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Architect, designer, NID founder: A ‘private person’ who mentored several designers

Of the eight Sarabhai siblings, Gira Sarabhai was the last survivor, and is described by nephew and well-known environment educator Kartikeya Sarabhai as a “very private person”.

Written by Ritu Sharma | Ahmedabad |
Updated: July 16, 2021 3:01:45 am
Gira Sarabhai (Express)

Gira Sarabhai, architect, designer, founder of the National Institute of Design (NID) and creator of the Calico Museum of Textiles, died in Ahmedabad Thursday afternoon. She was 97 and died of age-related illness.

Of the eight Sarabhai siblings, she was the last survivor, and is described by nephew and well-known environment educator Kartikeya Sarabhai as a “very private person”.

Born as the youngest of the eight children of Ambalal and Sarla Devi Sarabhai in 1923, Gira who trained under American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin, returned to India with an understanding and sense of space that were instrumental in realising the vision that she and Gautam shared for the building of the NID on the banks of the Sabarmati river.

“When she returned to Ahmedabad, my father was planning to build a house. So he asked her to design it which I will say was first of her design works,” Kartikeya said adding how over the years she developed her own style using very basic of materials in a creative way. “She has worked and mentored many young designers,” he added.

Ambalal founded the Calico Mills, one of Ahmedabad’s oldest mills, and the textile museum housed in the former Sarabhai home- The Retreat- was named after it.

Leading city-based graphic designer Subrata Bhowmick (75) told The Indian Express, “Giraben was the design mother of this country as every designer in the country who has grown from NID had gone through her touch.

The entire design education is her baby. Any designer who had come to India is because of her. It is really a sad day for the design community.”

Bhowmick was design director as well as and member of the governing council of Calico Museum. She was the one who invited several international experts as consultants for NID including American woodworker and architect, George Nakashima.

In the commemorative book ‘50 Years of the National Institute of Design 1961-2011’ released by NID, Gira has spoken about this as, “While I was in New York, Gautambhai wrote to me asking me to go to the Royal College of Art in London. He had already fixed appointments for me with several people, all experts in different fields. I had to invite them to come to NID as consultants.”

“She had brought the top most people of the world to set up the institute including the founding faculty Kumar Vyas and Dashrath Patel were invited by her. With her, an era is over for Ahmedabad that has been set up as the intellectual capital by the Sarabhais,” said former director of NID Pradyumna Vyas who was associated with NID for 30 years adding that “though I met her on limited occasions, her charismatic personality would leave everyone inspired”.

The book further quotes her about her tenure at the Wright’s office as Gira had recalled, “After working in Wright’s office all day we were allowed to be present in the studio at night. Wright’s students would work in the studio all night long. To our fortune, we could look at the original drawings, plans and masterpieces at night.”
Bhowmick who considered Gira as his mother, says, “On July 16, I would complete 55 years in Ahmedabad where I came from Kolkata to join the Calico Mills. But it was only Giraben who pushed me to study at NID. As I was reluctant to learn from institute but industry, what I am today is only because of my mother Giraben,” he said.
He joined NID as a textile design student in 1971 and is the first of its batches to return to the industry (Calico Mills).

“With her the entire generation has gone as she was the oldest and the last from among that generation. What an irony it is that the metal pyre structure on which she was cremated was also designed by her which can be reused,” he added. She was cremated at her family farmhouse in Hansol area.

Other than Calico Mills Gira and Gautam worked together on several architecture and design projects contributing significantly to modern architecture in the country between 1950s and 1960s. The siblings also designed the Calico Dome on Relief Road in Ahmedabad inspired from American architect Buckminister Fuller’s geodesic domes.
Kartikeya who is son of Vikram Sarabhai, father of India’s space programme, says Gira “was a very private person.

Since she was a shy person it was very difficult to meet her. I would get several requests from people to meet and interview her but no one could get through her”. Though he added that she was very close to people she had worked with.

Well-known danseuse Mallika wrote in a Facebook post, “The last of the Sarabhais from papa’s generation just passed away. My aunt Gira, who built up the extraordinary textile museum, one of the best in the world.”

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