The Sarabhai Foundation galleries comprise the renowned Calico Museum of Textiles alongwith collections of sacred bronzes from south India, Jaina manuscripts, sculpture and objects; Indian miniature paintings; as well as other arts.
The Calico Museum of Textiles was inspired by the pioneering art historian and philosopher Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy. It was his suggestion to Gautam Sarabhai, chairman of the Calico Mills of Ahmedabad, that a textile museum and an institute be founded in the city, as it had been one of India’s leading textile production and trade centers since the 15th century. In 1949, the textile museum was founded by Gautam Sarabhai with the assistance of his sister Gira Sarabhai, and was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
Initially a part of the Calico Mills complex in Ahmedabad, the Calico Museum of Textiles was shifted in 1982 to the Shahibaug premises of the Sarabhai Foundation. These premises, known to the Sarabhai family as The Retreat, included the palatial Sarabhai-ni-Haveli with its formal garden and water features, designed in the 1930s by Surendranath Kar of Shantiniketan for Ambalal and Sarladevi Sarabhai, the parents of Gautam and Gira Sarabhai. The Retreat also included a complex of buildings around an old swimming pool, which were enlarged and enhanced with carved wooden facades sourced from traditional Gujarati mansions of the region, all set around a courtyard or ‘chauk’. At the Retreat, therefore, the Calico Museum of Textiles and the Sarabhai Foundation collections came to comprise of two wings: the ‘Haveli’ in which were housed religious textiles, as well as south Indian bronzes, Jaina art, and Mughal and other miniature paintings; and the ‘Chauk’, which housed royal tents, carpets, furnishings and costumes of the Mughal and regional courts; textiles for India’s export trade; as well as a wide range of ethnographic textiles.
The Calico Museum of Textiles discards the sterile atmosphere as well as the fragmented and self-conscious display design of conventional museums. The presentation here taps into a rich Indian vein by encouraging ways of seeing, of establishing relationships, and of contemplating a whole rather than its segregated parts, which are most appropriately rooted in India’s own cultural sensibilities. At least three features of the display stand out. One: modeled on early exhibition design techniques, it is modular, light-weight and flexible. It permits creating a seamless and unselfconscious matrix of textures, colours and images, in which object succeeds object, section follows section, almost without a break, one thing leading and merging into another, like a river in majestic, continuous flow. Two: the exhibits stay invitingly close to the viewer. No cold, artificial distances are created. Barring the protective coverings necessary in a traditional, non-climate-controlled environment, nothing comes between the viewer and the artefact. Three: the formality of objects is whittled down and nothing is singled out for special attention. There are no predetermined angles necessarily from which to view the displays. The viewer is freed, therefore, from confronting a formally articulated and intellectually challenging museum environment. Instead, the galleries leave, in a manner rarely encountered elsewhere, a profoundly affective impression of India’s historical arts and their traditional settings.
Most of the textiles and objects in the Sarabhai Foundation collections have been researched and published by scholars and specialists who are among the most renowned in the world in their respective fields of study. The foundation of modern Indian textile studies was laid here, and the catalogues of the Calico Museum textile collection remain, many decades after their publication, an indispensable reference for any new inquiry into the subject. The publication programme remains, arguably, the most comprehensive and meaningful of any undertaken by an Indian museum. The research publications, as well as greeting cards, cloth reproductions and posters, are available at the museum shop.