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January 12, 2016

Take a Tour Of Sonal Ambani’s Arty Ahmedabad House

Text by Simone Louis. Photographs by Tejal Pandey. Flowers by Fahim, Aristo Florist. Make-up and Hair by Cher

Sculptor, author, gallery owner and philanthropist Sonal Ambani chats about family, social causes, peace plans and steel horses at her plush Ahmedabad home

Vivid hues, towering effigies, tasteful décor and floral arrangements galore – Sonal Ambani’s home is larger than life. The charismatic artist, who is known to be a style maven and a wonderful hostess, exhibits both impeccable taste and a heartening sense of joie de vivre. Ushering me in from the raging Ahmedabad heat, she’s already talking nineteen-to-the-dozen about her day, almost distracting me from the fact that I’m being led straight to the dining room. My eyes dart everywhere they possibly can without making me dizzy, trying hard to take in the overwhelming space. A tall drink of ice tea and myriad traditional Gujarati snacks later, we’re headed to the lush green lawns which remind me a bit of Alice in Wonderland. Hedges and bushes – carved into silhouettes of various animals – line the stone walls enclosing the property, complemented by flowers and, of course, sculptures. Ambani’s artwork draws inspiration from the natural kingdom, so it makes sense that the first thing I see is a 25-foot-tall flaming red tree fashioned out of mild steel, followed by two stunningly vibrant and equally large horses of the same material. “The one standing on three legs was one of my earlier creations and the hardest for me to do; it took ages to complete and is actually my son’s favourite, so I’m definitely never going to sell it!” she says proudly.

In her world, most endeavours revolve around family. Her husband, Vimal, and children, Anjali and Amar, are particularly encouraging of everything she sets out to accomplish and she, in turn, seizes every opportunity to revel in their many feats. Still, Ambani’s parents have probably influenced her path more than anyone, be it her penchant for great design or the reason for her immersion in philanthropy. She explains, “My father used to paint a lot when my brother and I were children. He had a wonderful eye for design. When we were living in New York, our parents used to take us to art galleries and museums wherever we went; I think that is something that really influenced me a lot. In fact, I used to find it quite odd that some people never go to galleries, because I thought that was just a part of childhood!” Now, she runs a thriving artists’ residency — which offers young artists an invaluable space to create and experiment in — and a gallery of her own in Ahmedabad, Samara Art Gallery, many pieces from which can be found in her home. She tells me little stories about the artefacts that dot the immaculately adorned rooms across the property. “Whenever we travelled anywhere around the world for a holiday, be it a small town or a big city, our parents always had us pick up one interesting work of art of our choice. Years later, my brother and I still go back and forth about who picked up which painting or sculpture, but I’m so glad we had that experience.”

Above and beyond nurturing new talent, another big part of Ambani’s life is the cause of cancer awareness, which she has dedicated a lot of her time to. After tragically losing her mother to ovarian cancer, she authored two coffee-table books to educate people about the disease and raise funds for charity. The first one, titled Mothers & Daughters, is a photographic journal featuring women achievers from various fields, like Zohra Sehgal, Shobhaa De, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Bedi, with their mothers or daughters. The cover of the book has a striking masterpiece by MF Husain, the original canvas of which sits comfortably at Samara Art Gallery. “I wanted to highlight a beautiful bond that we all share and adore. I wanted people to look at it and be reminded that they never want to lose the relationship or the person, and get proactive; get tested,” Ambani says. Not only does the book provide information on screening in India, but also all the proceeds from its sales go to the Cancer Screening and Research Trust. The second book, Fathers & Sons, was co-authored by her children and follows the same concept, featuring names like Abhinav Bindra, Amitabh Bachchan and Deepak Chopra. “There is a 97 per cent chance of survival if cancer is caught early,” she tells me passionately. “For women, especially, ovarian cancer is hard to detect but if you know that you need to do a CA125 blood test and sonograms on a regular basis, it makes a world of difference. It can save a life.”

We’ve been walking around the property, past the lawn and pool until we’re back in the house. Her endearing daughter, Anjali, joins us in a room with comfy couches, a skylight that casts an ethereal radiance…and an elephant. The life-size, stainless steel elephant stands tall among other animal figurines that dot the lower level of the house and the artist tells me that this is one of her latest works, which was on view at this year’s India Art Fair in New Delhi. The sculpture, called Elegance in Steel features lotus cut-outs to signify royal grace. She tells me that I am probably the last person to see the Goliath beauty, which is already sold to an aficionado from Switzerland and is being prepped for shipping. As I’m trying to remember the number of ‘animals’ I’ve seen here thus far, my eyes fall on a photograph of a little girl on a horse, mid-jump. The frame sits atop an antique piano, one that the family uses quite often. “That’s me in the picture,” Ambani says, reading my mind. “I used to own a horse when I was younger; I was very passionate about horseback riding and, in fact, I used to showjump competitively. I just think that they are majestic and I guess my love for animals began with horses.”

I notice that the red and orange mild steel horses that she has sculpted are named Peace in Orange and Peace in Red. A glow spreads across her face as she tells me about another cause extremely close to her heart and points out that if you look closely at her sculptures, you will find a traditional circular peace sign hidden away. The multifaceted woman is the co-founder of the World Peace Organisation, the winner of the 2011 Pfeffer Peace Prize and has even founded a time-bound action plan called World Peace 2040. Her daughter looks at her with great pride as she tells me about the simple concept envisioned to bring about complex change. Initially, the project asks for just one day of peace a month, for a year – which implies that on that day, if a country is at war, they agree to cease fire and if they’re not, they agree to spend less on defence, using that money for poverty alleviation. The next year, two days of peace could be targeted, and so on until the year 2040. “Peace has never had a deadline before,” she points out.

As I say goodbye, walking past an elegant chandelier and red lion sculptures to a stunningly massive wooden door, I’m reminded of a line from the book, Journey Through the Power of the Rainbow: Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry, that presently sits in my bag: ‘To create art with all the passion in one’s soul is to live art with all the beauty in one’s heart.’

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