Gira, on her own terms

Memories of working and interacting with the incomparable Gira Sarabhai

Published - July 23, 2021 02:39 pm IST

Gira at the Sarabhai Foundation in 1998.

Gira at the Sarabhai Foundation in 1998.

When I was asked to write about the renowned architect Gira Sarabhai who passed away last week, I found that Calico Mills, her study under Frank Lloyd Wright, the Textile Museum, and her association with the National Institute of Design (NID) were all already written about. I was in a quandary. Knowing the Sarabhai family since childhood, I never really met Gira ben till I was in my mid-20s. It was Gautam bhai, her older brother, with whom I had interacted for many years. On my return from Europe, Gautam bhai asked me if I wanted to join NID, and that’s when Gira ben walked into the office and told me to be part of the new Design Studio she had just started in their residence. I worked with her for several years and consider myself fortunate to have known her intimately.

The first thing that struck me was how Gira ben worked so intensely on so many projects. Her day would start very early, with a cup of coffee, the decoction very strong and a lot of milk. She would then take a quick walk in the garden at Retreat, the family residence, meet with the gardeners to instruct them on the day’s work. Then she and Gautam bhai would drive to their residence in Hansol, a few kilometres away, and go for a camel ride. Gira ben’s Hansol residence was designed stunningly in mud, like a village kothi, surrounded by immaculate gardens. The landscaping was done according to seasons and was micro-detailed, including how the trees would sound when the wind blew.

When the two returned to the Retreat, Gira ben would meet carpenters, masons, and structural engineers to settle the day’s business. After a simple breakfast, she would often take a small nap before going off to attend to her several businesses. Lunch would normally be with Gautam bhai, or, very rarely, with a guest. I was invited several times to her house, which was extremely simple with a huge door from which she could enjoy her garden. A glass door would slide shut if it rained or the air-conditioning was on. She was surrounded by books, a large Eames chair, a few small Calder sculptures, all in wood and metal, very modern in design, and a high-end audio system with POLS amplifier and Tannoy speakers. Gopi bai, her domestic help, and Rani, her German Shepherd, were Gira ben’s permanent companions. Rani didn’t like anyone except Gautam bhai and Gopi bai, so extreme caution had to be taken before visiting Gira ben at home.

Personal playground

The Design Studio was her personal playground where she could execute into reality whatever she dreamt of. I was in charge of photography, films and illustrations. She made a photography darkroom for me to work in, which was a dream one. Some work from the Bombay office of Shilpi Advertising seeped into the studio, but mostly it was Gira who designed things and sent them over, either for advertising campaigns or for the several companies the family owned.

I made three films with her. In the first, she wanted the entire Calico Mills (the family company) range of products to be shown in one shot. She designed the set, the famous Jeannie Nowroji did the choreography, Vanraj Bhatia composed the music, and I executed the production and cinematography. For the next film, she insisted I learn animation, gave me books, made me a Disney animation stand, and on her insistence, I learnt from scratch, making 1,600 cartoon drawings. The third film was for Calico Shirts for which she brought in the legendary Subrata Mitra; it was also Parveen Babi’s first film. All three films won CAG advertising awards. We later made two films on Bhavai folk theatre for her foundation.

Gira ben confided in me enough to make me an integral part of the book on her family history, which was distributed only within the family. In the process, she told me stories of her childhood and travels, which were so extravagant they could give maharajas an inferiority complex.

Gira ben and Gautam bhai would bring several international designer guests to the studio. One of them was Buckminster Fuller, with whom I spent a week. During her years with Wright in the U.S, Gira ben befriended composer and music theorist John Cage, and he introduced the two to jazz. They became keen followers of modern jazz and had an enviable collection, not very large but selective and five-star. We spent many hours together listening to jazz. Gira ben liked cars and spoke in great detail about the Italian automobile design studios she had visited. She knew my passion for motorcycles and even let me park mine inside my air-conditioned studio.

Gira ben was a perfectionist and would not tolerate anything but the best. She was impatient with their company’s business executives but extremely tolerant with gardeners, carpenters and craftspeople, anyone who worked with their hands. She had a whacky sense of humour and was always ready for a laugh. I think, in many ways, my life was an amusement for her. She led a reclusive lifestyle, and what with micromanaging so many activities, she didn’t have time, so it was always ‘her way or the highway’. Even so, if she made a mistake, she would apologise profusely before asking it to be redone.

Unfortunately, Gira ben was secretive about her work, not wanting it to be published. She rarely attended public functions and was averse to being photographed. She dressed simply, putting on a small bindi only on her birthdays. After the demise of Gautam bhai, she became even more reclusive, surrounding herself with a few trusted workers and select friends. Gira ben lived her life absolutely on her own terms, but made her dreams come alive. She leaves behind an invaluable legacy of aesthetics, education and design, which have touched a great many people.

The writer is an award-winning cinematographer and photographer whose jazz series is in the Smithsonian Museum collection.

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