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India’s Early Electronic Music From the ’70s Is Finally Being Released

Purgas described the events at the National Institute of Design as a “point zero” for electronic music in India, though he hopes that further research will turn up earlier examples. But, as he and others explore in the release’s accompanying book, “Subcontinental Synthesis,” the institute didn’t grow out of a vacuum; it emerged at a moment when India was experimenting with its future.

After independence in 1947, India was a new nation seeking to modernize on its own terms. “It was a very optimistic, hopeful time for the new fledgling nation because we felt we had a bright future ahead,” Shilpa Das, the author of “50 Years of the National Institute of Design: 1961-2011,” said in an interview. Alongside significant industrialization, part of this nation-building involved developing new educational facilities.

The government invited the American designers Charles and Ray Eames to visit the country and deliver a report; following their recommendations, the National Institute for Design was commissioned in Ahmedabad, the capital of the newly formed state of Gujarat and an existing commercial center. It was built with funds from the central government with assistance from the American Ford Foundation, but it was shaped fundamentally by Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, part of a wealthy mercantile family who supported the arts through philanthropy, and who held strong beliefs about radical approaches to education.

These ideas blossomed in the NID, where, from its establishment in 1961, the idea of learning by doing was prioritized over providing a structured curriculum. Its music studio began to take shape in the mid-60s. As an attempt to anchor a long-term studio project (and perhaps with an eye on an American funding situation that was increasingly precarious), the Sarabhai family arranged with Tudor for India’s first Moog synthesizer to be installed in Ahmedabad in October 1968. This instrument, “a grandiose and expensive workhorse,” according to Purgas, would later become a symbol of opulence to its critics, but for a short period of time, it caught the imagination of those in and around the NID.

The beauty of the design institute’s music studio — that would later become its undoing — was its fluidity. The studio was initially overseen by Tudor, who operated somewhere between teacher and artist during his three-month residency there. (A few of his compositions appear on the compilation.) “Things would have been a lot different had some more authoritative figure come along,” You Nakai, a professor at the University of Tokyo, said in an interview.

“I felt that Tudor was actually a very good person to go to India,” Purgas said, as he “created a space which was more about allowing the composers at the NID to actually unearth their own voices.”

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