‘In 1954 I received a letter from a young Indian woman who wrote me mentioning Jean Hélion, my good friend. She was Gira Sarabhai, youngest of eight children of a large wealthy family in Ahmedabad, which is somewhere halfway between Bombay and Delhi. She offered Louisa and me a trip to India, if I’d consent to make some objects for her when there. I immediately replied yes’ —A. CALDER
‘Is the kite flying festival just one day? I certainly don’t want to miss that’ —A. CALDER, LETTER TO G. SARABHAI, AUGUST 24, 1954
‘When everything goes right a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprises’ —A. CALDER
‘The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof. For that is a rather large model to work from’ —A. CALDER
We became very good friends and attended many things together. I came to love his painting, his colour, his personages’—A. CALDER ON J. MIRÓ
‘Pure joie de vivre. The art of Calder is the sublimation of a tree in the wind'—M. DUCHAMP
‘It is very cold here, and so we will be delighted to come where it is warmer. But the great delight is to see India, and to meet you and your family. Cordially Sandy’ —A. CALDER
‘I’d brought my pliers with me [to India], and I’d got some metal and wire in Bombay, so I went to work in the [Sarabhais’] garden. Cows were tethered there, and a couple of water buffaloes’ —A. CALDER
In the past years, I have missed seeing you in New York and Paris. I wonder when we shall meet again!’ —G. SARABHAI, LETTER TO A. CALDER, 27 APRIL 1976
‘In 1954', recalled Alexander Calder in his memoirs, 'I received a letter from a young Indian woman who wrote me mentioning Jean Hélion, my good friend. She was Gira Sarabhai, youngest of eight children of a large wealthy family in Ahmedabad, which is somewhere halfway between Bombay and Delhi. She offered Louisa and me a trip to India, if I’d consent to make some objects for her when there. I immediately replied yes’ (A. Calder, An Autobiography with Pictures, New York 1966, pp. 231-32).
Gira Sarabhai’s letter to Calder was the start of an extraordinary journey, and the beginning of a lifelong friendship. In the three weeks that Calder spent at the Sarabhai family compound in Ahmedabad between January and February 1955, he produced one of the most fascinating bodies of work in his oeuvre. Gira, an architect, offered the artist an unparalleled opportunity: to become part of the thriving creative hub that, thanks to the patronage and vision of the Sarabhai family, was changing the cultural landscape of Ahmedabad during the 1950s. Following the Indian Independence Act of 1947—an achievement in which the Sarabhais had participated wholly—the country was on the brink of exciting new horizons. Gira and her brother Gautam had founded the Calico Textile Museum—arguably the best of its kind in the world—and had already welcomed leading figures of the European and American avant-garde to their home, including Isamu Noguchi, Le Corbusier and John Cage. Others would soon follow, including Robert Rauschenberg, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Neutra—who visited whilst designing the US Embassy for Karachi—and Charles and Ray Eames, with whom Gira and Gautam would collaborate to establish the city’s celebrated National Institute of Design, commissioned by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Calder was particularly intrigued, too, by the famous kite flying festival due to take place in Ahmedabad in January, writing to Gira ‘I certainly don’t want to miss that!’ (A. Calder, letter to Gira Sarabhai, August 24 1954). He announced that he would bring his pliers, but no other tools. Over the course of his stay, he produced a group of sculptures that rank among his finest works.
Held in the same private collection since their creation, and largely unseen by the public, the works offered for auction testify to an artist at the height of his powers, whose early studies in engineering and subsequent immersion in the 1920s Parisian art scene had given birth to one of the very first kinetic visual languages. By the mid-1950s, spurred on by his receipt of the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the 1952 Venice Biennale, Calder had achieved an unprecedented degree of mastery over his materials. Hypnotic forms sprang to life from minimal combinations of painted sheet metal and wire, delicately balanced upon twisting, serpentine supports. Form, colour and motion were held in almost balletic tension with one another, subject to the slightest change in atmospheric conditions. A gust of air or a beam of sunlight could transform the sculpture from a static suspension to a piece of optical poetry: a living, breathing performance that unfolded before the eyes of its onlooker. Liberated by the striking economy of means to which he had distilled his practice, Calder began to travel, visiting Beirut and Caracas as well as India between 1954 and 1955. On each occasion, operating like a nomadic artisan, he set up a temporary studio and worked intensively over a few short weeks. It was during this period that Calder, who had hitherto split his time between New York and Paris, became a truly global artist.
In India, Calder’s pursuit of visual harmony reached new heights. Each work is a masterpiece of intuitive engineering: a triumphant fusion of optics and kinetics. Largely created outside, his sculptures became part of the landscape, intimately united with their natural environment. Originally suspended above a pool in the grounds, Guava offers an abstract vision of tropical fruits upon a twisted vine, brought to life by the languid tropical breeze. By contrast, the monumental standing mobile Untitled is almost architectural in its conception. Previously housed in the Sarabhais’ garden, its gigantic form simultaneously exudes a sense of weightlessness, casting ever-changing shadows upon its surroundings. Each of these works powerfully conjures its original setting: through their colour, shape and motion, they evoke scented blooms, radiant sunlight and the verdant splendour of the Sarabhai estate. In India, Calder’s practice found a fitting new home.
CALDER IN AHMEDABAD
The Sarabhais were a leading Jain business dynasty, who had played a pivotal role in India’s industrial, political and cultural development. Amabalal Sarabhai, the patriarch of the family, founded a number of enterprises including Calico Textile Mills—one of India’s largest textile companies—and became a prominent patron of the arts. He had been heavily involved in India’s independence movement along with his wife Saraladevi, who had worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi himself. Calder himself refers to the couple throughout his correspondence as ‘Papabhai’ and ‘Mummyben’: affectionate names that reflected their warmth, generosity and impeccable hospitality. Alongside Gira and Gautam, their eight children included the scientist Vikram Sarabhai, widely acknowledged as the father of India’s space programme, and the musician Gita Sarabhai, who famously provided the composer John Cage with the inspiration for his seminal work 4’33’. Mridula Sarabhai was a politician and activist who continued her parents’ legacy in fighting for India’s freedom, whilst Leena Sarabhai established the Shreyas Foundation in order to educate orphaned and underprivileged children. As a family, the Sarabhais fostered creativity and innovation, and nurtured a wide variety of international relationships.
The Sarabhai family compound was a secluded twenty-acre estate known as the Retreat. The central family home—colloquially referred to as the Big House—was a large four-storey structure which contained apartments for each of Ambalal’s children. As his children grew to adulthood, Ambalal offered each a plot of land within or outside the Retreat estate. Most chose the Retreat option and went on to design or commission their own home. At the direction of his hosts, a studio was set up for Calder on the estate, with a workshop at his disposal. However, as an artist whose work drew inspiration from the poetry of nature, Calder was unable to resist the allure of the Sarabhais’ luscious gardens, and much of his work was completed on a bench outside in the grounds. ‘Cows were tethered there, and a couple of water buffaloes’, he recalled (A. Calder, quoted in Calder’s Universe, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1977, p. 335). It was an oasis of tranquillity and harmony, and a haven for the arts: a place of respite and creative experimentation, guided by the Sarabhais’ deep appreciation of international artistic languages. Indeed, many of the artists whose works they acquired had played an important role in Calder’s own life and practice: most notably Piet Mondrian, whose studio had inspired the artist’s turn towards abstraction, and his close friend Joan Miró. During his stay, Calder produced nine sculptures, as well as several pieces of jewellery. On March 9, a selection of the works produced during his time in India were unveiled for the first time at a private exhibition at the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, where Herbert Matter’s 1950 film Works of Calder was also screened.
The 1950s was a pivotal decade in Calder’s practice. Alongside his mobiles and stabiles of this period—many of which are now housed in major museum collections, including Antennae with Red and Blue Dots, c. 1953 (Tate, London) and Red Lily Pads, 1956 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)—he began to turn his attention to works executed on a grand scale, creating his first group of large outdoor sculptures during a year-long stay in Aix-en-Provence. Calder’s growing fame earned him major commissions from across the world, including the mobile .125 for the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Spirale for U.N.E.S.C.O. in Paris and The Whirling Ear for the American Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. At the same time, Calder also began to travel, reinvigorating his artisanal roots through a series of short residencies abroad—to Beirut in 1954, to Ahmedabad in 1955 and to Caracas shortly after his return from India. Each trip consisted of a short, intensive spurt of artistic production in a makeshift studio, followed by a small exhibition and a period of travelling and sightseeing with his wife. These sojourns provided Calder with an exhilarating challenge: by dramatically limiting his time and materials, and purposefully relocating to a foreign setting, the artist unlocked a newfound sense of creative freedom, submitting himself to intuition and the spirited impulses of his imagination. In India, Calder amplified this sense of spontaneity by titling his works just hours before their unveiling at the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute.
Calder’s time in India allowed him to engage with his craft in its most basic form. The challenge of breathing life into earthbound materials with severely limited equipment required him to submit to intuition, relying solely upon the interaction between hand and eye. As James Johnson Sweeney recounted, ‘[Calder] has always avoided modelling in favour of direct handling—cutting, shaping with a hammer, or assembling piece by piece. Such an approach has fostered a simplicity of form and clarity of contour in his work. It allies him with Brancusi, Arp, Moore and Giacometti in their repudiation of virtuosity’ (J. J. Sweeney, Alexander Calder, exh. cat., New York 1951, p. 8, reproduced in C. Giménez & A. S. C. Rower (eds.), Calder: Gravity and Grace, London 2004, p. 72). Calder had spent time early in his career visiting the ateliers of local metal workers, and relished the opportunity to reprise this activity in India. Indeed, the country’s growing industrial landscape—at which the Sarabhais were at the very heart—resonated with the sense of pioneering technical innovation that had driven his practice from the beginning. Selden Rodman has drawn a compelling parallel between Calder’s aesthetic and the work of the Wright brothers, explaining that ‘the Wrights too were in love with simplicity, with perfection of motion and economy of means. They began and ended their work as artists’ (S. Rodman, ‘Conversations with Artists: Alexander Calder’, in C. Giménez and A. S. C. Rower (eds.), Calder: Gravity and Grace, London 2004, p. 84). In the peace and tranquillity of the Sarabhais’ secluded gardens, Calder was able to reconnect with the fundamental aim of his practice: transforming base materials into seemingly impossible expressions of natural beauty; coercing wire and metal into an ever-changing, life-affirming dance.
AHMEDABAD IN THE 1950S
The Sarabhai family’s commitment to artistic patronage transformed the cultural scene in Ahmedabad throughout the 1950s. Following the Indian Independence Act of 1947—an achievement in which the Sarabhais had participated wholly—the country was on the brink of exciting new horizons. Calder was one of a group of artists, designers, photographers, architects and musicians who came to the city during this period, attracted to the exhilarating creative environment that was quickly taking hold. Leading figures of the Western avant-garde were drawn into a thriving artistic exchange, feeding off the city’s atmosphere and transporting its influences back to their studios. Many stayed at the Retreat—including Noguchi, Cage and Rauschenberg—whilst Le Corbusier designed a villa in the family compound. At the same time, India was also beginning to export aspects of its culture to the West: indeed, it was in 1955—the same year that Calder visited Ahmedabad—that the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted the most comprehensive exhibition of Indian textiles and ornamental arts ever to take place in the United States.
Perhaps the Sarabhais’ biggest cultural contribution during this period was through Gira and Gautam’s collaboration with the American husband-and-wife designers Charles and Ray Eames, with whom they worked closely to establish the National Institute of Design. In 1958, the Eames’ were commissioned by the Nehru administration to produce a report on the various challenges that the country was facing in relation to Western design and technology. The first part examined the role of design in India from a number of different perspectives, including architecture, economics, sociology, psychology and anthropology. The second half proposed a new educational model for designers: an institute of consultancy and research directly linked to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, staffed by experts in the fields of both art and government. In 1961, Gautam was appointed chairman of the Institute’s governing council, and Gira later became chairwoman of its Board of Directors. A range of celebrated artists and designers visited the Institute during its early years, including Henri Cartier-Bresson—who had been photographing India since 1947—the architect Louis Khan, the filmmaker Gullio Gianini and typographer Adrian Frutiger.
Gira and Gautam’s architectural passions also brought about an influx of leading Western architects. Most notable among them was Le Corbusier, who first came to India in the early 1950s to design the city of Chandigarh. ‘At this moment in the evolution of modern civilization India represents a quality of spirit, particularly attractive’, he wrote to his British correspondents in 1950. ‘Our task is to discover the architecture to be immersed in the sieve of this powerful and profound civilization and the endowment of favourable modern tools to find it a place in present time’ (L. Corbusier, quoted in S. Prasad, Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, London 1987, p. 279). Over the course of fourteen years, Le Corbusier executed around ten substantial architectural projects, including Chandigarh’s Palace of Justice, Palace of Assembly and Secretariat, as well as the Government Museum and Art Gallery, the Chandigarh College of Architecture and the Open Hand Monument. During the mid- 1950s he turned his attention to Ahmedabad, designing the Mill Owners’ Association Building, the Sanskar Kendra Museum, the Villa Shodhan and the Villa de Madame Manorama Sarabhai. The latter featured a slide leading down to a crystal clear swimming pool, and substituted all exterior doors for bamboo blinds that allowed light and air to filter freely through the house.
The American composer John Cage first visited Ahmedabad in 1955, having been introduced to the Sarabhais’ musical
daughter Gita by Isamu Noguchi in New York in 1946. Cage later claimed that Gita ‘came like an angel from India’, bringing with her the revelation that the purpose of music ‘is to quiet and sober the mind, making it susceptible to divine influences’ (J. Cage, quoted in J. Pritchett, The Music of John Cage, Cambridge 1996, p. 37). This concept was to become central to Cage’s thinking, and is said to have inspired his infamous composition 4’33’, comprising solely of the incidental noise made by a concert hall audience over a timed period of 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Cage visited Ahmedabad again in 1964 as musical advisor to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company during its world tour, along with the Company’s resident designer Robert Rauschenberg. The trip captured his imagination too, and in 1975 he was invited back by Anand Sarabhai to collaborate with papermakers at the ashram—or textile factory—founded by Mahatma Gandhi. The month-long trip inspired his Jammer series: a sequence of fabric works made from fragments of material he had collected during his stay. Rauschenberg was particularly struck by the contrast between the vibrantly-coloured, luxuriant textiles and the prevailing poverty and hardship he witnessed on a daily basis. It was, as he explained, a ‘cruel combination of disease and starvation and poverty and mud and sand and yet it was all punctuated with maybe just that one piece of beautiful silk’ (R. Rauschenberg, http://www. rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/art-in-context/mirage-jammer [accessed March 24 2016]).
Calder and the Sarabhais kept in touch, through their letter writing and visits, over the next twenty years. On April 27 1976, just months before the artist’s death, Gira wrote to Calder, sending him fourteen photographs of the mobiles hanging in Ahmedabad and summarising her personal inventory of his works. ‘In the past years, I have missed seeing you in New York and Paris’, she wrote. ‘I wonder when we shall meet again!’ (G. Sarabhai, letter to Alexander Calder, April 27 1976). The works offered for auction represent a remarkable snapshot of an extraordinary cultural exchange between pioneers in their respective fields, whose combined legacies continue to reverberate today.