The exceptionally gifted Gira Sarabhai, who died at 97 on July 15 at Ahmedabad, was the youngest and last surviving of the eight Sarabhai siblings. She, along with her brother Gautam, had founded the famed Calico Museum of Textiles — one of the best of its kind anywhere — on the advice of Ananda Coomaraswamy. They set up the celebrated National Institute of Design on the banks of the Sabarmati, thereby giving shape to the city’s cultural landscape in the 1950s.
Gira was an architect who had trained under the American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, in Wisconsin. She and Gautam were dedicated patrons of the arts and invited to their home in Ahmedabad leading lights from the West, such as Le Corbusier, John Cage, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Rauschenberg, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Charles and Ray Eames. Yet she was an intensely private person and media shy.
Gira left her imprint on design in India and had mentored several generations of designers, many of whom became leaders in their fields. Along with her many guests, she was responsible for developing architecture and design education in India. Apart from welcoming luminaries from all over the world, she had also invited founding faculty Kumar Vyas and Dashrath Patel.
Calico Museum of Textiles.Courtesy: Gujarat Tourism
Well-known Ahmedabad-based designer Subrata Bhowmik, who considered Gira his “mother” as she had taken him under her wings while he was trained at the Calico Mills Design Studio, says: “She had a tremendous eye for spotting talent regardless of the person’s circumstances and she would explore and experiment with him. And most of the time she was successful.”
Born into the wealthy Sarabhai family in 1923, Gira had an exceptionally privileged and progressive upbringing. Her father, Ambalal, had founded Calico Mills. He was an ardent supporter of Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom struggle. After returning from the US, she designed a house for her brother Gautam. Later she developed a style of her own using locally available material.
Jawaharlal Nehru had inaugurated the Calico Museum in 1949 which Coomara-swamy wanted to be set up in Ahmedabad as it was the nation’s textiles hub. It was set up at Retreat, the former Sarabhai residence. Gira designed and curated the historic collection of textiles. When Le Corbusier designed Villa Sarabhai, he did so in consultation with Gira. Her discipline and attention to detail were amazing.