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…. 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."

—Alexander Calder, Calder: An Autobiography With Pictures, New York, 1966.

At 7am on 15 January 1955, American sculptor Alexander Calder—best known for the mobile, a moving sculpture—and his wife Louisa arrived at industrialist Ambalal Sarabhai’s family estate, Retreat, in Ahmedabad. Calder spent three weeks at the secluded 20-acre estate, in a makeshift studio constructed in the garden with “a water-buffalo lady and a calf" for company, as he wrote in his book. The works he made—nine sculptures and pieces of jewellery—were a novel expression and could have been inspirational for a generation of Indian sculptors such as Himmat Shah, Piloo Pochkhanawala, Adi Davierwala and Sankho Chaudhuri, to name a few. They marked a significant development in Calder’s oeuvre—the “mobile", or sculpture which used metal sheets and wires, and moved in a gust of air.

On 10 May, seven of the works he created at the Retreat, and which had remained in the private collection of the Sarabhai family, largely unseen by the public, were auctioned by Christie’s in New York. The eighth work to be auctioned, the Blue Dot, had been bought by Gira in Paris much before Calder came to India. The auctioned works fetched a neat sum of $25.9 million ( 173.5 crore now). The priciest work was Sumac 17, a suspended mobile made of sheet metal, wire and paint, which sold for $5.7 million. Other works to sell for over $2 million included, Franji Pani and Claw.

Claw fetched $3.9 million at an auction in New York. Photo courtesy Christie’s
Claw fetched $3.9 million at an auction in New York. Photo courtesy Christie’s

The Retreat served as the base for many leading figures of the European and American avant-garde, including famed urban planner and architect Le Corbusier, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and even designers Charles and Ray Eames who recommended the establishment of what is now the celebrated National Institute of Design. Painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg first visited the Retreat in 1964 and then returned in 1975 at the invitation of Anand Sarabhai, Ambalal’s grandson, to collaborate with the paper makers at the Gandhi Ashram. This trip resulted in the iconic Jammer series, which featured fragments of material collected during the stay.

A chronicle of the Sarabhais’ exchange with artists also throws light on the cultural landscape of the time. India was on the cusp of an industrial awakening—the Sarabhai family firmly in the centre of it—which also resonated with Calder’s sense of pioneering technical innovation. “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 dance," says Francis Outred, chairman and head (post-war and contemporary art, Europe, Middle East, India and Russia) at Christie’s. His time in India gave rise to some of his most dynamic works, encapsulating Calder’s ground-breaking contribution to sculpture.

Placing Calder in the context of the visual language emerging in India at the time, Roobina Karode, director and chief curator, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, talks about the infusion of a new way of thinking that emerged sometime around the year of independence. “There was a rethinking of materials that artists could use to express in a sculptural form. Ramkinkar Baij (who made environmental sculptures) used direct concrete/cement, among other things, which was more economical and also allowed him the scale of works like Sujata and the Santhal Family," says Karode. Movement and dynamic rhythm lent a new force to these sculptures.

Through his experiments in the West, Calder had paved the way for the creation of moving sculptures, using both technology and feats of engineering. “Calder made sculptures using colour (painted pieces) and light, thin material such as flat metal sheets and thin wires. He used air as a force to move the suspended part of the sculpture," Karode adds.

Talking specifically of the nine works that Calder created at the Sarabhais’, Karode explains, “He called them ‘air stimulated mobiles’, which would move with a whiff of air, the way leaves do in natural breeze." For instance, Guava, the largest mobile of the group made by Calder in Ahmedabad, is suspended like a trailing effusion of fruits and vines. Rare technical innovation can be seen in the all-black Claw, which features a collapsible main rod with two shorter wires interlaced to produce a wider span.

The sculptor stayed in touch with the Sarabhais. His affection for them could be seen in the piece Happy Family, now owned by the Sarabhai Foundation. Eight spheres symbolize the eight children, while Ambalal and Saraladevi stand as elephant and sun, respectively. On 27 April 1976, Gira wrote again to Calder, sending him 14 photos of the mobiles hanging in Ahmedabad: “In past years, I have missed seeing you in New York and Paris. I wonder when we shall meet again." Calder died a few months later, and Gira, now in her early 90s, leads a quiet life.

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