades of his life, he ran the Sarabhai Foundation Gallery as well as the Calico Textile Museum.
An extremely private person, Ms Sarabhai avoided the limelight and refused to document her own life’s work, according to photographer and filmmaker Navroj Contractor, a close friend.
She never married and lived most of her life at her family estate, The Retreat. Apart from Suhrid Sarabhai, he is survived by two other nephews and four nieces.
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