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Thursday, July 29, 2021

The long, rich life of Gira Sarabhai

She was an institution builder, a Gandhian and an architect, who played with space and was driven by curiosity.

Written by B.N. Goswamy |
Updated: July 23, 2021 8:31:03 am
Gira Sarabhai at Shanti Sadan, her ancestral house, in Ahmedabad in 2018. (Photo: Jayshree Poddar)

Phir ik din aisaa aayega: That is how a long poem by the great Urdu poet, Ali Sardar Ja’fri, opens. Mera Safar, it is titled, meaning, obviously, “My Journey”. A day will surely come, he says, when: aankhon ke diye bujh jaayenge/haathon ke kamal kumhlaayenge/ aur barg-e zubaan se/ nutq-o sadaa ki/ har titli ud jaayegi (When the lamps of my eyes will go dim/ the lotuses that are my hands will wilt/ and from the branch that is my tongue/ all butterflies, of speech and articulation/ will fly away, one by one/ by one).

That day, in the long and rich life of Gira Sarabhai, came a little over a week ago. Ahmedabad felt empty; the last of the uncommonly gifted Sarabhai family – all children of Ambalal and Sarla Sarabhai – left; for a moment, the heart of each person who she touched, or was touched by, must have stopped. She had personally known Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore; she had worked with Frank Llyod Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Charles and Ray Eames, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Isamu Noguchi, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Nakashima, Alfred Bühler, Alexander Calder, Nobuko Kajitani, John Irwin, Anne Morrell; among her collaborators and friends were Pupul Jayakar, Ela Bhatt, Dashrath Patel, Cornelia Vogelsanger, Aparna Basu, Rajiv Sethi, Kumar Vyas. Evidently, she was not one person.

This inventory of names I put down, both for myself and for the reader, not to impress anyone but to recall a measure of what made her what she was. Like old Tiresias, “throbbing between two lives” in T S Eliot’s words, she had seen it all, “at the violet hour”. But she had also done it all. Created, together with her greatly gifted brother, Gautam, remarkable institutions: The National Institute of Design, for one; the Calico Museum of Textiles, for another; and then, on top of that, the Sarabhai Foundation, the Raipur Haveli, the iconic Calico Dome, the Sarabhai Family Archives, and of course the Hansol Farm where her ashes were scattered among banks of rose bushes just the other day. She had wanted that.

To try and capture the essence of Giraben — one automatically switches to referring to her like this in Gujarati fashion — would be like attempting “to lasso a cloud”. And she, ever reluctant to be acknowledged, especially now that she is from “our vain plaudits fled”, might not even approve. But, inevitably, one is driven to make that effort, for, after all, how many, outside of her wonderful, magical circle of co-workers and devotees, know her? There were a myriad aspects to Giraben: She was an institution builder, but the moment things began to go wrong with one, not for any fault of hers, she would turn away, never to look back; she was essentially intensely private, but was at ease with people from all strata, all faiths, all professions; A Gandhian at heart, she loved simplicity and her distaste for flamboyance, showmanship, she did not hide; curiosity, whether for a branch of knowledge that she did not know anything about, or for learning how things worked, was what drove her; she could sit by the side of a craftsman – weaver, dyer, embroiderer, carpenter, ironsmith – and watch him or her forever, it seems; she would seek advice from all quarters but make her own mind up. In personal life, she could be imperious but not unkind; she cared for family, deeply I think, but would refuse to place its interests above anyone else’s if it were not fair. She thought deeply about things, very philosophically at times, but did not take to writing; she would save every scrap of paper which had the breath of history upon it but was very selective about sharing it with the undeserving. As a problem-solver, she was a learner and a teacher at the same time, without appearing to be like one. Time she was very respectful of, but space she liked to play with.

Is this a dry listing? Perhaps not. If she were here and found me, or anyone, struggling to draw it up, she would say, at once: “Lakho ni.” Write, put it down, in other words. And then we shall see, she would have said. I had the privilege of knowing her, and working with her, for close to 35 years, and can only say that it was uplifting just to be around her, for one learnt at each step, could hear her think.

There are a host of images of Giraben that I carry in my head. But among my favourites? She and Gautambhai personally serving food from the great Sarabhai kitchen — bending low since we were all squatting on that elegant floor — to some 40 of us who were there for a seminar at the Foundation; her walking with evident effort but coming to join, at the age of 94, every meeting of the Trust; her standing for hours with Mansukhbhai planning to replant a tree that a storm had uprooted on the campus; her tying a rakhi, smiling a shy but radiant smile, on those close to her. I can see them as if it were yesterday.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 23, 2021 under the title ‘The rich life of Gira Sarabhai’. The writer is an art critic.

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