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The Legacy of Gira Sarabhai, Design Identity Creator in India



In India’s digital magazine STIRWorld, Shilpa Das – the Dean of Interdisciplinary Design Studies at the National Institute of Design – recalls the immense figure of Gira Sarabhai, a founder of the institute and of contemporary design education in India, who died in July at the age of 98.

Once, in the 1960s, renowned architect Balkrishna V. Doshi invited Gira Sarabhai to dinner at his home along with the legendary Louis Kahn. Sarabhai asked Kahn to explain what architecture was, or rather, what it meant to him. He replied the next day by sending her a note in which he wrote: “Architecture is what I cannot smell nor touch but what I feel the essence of. Be it a ship, a bird, or a wall. It is the thoughtful making of space.”

Shilpa Das, the Dean of Interdisciplinary Design Studies at the National Institute of Design (NID), recalls Gira Sarabhai, who died in July at age 98, with this anecdote. Along with her brother Gautam, Sarabhai helped set up the institute in Ahmedabad in 1961.
Gira Sarabhai was born into a progressive industrial family in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat. Over the years, her family had some of the most innovative figures of the day come to stay, including Rabindranath Tagore, Maria Montessori, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Calder, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Her parents helped bring Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn to India. These relationships, including with Charles and Ray Eames, Douglas Ensminger of the Ford Foundation, and B. V. Doshi himself, contributed to the cultural milieu in which the National Institute of Design flourished.
Gira Sarabhai was Honorary Chair of its Directing Board from 1964 to 1972. Shy, rigorous and demanding, she was “the true architect of design education.”

According to B. V. Doshi, she and her brother very much believed in their identity as Indians: “This is exactly what Gandhi meant when he said, ‘Keep all the windows of your house open so that the fresh breeze from the world can come in, but take care that your roof is not blown away by ensuring it has a strong foundation.’ And I think this is what the NID ethos is.”
Although she had no academic training as an architect and preferred the title “designer”, Gira Sarabhai earned her place in the canon of Indian modernists. Her works include India’s first geodesic dome, the Calico Dome, and the NID building in Ahmedabad, both of which she worked on with her brother Gautam. On the NID building, author Das notes how “The building’s plan laid precedence on function over form, allowed for flexibility, future expansion, adjustments and less maintenance, and was far ahead of its time.

Sarabhai’s role in founding the institute went beyond its design: she hired the first two teachers, Dashrath Patel and H. Kumar Vyas, who had studied industrial design at the Central School of Art and Design in London. It was Sarabhai who made textile design research prominent. She was also the one who initiated a collection of prototypes, documents, books, magazines, microfilm, and audio at the institute’s Resource Centre – tools that have helped shape generations of students.




Original text: Shilpa Das

Photo: courtesy of STIRWorld

Magazine: STIRWorld

Editor: STIR Design Private Limited

Read the full article 


4 October 2021