In the spring of 1972, American animator John Whitney’s films Experiments in Motion Graphics and Permutations – the latter set to a background score by the Carnatic musician S Balachander – were on view at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Created in collaboration with physicist Jack Citron, when Whitney was artist-in-residence at IBM Los Angeles in the late 1960s, these works were part of a wave of computer-based art emerging in North America and Europe in the mid-20th century. Apart from Whitney’s digital animations, more than 150 artworks were part of the New Delhi show, including some by pioneering computer graphics artists. But despite its art historical value, the enigmatic show has left no trace, except a dusty catalogue at the NGMA’s library, mentions in footnotes, and some questions. Today, Indian art based on artificial intelligence, Generative Adversarial Networks and algorithms is blooming (and booming). But, in the 1970s, a computer art show, possibly the first in the South Asian subcontinent, seems incongruous.

Given that at the time there were merely 140 computers in India (mostly at state-funded universities, laboratories and the railways) and the word computer was hardly part of mainstream vocabulary, it’s curious that Computer Art was on view for almost a month from March to April 1972 at the NGMA, New Delhi and later that year at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai. Senior members of Delhi’s art establishment don’t recall it and almost no contemporaneous coverage exists, barring a Times of India note on the Mumbai show. Queries to the Max Mueller Bhavan, Goethe-Institut Münich and IBM’s central archives yielded no information. Who organised this exhibition and in what form? Why was it mounted in India? Who was the public it was meant for?

The first question is relatively easy to answer. Computer Art was curated at the NGMA, New Delhi by its director Laxmi P Sihare in collaboration with Max Mueller Bhavan (as the Goethe-Institut New Delhi is named) and IBM India. It was a version of one of the world’s first major international computer art shows, originally put together under the title Computerkunst: On The Eve of Tomorrow in 1969 by a Hanover-based gallerist named Käthe Schröder from her Collection Clarissa. This show, with Schröder’s involvement, was later developed by the Goethe-Institut into an exhibition titled IMPULSE: Computerkunst which travelled through Europe (Belgium, Norway, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, UK, the Netherlands), Asia (Vietnam, India, Japan) and South America (Brazil, Chile and Argentina). Though Schröder is not credited in the NGMA catalogue, scholar Heike M Piehler, in her book Die Anfänge der Computerkunst, compares the list of exhibits across catalogues and finds them to be the same. Piehler further establishes the connections among the shows via Schröder’s own correspondence: “…in her circular of October 13, 1972, she reported…about the exhibitions that were shown or planned in India…”

A total of 157 artworks were part of the show, involving a range of computer-based devices and techniques from that period – plotters that could be programmed to draw, printers and the display units themselves. Images of works by pioneering computer graphic artists like Georg Nees, A Michael Noll and Otto Beckmann appear prominently in the catalogue. Nees’ Schotter (1968-1970) is a print depicting columns of cubes, neatly arranged in the top rows and in disarray towards the lower end, made with a drawing machine programmed using ALGOL. Computer Composition with Lines (1964) is a work by Noll that involved the use of FORTRAN to generate “Mondrian-like” graphics composed of bars. Otto Beckmann and Alfred Grassl’s Computer Drawing (1969), resembling a series of inkblots, is a phototype of a monitor image’s screenshot showing an oscilloscopic process. Other well-known works like Frieder Nake’s Multiplications of Matrices–Plotter Drawing (1967) and Herbert W Franke’s digital drawings are also listed among the exhibits.

Regarding the form the exhibition actually took, information is conflicting. Based on the language of the NGMA catalogue, with its essays by Sihare, Franke and IBM engineer SL Kapoor, it would appear that all the works listed were actually installed. Certainly, Piehler does not give any reason to think otherwise in her comprehensive recap of this show and its antecedents. However, matters aren’t as straightforward. In 2005, a show based on material from IMPULSE: Computerkunst was mounted in Hamburg. Its curator, Horst Oberquelle, explains that he got the works that were part of the Tokyo leg: “Most of them are reproductions, some are originals.” According to the director of the Max Mueller Bhavan in 1972, Reinhard Dinkelmeyer, “no original works were shipped around, just photo-documents about the originals, maybe as teasers. We didn’t do any curatorial work or decide about the participating artists, because the material came ready made from the [Goethe-Institut’s] Münich headquarters.” As the only person actually involved in the New Delhi show available for an interview, Dinkelmeyer’s account seems to be the most reliable.

But even as reproductions, the exhibits have value – as examples of what the Western world was achieving culturally and scientifically, and as artefacts at the intersection of art and technology in the 1960s and ’70s. During the Cold War, cultural diplomacy became a way for the two ostensible blocs – one the liberal capitalist order represented by the United States and the other the state communism of the Soviet Union – to exert soft power in the global south. Both blocs were invested in converting non-aligned countries, among which India was a prominent power, to their cause. At an institutional level, for instance, these diplomatic overtures are apparent in the case of the Ford Foundation’s funding of the National Institute of Design and various nations’ support of the Indian Institutes of Technology in Delhi (UK), Kanpur (USA), Bombay (USSR) and Madras (West Germany or FRG). Detailing the founding of IIT-Madras against this backdrop of the Western Bloc’s FRG’s campaign to prevent East Germany (GDR) from being recognised as a sovereign nation by India, scholar Roland Wittje asserts that it “became the largest techno-scientific education project undertaken by the Federal Republic outside Germany.” Another significant mode of influence was the travelling national exhibition. Scholars of arts display trace its history to 19th century colonial assemblages like the Great Exhibitions, showing how the format evolved to become a representation of the nation and its heritage on the world stage. Exhibitions were an important part of the cultural diplomacy of the mid-20th century (the Indian government-devised Nehru Memorial exhibition toured Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas in various incarnations from its inauguration in 1965.)

It is in light of this Cold War diplomacy context that the Computer Art exhibition at the NGMA, New Delhi takes on significance. To organise an avant-garde show combining art and technology at a public-funded museum, not for those belonging to the scientific and technical firmament but to the cultural realm, indicates a desire to impress and influence another constituency of the Indian elite.

Like most national-level cultural organisations set up in the post-War era, the Goethe-Institut was a major avenue for FRG’s diplomacy, at first unofficially and after 1969, once it signed an agreement with the Federal Foreign Office, with an explicit relationship to the West German state. This was also a time of reform and reformulation of foreign cultural policy at the governmental level in West Germany, with the stated aim being two-way exchange rather than one-way export. By its own account, the radical social movements and political consciousness-raising of the Euro-American 1960s steered the Goethe-Institut towards the diplomatic possibilities afforded by contemporary art.

To reconstruct the context for the travelling computer art exhibitions of the time, Piehler dives into the Goethe-Institut’s yearbooks: “In 1969…the then President of the Goethe-Institut asked, ‘What means can we use to present our reality and arouse interest in it without the appearance of propaganda?’” In 1971, the section titled ‘Resolutions on Foreign Policy’ was more specific: “Art exhibitions and documentary exhibitions should be organised…and correspond in form to the latest exhibition technology and…practice. More small travelling exhibitions should be provided for educational institutions in the host country. They must be provided in sufficient numbers and must be easy to assemble.” This then is what Dinkelmeyer means about the material arriving readymade from the Goethe-Institut Münich. He elaborates, “Generally in those days the head office of the Goethe-Institute in Munich compiled various documentary exhibitions just for general information about contemporary art…They were offered to the 120-plus [Goethe-] Institutes around the world.”

That the Germans would introduce computer art to India is, on the whole, unsurprising. Outside of the United States, some of the earliest computer art exhibitions in the world were organised in the 1960s in what was then West Germany – at Darmstadt, Frankfurt and Stuttgart, the last of which featured works by Nees, Nake and Noll. As part of a broader cultural export or exchange programme of FRG, computer art was a good sell. But who were its consumers? The final question of the spectatorship, real or imagined, for a computer art exhibition in India of the 1970s remains most perplexing.

If we were to consider computer art “new media”, we could place the 1972 exhibition alongside another event of the period, though completely different in almost every respect – the trans-disciplinary Vision Exchange Workshop (1969-1972) organised in Mumbai by the artist Akbar Padamsee, in which a diverse range of practitioners participated including Nalini Malani, Nasreen Mohamedi, Gieve Patel, KK Mahajan, Udayan Patel, Ram Mohan and Kumar Shahani. In her extensive work on this period, New Media Overtures before New Media Practice in India, Nancy Adajania emphasises the lack of a critical habitat for experiments by well-known artists, “regarded as career aberrations.” It was during VIEW that Akbar Padamsee made his film Syzygy in collaboration with animator Ram Mohan by drawing on transparent cell animation sheets according to a self-devised mathematical code. In fact, in his interview with Adajania, Padmasee uses the verb “programming” when referring to his drawings for Syzygy, citing Klee’s diagrams as an influence.

Indeed, Klee was a model for makers of computer-based art as well: Frieder Nake wrote a computer program using a plotter to produce a screenprint based on Klee’s High Roads and Byroads (1929). In his essay, Computer Art: Possibilities and Limitations, art historian and director of NGMA, New Delhi, Laxmi P Sihare links this new cybernetic aesthetic to long-standing Western movements like Neo-Plasticism, Constructivism and Op Art, providing an art historical commentary unique to the New Delhi catalogue. Sihare was a scholar of modernism, having written his doctoral dissertation at New York University about eastern influences on Kandinsky and Mondrian, which may have been one of the reasons he viewed computer art through the lens of abstract art. The 1950s and ’60s were a period when abstraction thrived in India (though of course this tendency had predecessors all the way to the beginning of the 20th century) with painters like VS Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, SH Raza, Ambadas, KCS Paniker, Biren De, GR Santhosh active at the time, among many others. In a 1975 article in Lalit Kala Akademi’s magazine, critic Jaya Appasamy pointed out that “abstraction in India…owes its inspiration at least in part to the early European pathfinders such as Klee and Kandinsky rather than to…the Abstract Expressionists.” Thus, it could be surmised that familiarity with even older vocabularies of abstraction disposed Indian publics towards engaging with, and apprehending, this new media art show.

The next major digital art show in India was exhibited almost two decades later. Mounted in January 1990, State of the Art was composed entirely of leading Indian artists and included works by MF Husain, Akbar Padamsee, SH Raza, Laxman Shreshta, Prabhakar Barve, Navjot Altaf, Manjit Bawa and Atul Dodiya. Conceived and curated by Abhay Mangaldas, Sonal Zaveri and Ajay Sharma, the show was put together by transferring art created by the painters on Mac computers onto canvases through computerised jets spraying acrylic ink. An India Today report on the show notes: “The artist suddenly had unimaginable freedom…to draw, apply colour, animate the drawing, multiply the image, scan another drawing or painting onto it, smudge, distort, invert, blend colours, introduce screens...” These methods mirror those adopted by early computer artists and, indeed, were available to State of the Art participants because of their curators’ education in disciplines developed by some of the trailblazers featured in the 1972 show. But, unlike European and North American scientists and technologists who moved towards an artistic practice, in India, it was fine artists who first collaborated with computer programmers to produce a new type of work. With the canvas as the final medium, computer aesthetics entailed not just visuals that a machine could generate towards an artwork, but the ways in which digital technology could enable, rejuvenate and transform analogue visions at the threshold of a new age.

Computer Drawing, 1969. Otto Beckmann and Alfred Grassl. From the collections of National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

The writer would like to thank Dr Horst Oberquelle of the Computer Museum at the University of Hamburg for their help.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.