Gira Sarabhai, an architect, designer, curator and historian who helped establish some of the most important design institutions in post-colonial India and gave her a hand in shaping generations of designers, artists and craftsmen, died on July 15 at her home in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat. She was 97.
Her death was confirmed by her cousin Suhrid Sarabhai.
As a young woman, Ms Sarabhai was friends with a who’s who of the world’s top modernist designers and architects – 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 under Wright at Taliesin, his Wisconsin estate, and were part of the team that worked on Wright’s spiral design for the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. (While in New York, they befriended composer John Cage, who accompanied their musician sister Gita.)
Ms Sarabhai returned to a newly independent India with her brother in the late 1940s and found that the country needed designers who could bridge the traditional with modernity. She threw herself into numerous projects, designed modernist residential buildings and collected Indian textiles.
Together with her brother Gautam, she founded the Calico Museum of Textiles in 1949, widely regarded as the best collection of Indian textiles in the world. The catalogs on Indian prints and fabrics, all compiled by Ms Sarabhai, have become an invaluable resource for researchers and designers.
“All of us in the design space in contemporary India are deeply indebted to Gira Sarabhai for her selfless, perfectionist, determined work,” said crafts activist Laila Tyabji. wrote in a tribute in Architectural Digest.
Ms. Sarabhai also designed the geodesic Calico Dome, which houses the shop and showroom for 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 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 played an important role in designing the building and campus, setting up the libraries and selecting teachers. As a design college, the institute became enormously influential in India and remained closely involved until the early 1970s.
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 a 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 homes to many celebrities of the 20th century, including the poet, playwright and composer Rabindranath Tagore, the politically prominent Nehru family, the socialist Annie Besant , the writer EM Forster, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and the educator Maria Montessori.
These relationships and the family’s patronage helped transform Ahmedabad into a center for education, art and design. The elder brother of Mrs Sarabhai 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 college, 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.
“She firmly believed in learning by being apprenticed to a master, not by learning at a conventional college with classrooms,” her cousin Suhrid said by email. That belief underpinned her and her brother Gautam’s decision to emphasize learning through textbook studies at the National Institute of Design.
During her career, Ms. Sarabhai worked with the various divisions of the Sarabhai conglomerate, including the advertising agency Shilpi Advertising, which was a major influence in India during the 1960s and 1970s.
In the last decades of her life, she headed the galleries of the Sarabhai Foundation and the Calico Textile Museum.
Ms Sarabhai, an intensely private person, avoided the limelight and refused to document her own life’s work, according to close friend photographer and filmmaker Navroze Contractor.
She never married and lived most of her life on her family’s estate, The Retreat. Besides Suhrid Sarabhai, she leaves behind two more cousins and four nieces.