A New Branch: Paul Purgas’ We Found Our Own Reality

Following on from his discovery of extraordinary proto-electronic music from India’s National Institute Of Design, Paul Purgas’ presents a detailed and immersive new installation of forgotten composers’ work

Photos by Keith Hunter

“What we don’t understand we either worship or destroy,” comes a voice from a neat, brown, cuboid speaker, one of many – some black, green, or khaki – that surround a dark Lota pot filled with sand and smoking incense. “Either we put it in a church or a temple, in a dark corner of your mind and respect it, or we kick it away.” The pot is small, but striking in its contrast with the wide, white, spacious room in which it sits. Underneath it is a double-diamond pattern of tiles, and above it are two beaming equilateral triangles made from long halogen bulbs that hang from the ceiling. Lining the walls are a row of panels. Most of them are dark red, but a few stand apart: parallel line patterns on dark green or blue, and a grey hand on a black background wearing a bracelet and a ring. A few of the red canvases, too, are inscribed with subtle gold insignias in the shapes of zigzags and stars, only visible when you lean in close.

The voice playing from the speaker is that of the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of post-independence India’s most influential thinkers, recorded during a lecture at India’s National Institute Of Design. The school, founded by the forward-thinking Sarabhai family in 1960 was built in an era where a young nation, which gained independence in 1947, was allowing itself to devise its own future free of British rule. You can hear that energy in Krishnamurti’s voice, a sense of urgency buzzing through the old, crackling tape recording.

As well as Krishnamurti and other thinkers including Mahatma Gandhi, among the Sarabhai’s friends were a number of the era’s boldest artists, the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Alexander Calder, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and, most importantly, David Tudor. It was Tudor who from 1969 until 1973 led classes in the emerging art form of electronic music using what was then the only Moog synthesiser in the country, and under whose tutelage a series of young Indian students created sounds unlike anything else on earth. Krishnamurti’s voice fades to a distant echo as some of their work takes over, a gurgling electronic buzz from another speaker which then drops into a steady and affecting ambient drone, which itself then fades into a modern field recording, taken from the NID when the British-Indian musician Paul Purgas visited in 2018.

The audio for his installation, We Found Our Own Reality, consists of a sonic collage Purgas created primarily from 25 hours’ worth of tape that he found, ‘kicked away’ as Krishnamurti might put it, in the archives of the NID. Purgas has spent much of the last few years painstakingly digitally restoring the music he found, so that it can be better preserved and more widely shared going forwards. The collage also draws on other elements from the institute’s wider archive – including film soundtracks, sound effects, and tape collages. It is no overstatement to call the music, created by the students Jinraj Joshipura, Gita Sarabhai, I.S. Mathur, Atul Desai, and S.C. Sharma, as among the boldest ever made. From the speakers it comes in gargantuan droning avalanches and beautiful chimes, it veers from unhinged sci-fi lunacy to the meditative and serene. This is music every ounce as innovative and forward-thinking as any of the NID’s more celebrated Western contemporaries – the BBC Radiophonic Workshop or Cologne’s WDR Studio, for instance. It’s hard not to be dumbstruck by just how remarkable its unearthing really is.

Purgas’ journey with the music, as well as the mix of socio-political factors that led to its fading into obscurity – India’s shift in national identity away from optimism and towards conservatism in the 1970s, the individual misfortune of the composers, the differences between being tied to a design school rather than a studio, broadcaster or conservatoire, and more – are explored in depth in his superb documentary for BBC Radio 3, Electronic India, about which I interviewed him shortly before its broadcast in May 2020. “It was literally like hearing a whole new branch of the history of electronic music for the first time,” he told me then. This new installation was already in the works at the time, and it makes an essential follow-up.

The music, rightly, is the centrepiece of We Found Our Own Reality, and the exhibition presents it superbly. The speakers are arranged so that, as you walk around the room, different textures fade in and out of your earshot in an extra, personal sonic collage – a rumble of bass from one speaker fades into the bubbling synth of the next as you pass them. At the same time, the smell of incense from the small black pot grows or fades in intensity as you drift closer or further from it. Stand in the direct centre of the room, on top of the tiles, under the lights and next to the pot, and both smell and sound are at their most intense as the speakers blast from all angles.

It is to Purgas’ credit, too, that he doesn’t neglect the wider context of this amazing noise. The tiles in the centre of the room are based on the patterns of Indian architect Aditya Prakash’s designs for the construction of the Tagore Theatre in Chandigarh, built one year after the NID. The little gold patterns on a few of the red panels are base on traditional textile patterns, spiritual diagrams and Indian graphical systems. The hand on the black canvas is intended to evoke the boundary-pushing Indian avant garde dancer Chandralekha. The speakers’ arrangement is not just to deliver 360 degree sound – they have been specially constructed at a height which corresponds to an anthropometric survey conducted by the NID in order to create a new design system more harmonically attuned to South Asian bodies.

In this, you are reminded that this music is part of something even larger. It is not to be simplified to, say, ‘India’s version of the Radiophonic Workshop’. The instrumentation might be similar, and the breadth of innovative spirit is comparable, and there are philosophical parallels with German proto-electronica in that the young people making it were the first to be born and raised entirely in a new version of their home country (post-Naziism and post-empire respectively), but the music of the NID is the result of cultural exchange, not imitation. The Indian composers’ spirit is as present as the Western ideologies imported by Tudor – if not more so. Last year’s BBC documentary, for example, explored the work of one of the students Jinraj Joshipura, who “had this very beautiful Hindu holistic idea of electronics being able to interface with nature,” as Purgas told me last year. Again, it is no understatement to say that this is the kind of music that demands coverage, exploration, and reverence on the same kind of scale that its Western contemporaries have received over the last five decades, and without reductive comparison.

It is to do no disservice to Purgas’ efforts with We Found Our Own Reality to feel like he’s still barely scratched the surface. The sound collage that plays is only 25 minutes or so from over 25 hours’ worth of recordings, after all. The music has only just been properly unearthed and restored, and it may well take decades to fully explore the scale of creative possibilities it presents. As a starting point, however, it’s hard to imagine anything better than Purgas’ work here. He has presented the recordings in such a sensory, multifaceted way, that it’s as if Joshipura, Sarabhai, Mathur, Desai, and Sharma are stood in front of you playing it live, its utopian electronic optimism restored in full force after fifty years, and imbued once again in those who hear it.

Paul Purgas, We Found Our Own Reality is at Tramway, Glasgow, until 10 October 2021

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