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

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Gira Sarabhai, architect, designer, curator and historian who helped establish some of the most important design institutions in postcolonial India, enabling her to shape generations of designers, artists and artisans, died on 15 July at his home in Ahmedabad, in 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 was friends with one of the best modernist designers and architects in the world: Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, BV Doshi, Buckminster Fuller, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder.

She and her brother Gautam Sarabhai trained with Wright in 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 City, they befriended composer John Cage, who was tutor to their musician sister, Gita.)

Ms 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 gap between the traditional and the modern. She embarked on many projects, designing modernist residential buildings and collecting Indian textiles.

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Together with her brother Gautam, she founded the Calico Museum of Textiles in 1949, which is widely regarded as home to the best collection of Indian textiles in the world. Its catalogs of Indian prints and fabrics, all curated by Ms. 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 and determined work,” craft activist Laila Tyabji wrote in a tribute to Architectural Digest.

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

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

Ms. Sarabhai was instrumental in the design of the building and its campus, the establishment of its libraries, and the selection of faculty members. The institute became immensely influential in India as a design college, and it remained closely associated with it until the early 1970s.

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

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

These relationships and family patronage helped transform Ahmedabad into a center of education, art and design. Ms. Sarabhai’s older brother, Vikram, was a physicist and astronomer who founded the Indian 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 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.

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“She was a firm believer in learning by learning with a master, not learning in a conventional university with classrooms,” her nephew Suhrid said via email. This conviction is at the origin of her brother Gautam’s decision to favor learning by doing rather than studying textbooks at the National Institute of Design.

During her career, Ms. Sarabhai worked with various divisions of the Sarabhai conglomerate, including its advertising agency, Shilpi Advertising, which had a great influence in India in the 1960s and 1970s.

During the last decades of her life, she directed the galleries of the Sarabhai Foundation as well as the Calico Textile Museum.

An intensely private person, Ms Sarabhai has 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 has lived most of her life in her family’s estate, The Retreat. Besides Suhrid Sarabhai, she is survived by two other nephews and four nieces.