Chapter 1
This Voice Was Once Spoken by Paul Purgas 
An audio essay conversant with Case Study #1: A Poetry Festival organised by the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) on February 11, 1978, at the Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use, Cox Street, Coventry.

We conceive of radical inclusivity as a provisional point for thinking about diaspora, difference and poetry within and against commodified logics of diversity and representation. The interlinked nature of social and aesthetic practice provide a site for understanding resistance under contemporary racial capitalist conditions. Resistance can be understood as friction within the workings of structural domination, as much as developing countervalent infrastructures.  

― Azad Sharma and Kashif Patel (Founders of the87press) 

This sound art commission composed by Paul Purgas investigates the historical, socio-political, economic, and cultural contexts surrounding the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) at the time of the poetry festival. By leveraging previously unheard audio documentation including reel to reel tape recordings from the event, along with other audio records featuring oral histories and traditional Indian music, it serves as a medium to elegiacally develop narratives previously neglected, presenting deeper insight and serving as a reminder of these historical conditions and their relevance today. The soundwork also touches upon the association with the Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use, which facilitated the event and was established with state funds through the Community Development Programme (CDP), with the aim to mitigate institutional forms of prejudice and social deprivation. It contends that the soundwork This Voice Was Once Spoken, (2023) spectral cultural expressions of the activists’ (IWA) use of the building was connected to the political events and societal changes impacting the city and region during a period of uncompromising de-industrialisation. The space provided “grassroots efforts yielding tangible outcomes and fostering alternative forms of empowerment for communities facing adverse circumstances”.[120] 

London-based artist Paul Purgas, who has a background in architecture and sound, produced a soundwork that sheds light on the narratives of under-represented cultures. The ongoing project We Found Our Own Reality, (2020–) examines the confluence of Western and Indian Modernist ideologies through audio, utilising restored and digitised recordings from Indian composers active during 1969-1972.[121] This composition, integrating various archival materials, reflects the pioneering ethos sparked by David Tudor’s technical setup of India’s first electronic music studio. Purgas also edited Subcontinental Synthesis, (2023), a volume that investigates the origins and repercussions of the National Institute of Design’s electronic music studio in Ahmedabad, highlighting its historical relevance through essays.[122] Purgas, leveraging an understanding of archival work and a connection with Indian culture through Punjabi heritage, was uniquely suited to undertake this initiative. Furthermore, the process of uncovering and restoring MOOG recordings from the NID archive provided substantial knowledge, affirming the artist’s understanding of the technical and conceptual framework necessary for their research project.  

Auditory opposition: amplifying marginalised voices within radical pedagogical spaces.  
The interconnected elements key to this case study, consists of the Indian Workers Association (IWA), the Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use, the Community Development Programme (CDP), and the cultural and social context within which they operated collectively. The IWA was responsible for the organisation of the Poetry Festival held on 11 February,1978 at the centre of this case study.  

The Indian Workers Association (IWA) was established in Coventry in 1938, influenced by the growing nationalism in India and the opposition to British colonial rule. Initially motivated by leftist ideologies, the IWA was instrumental in forming community and personal identities.[123] By August 1947, India achieved independence and was partitioned into India and Pakistan. Simultaneously, the post-war United Kingdom faced labour shortages, and the British Nationality Act of 1948 conferred residency and work rights upon Commonwealth citizens.[124] The IWA subsequently pivoted its attention to the struggles encountered by immigrants in the UK, embracing a civil rights approach that eventually evolved into a wider class conflict. This era marked the proliferation of IWA branches throughout the UK, culminating in the formation of the Indian Workers’ Association of Great Britain (IWA GB) in 1958. With the Coventry branch’s backing, the IWA GB concentrated on assimilating working-class Punjabi migrants, contributing to a marked rise in union memberships in the Midlands.  

(No date). Video still from Virk’s personal records. Coventry: Coventry Archives. PA/2600. Indian Workers’ Association Archive.

Ajmer Bains, an influential figure in both the IWA and the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in Coventry, championed participation in the labour movement and informed Indian workers about the benefits of unionisation. Dedicated to combating racism, the IWA contested the establishment of “black sections” within unions and brought attention to the “colour bar” via media engagement and government lobbying. In Coventry, the IWA successfully challenged the divisive gang system prevalent in factories, which they deemed conducive to racketeering. The Coventry branch spearheaded demonstrations against the exploitation of Indian women in the workforce during the 1970s and 1980s. Subsequently, an increasing number of South Asian women joined the labour force, organisations such as the Indian Women’s Association gained prominence in cities like Derby and Coventry.[125]

The 1971 census classified Hillfields as a “multi-racial reception area”, noting that immigrants constituted a third of its population. The majority of the other residents were from economically vulnerable demographics, encompassing the unemployed, those with illnesses, single mothers, and the elderly.[126] Residents frequently faced substandard living conditions, and migrant workers struggled with job instability, often being the first to be made redundant during economic downturns.[127] The Community Development Project (CDP) focused on “conventional education development” to tackle these challenges. This included enhancing facilities, updating equipment, expanding preschool offerings, and supplying extra teaching resources. Alongside this, a “community education” initiative sought to create a curriculum that mirrored inner-city life realities. The objective was to redefine the school-community relationship, nurture “constructive discontent”, and prompt students to critically evaluate their surroundings.[128] 

(No date). Video still from Virk’s personal records. Coventry: Coventry Archives. PA/2600. Indian Workers’ Association Archive.

Under the guidance of the inaugural Headmaster, Geoffrey Holroyd, the Coventry Education Committee implemented a comprehensive plan for the Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use. Their vision was for seamless integration between school and community, melding social and educational objectives. They proposed, “the people of the community would actively participate in the Centre’s activities, while the Centre would contribute to and, to some extent, shape the community”. Holroyd foresaw a collaborative alliance of adults, parents, pupils, and staff, leveraging their collective strengths and experiences to attain shared goals.[129] 

The centre included an information and advisory section run by the community, staffed with on-site social workers. Intended as a multipurpose space, its functions included youth centre, theatre, concerts and other cultural events, a licensed bar and a community-run information and advisory section staffed with on-site social workers.[130] This radical dynamic structure allowed for individuals such as Ajmer Bains to integrate Punjabi culture into the broader fabric of the Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use by organising numerous events, including a poetry festival featuring seven poets on February 11, 1978, to “promote exchange of artistic ideas between India and Indians in Britain. The principal guest was Indian humourist and poet Gurnam Singh Tir”. 

Clip from the Coventry Evening Telegraph, Wednesday 15 February 1978. Image courtesy of Reach PLC and the British Library.
The poetry festival, central to Case Study #1, illuminated significant audio archives, including previously unheard reel-to-reel tapes digitised in collaboration with Coventry Archives. Complementing these were interviews with key figures such as Ajmer Bains and other members of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) in Coventry. As the principal researcher, I conducted additional interviews, including conversations with Bains’s son, Mohini Bains, Geoffrey Holroyd, and Hardeesh Virk, son of Harbhajan Virk and custodian of the Virk Collection at the Coventry Archives. 

Architectural drawing provided by the Coventry Department of Architecture and Planning, outlining the site plans for the construction of the Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use in 1970. Drawing courtesy  of the Coventry Archives.

This study explores the temporal, spatial, and sonic characteristics of the site, as well as the socio-political histories of participants who expressed their ideologies through poetry, song, and music. This information, along with relevant data, underpinned artist Paul Purgas’ creation of a new site-specific soundwork. This work acted as a sonic palimpsest, blending historical sounds to enrich our understanding of history and spaces. It highlights the social and cultural importance of sounds, including oral history and field recordings, in depicting historical uses and experiences of spaces like the Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use. This method transposes existing audio documents and ambisonic field recordings of the acoustic environment, reanimating past environments and experiences. It offers a multi-dimensional view of the site’s heritage, extending beyond visual representation and emphasising the intricate relationship between tangible and intangible elements in heritage and design. 

This Voice Was Once Spoken: audio essay analysis. 
In choosing the audio essay as the format for the soundwork, Purgas composes with sounds and vocal utterances rather than written words allowing for arguments and narratives to be  arranged through the integration of sound, music, voice, and effects.[131] It includes recordings of speakers who alternate between Punjabi, Hindi, and English to articulate the complex socioeconomic and political landscape of 1970s Coventry, UK, and historical events in India, including the nation’s abrupt partition and its path to independence from colonial rule. Purgas’ analysis actively addresses immigration, economic and educational policies, mass unemployment, de-industrialisation, and instituted racism encountered by migrant communities. It draws parallels with contemporary populist narratives promulgated by members of the incumbent UK government at the time of writing.[132]  

The soundwork opens with a recording from the Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use, capturing Punjabi voices in group discussion. The conversations are interrupted by a distinct “hello, hello, hello” in English, drawing the audience’s attention and propelling the event forward. The interruption signals the introduction of a “jatha”, or group, ready to present the Pragatisheel Likhari Sabha’s (Progressive Writers Assembly) annual report. Purgas, during the final appraisal interview, reflects on the soundwork’s structure and the use of this auditory cue to start the piece. Commenting that “an intriguing element was how the IWA recordings portrayed the experience of being present at one of these Coventry meetings, serving as a structural anchor, evoking a sense of the congregation, allowing the piece to oscillate between different temporal, spatial, and historical contexts. A highlight of the recording is someone checking a microphone before a meeting, which vividly places the listener in that environment, fostering an immersive interaction with the space. This felt like a performance, orchestrating sound, and the audience space, akin to conducting. That is why it became the inspiration for my composition”. 

A woman’s voice recites Punjabi poetry, blending the concept of Ishq—love—with narratives of defiance and unity. The opening line, “Ishq’s (love’s) good-looking arias, from Ishq’s hands, fairies of Ishq, are of Ishq”, celebrates love’s beauty and the communal struggle as love’s embodiment. The verse, “Those brave ones who fight for the suffering become Amritdhari (wealthy) who are crucified laughing”, honours the resilience of the Amritdhari who faced adversity with laughter, a tribute to resilience and the fortification of cultural identity through collective adversity. The performance culminates with “I am a rebel, I am a rebel, the people are free from their own gardens”, asserting a tradition of dissent and a rejection of traditional limitations and social expectations. 

Field recordings run concurrent to the poetry recital, situating the piece in a contemporary context while bridging the historical component. The emotional complexity of the migrant community is expressed with the statement, “a joyous occasion, every Indian wedding is a very joyous occasion. But if you had followed me, and if you had seen, there were dozens of people who approached me, asking whether I had watched the Conservative Party conference debate on immigration, and if they were all welcome, inquiring, “What was the future for the children in this country?” Echoing the Indian diaspora’s deep concerns, particularly about how the Conservative Party’s immigration stance could affect their children’s futures in the UK, demonstrating the dual realities faced by immigrant communities. 

An excerpt from the BBC News captures the political atmosphere: “Good evening. The government is making the further control of immigration a priority this parliamentary session. The intention is to persuade the country that a clear end is in sight to the line of people, most of them coloured, who can claim the right to come and settle here. It’s a new twist in an old argument that’s been growling on in Parliament and in the pubs, in leader columns and on the streets…” This broadcast conveys the government’s focus on stringent immigration controls, positioning it as a culmination of longstanding-public debate. The phrase “most of them coloured” directly points to the racial aspects of the immigration debate, highlighting how policy and public perception intersect, intensifying feelings of alienation and marginalisation experienced by migrant communities.  

A male Punjabi voice questions, “Who does not feel shame like Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu Deputy PM can do to the famous Akali Dali leader Dhanna Singh Gulshan (in office 1977-80)?” Followed by “The fault of the change of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, brutally crushed them, before they crushed them”, turning the lens on the Sikh religious body entangled with brutality and oppression. It reflects on the intricate relationship between religious institutions and political power and the potential misuse of authority. 

Over a recording of a live classical Indian music performance, keynote speaker Gurnam Singh Tir who came specifically from India for the event speaks on the unforeseen political shifts affecting the Indian diaspora. Tir states, “When I left India, I did not know that within 10 days or so, such a development would take this. But in politics, in political life, we find that such things do happen, and sometimes, we are taken by surprise. As it was known to the Indian Workers Association, our comrades, and friends in Great Britain, that I was to come here for a short visit on the invitation of the government of Great Britain. They have arranged a few meetings in some places. But the visit is so, so short and I have to return within a few days to India that I do not think that I could do justice to all the requests that have come to me through just our friends in various parts of Great Britain”. Their remarks address the dynamic nature of politics and the constraints of their brief visit, despite the community’s hopes for their engagement. 

The lyrics of the ensuing music poetically recounts, “fathers and mothers cried”, and continues with “my voice was once spoken, regret, regret, then it began to resonate, then it too was the work of the heart”, capturing the collective sense of sorrow and regret that often accompanies activism. The lines, “these eyes of Punjab did not have a dream. The Patwari, who is lost. When placed in the dream, that heart too was lifted to the left side. The New Year’s Day of the silenced”, depict disillusionment and critique bureaucratic failures that seemingly crush communal hopes. The song honours Sikh figures—Khalsa Ji, Sant Baba, Sohan Singh Bhakna, Udham Singh, and Shaheed Kehar Singh—and the “Dasham Granth Sahib”, forging a connection between historical resistance and present efforts. Revered for their resistance to oppression, these figures preserve a legacy of defiance and virtue, suggesting that past sacrifices continue to inspire contemporary struggles for justice and equality. 

The music gives way to a field recording featuring Geoffrey Holroyd, the first Headmaster of Sydney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use, from my interview with them on the school’s history. Holroyd recounts, “The school was open to adults in the community because…like many other schools, we ran an adult education programme as well, but I just didn’t want to restrict it... Adults could join our school classes. The only condition, I said on, if you, if you, you as a parent, or as a bus driver, or as a taxi driver, or anybody else in the community wish to join a class, then you must commit yourself to attending that class regularly and taking the exam, just like always”. Highlighting the school’s inclusive ethos, extending education to adults, and fostering community integration. However, recording issues arose when conducting the interview, prompting Purgas to advise that “from my experience in radio programming, recording oral histories using two microphones is crucial. Some segments, despite their quality, were unusable because your voice overlapped with Geoffrey’s. When you’re conducting such interviews in the future, think about employing two mics and be mindful not to interrupt. Regrettably, those overlapping sections with Geoffrey had to be left out”. This guidance regarding the use of dual microphones to enhance interview clarity was subsequently incorporated into the toolkit.  

Coventry’s economic downturn and widespread unemployment reflect the broader trend of de-industrialisation, which intensified racial tensions and economic instability within the region. The situation particularly affected the migrant community, who had moved to the area in the pursuit of higher wages in relatively unskilled jobs The programme Enough is Enough encapsulates the climate, marked by union conflicts amid anti-union government policies. It quotes, “Coventry was once the very image of British prosperity. Now, like so many of our industrial centres, the city is hit by recession. Indeed, economic decline here has accelerated so sharply that almost one out of five people are out of work. You don’t need to travel the world to find out about poverty. It’s here, on our own doorstep”. It goes on to state that “Coventry at one time was known as booming, and everyone was in full employment, everyone flocked to Coventry, and they paid the higher wages in Coventry than anywhere else”. These accounts outline Coventry’s rapid fall from a “Boom Town” to facing significant economic challenges from 1972 onwards, a transition that was impactful to the South Asian community for over a decade. 

Field recordings, music and poetry are reintroduced in Punjabi, opening with “Aashak (hope) is possessed, and this conversation begins” signifying a catalyst for change, which continues with “Anakh (honour) status is human that he said as per registration act” pointing to the discrepancy between stated societal values and their actual enactment, particularly within social movements. It proceeds to introduce Sufi poetry’s entanglement with politics and questions, “What is the Sikh god’s promise to our forefather’s legacy in Asa Buttar’s village council elections?”, drawing a connection between spiritual beliefs and political actions This segment illustrates the community’s efforts to blend politics with spiritual wisdom, with the aim to harmonise local governance with ethical principles and interweave local actions with spirituality. 

At this point of the recording about the Marxist Communist Party in West Bengal another male voice explains that “the idea was of the then government and Congress party to destroy the left movement in India. And if they had to destroy the left movement in India, then certainly, they had to begin with West Bengal… They thought that these activities would be reflected all over India in other parts, in other states. And so they thought that the Communist Party Marxist in West Bengal was a challenge to the Congress ruling party…The people of India would become conscious, including West Bengal, and they would beat back the forces, the terroristic forces which were trying to strangle democracy in West Bengal and other parts of India”. This extended statement implies a global political context in which actions taken by Marxist groups in India influenced perceptions and policies regarding Indian migrants in the UK.  

It is shortly followed by a BBC World Service greeting in Hindi, signifying the global reach of diasporic audiences and the media’s pivotal role in connecting migrants with their cultural roots. The broadcast transitions to the final Punjabi poetic verse, engaging with the emotive and societal aspects intrinsic to South Asian activism. It starts with “me and my loneliness”, capturing the poet’s solitary confrontation with prevailing ideologies and the demanding persistence where “making a habit is a chore”. Further disenchantment is voiced in “God is tired”, questioning reliance on divine intervention for justice, and “grabbing food poisoning death by making the situation serious” critiques harmful political and societal manoeuvres. 

The closing archival recording features Avtar Singh recounting the stark realities faced by migrants adapting to the UK’s industrial landscape. Their narrative expresses the physical discomforts that accompany the transition to industrial work, acclimatising to an unforgiving work environment, characterised by substandard working conditions symptomatic of the industrial decline. Singh vividly recalls “always getting a pain until they (housemates) used to say, nudging me, ‘How do you sleep?’ And I said, uh, I, I said, ‘All my hands are itching. Not only itching… There’s a burning sensation in the hands.’” In search of relief, a housemate offered them traditional advice: “You should do two things. One, put mustard oil on the hands, and heat it on the oven plate. And don’t put your hand on the plate, but let the plate heat those up, and when you really... They become hot, and then rub the hands together again, play together”. This remedy not only alleviated the pain but also fortified their hands, which became “rock hard, rock hard. It was like, like stone and uh, shaking hand with somebody, (laughs), like, somebody shaking hand with a block, plank of wood”. 

This Voice Was Once Spoken: curatorial, technical, and theoretical analysis
The curatorial toolkit was shared with Purgas early on in the commissioning process, extensive discussions, a site visit, and a soundwalk ensued and specific tools were pinpointed for their applicability to the production timeline required to develop this particular audio essay. The specific tools selected are organised alphabetically below, each accompanied by an analysis of use and purpose in regard to this soundwork. For general descriptions of each tool refer to the Glossary and the Curatorial Toolkit located in the Appendix. 

Active Listening Techniques
Active Listening Techniques comprise practices utilised in communication and educational fields, emphasising the proactive engagement and comprehensive attentiveness of the listener. Detailed here are the types of active listening techniques employed in this case study: 

Social Listening refers to listening practices that acknowledge the social context in which the communication occurs. It involves an awareness of the cultural, economic, and social backgrounds that influence the speakers and strives to discern the societal forces shaping the said dialogue. This approach transcends basic language comprehension, exploring the societal frameworks and dynamics of power integral to the exchange. Purgas’ work with the IWA recordings exemplifies this method, highlighting the prominence of a specific demographic within the discourse. Specifically, Purgas’ Punjabi-speaking mother, for example, “identified that the woman’s voice was reciting a poem due to its structure and rhythm”, and the tapes featured “predominantly male voices” in the majority of the recordings. Mirroring scholarly descriptions of the 1970s’ artistic community within South Asian diasporic communities, particularly in creative writing and poetry, which were mired in a patriarchal system that typically suppressed women. Cultural theorist Vijay Mishra, in Unsettling the Empire: Resistance Theory for the Second World, (1996), portrays the then cultural scene as abundant in expression yet skewed in gender representation. Additionally, Indian feminist theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in Can the Subaltern Speak?, (1988), discusses this asymmetry from the perspective of silencing—where patriarchal constructs effectively suppress the feminine voice. Purgas’ judicious inclusion of a “female voice made a significant impact on the audio essay; it stood out distinctly. It felt right to include it, which shifted the narrative away from an exclusively male conversation” to encompass a wider perspective, extending the conversation beyond an exclusive male-focused discourse, while raising awareness of the subjugation of women.[133] 

Political listening requires active engagement in the political sphere, particularly in elevating voices that dominant narratives often marginalised. Sociologist Les Back advocates for a cultural shift to prioritise listening over speaking because it would be marked by humility and would challenge basic opinions. This shift would undermine the tendency to oversimplify social issues and avoid binary moral judgments.[134] Political scientist Susan Bickford points out the imbalance in political dialogues where speaking overshadows listening and suggests that “political listening” could deliberately address inequality, which was a consideration when originally discussing the project with Purgas, who was aware of the IWA, and their mission for union equality in the work place, which is substantiated by the volume of oral histories and broadcast media audio visual documents made available via the data set.  

Admittedly, the IWA had historical political ties with Marxist organisations in India, evidenced in “an IWA meeting recording in the data set”. This situates it as a socio-political document of its era, featuring “a speaker from West Bengal discussing the rise of Marxism and the challenges they faced from the Indian nationalist ideology. Purgas also talks about election rigging and police oppression in Bengal and was trying to raise international awareness and garner support”. This provides Purgas with the opportunity to reconstruct historical narratives from the perspectives of individuals who directly experienced these events, imbuing the content with contemporary political significance. Additionally, the wealth of oral histories included offer listeners unique insights into social movements and first-hand accounts of historical events that serve as symbolic representations of social and political encounters from everyday perspectives. This helps to bridge gaps in traditional archival records, ensuring that grassroots movements are not only preserved but also integrated into established historical narratives, thereby connecting personal experiences with broader societal and political structures.[135] 

For This Voice Was Once Spoken, Relational Listening emerges as a crucial technique for building and comprehending relationships through dynamic engagement with both the oral histories and audio recordings. This method involves a consideration of the speaker’s emotions and viewpoints, creating an environment to progress personal connections with the subject. Purgas’ reflections on the audio content offer a testament to this practice, explaining that having “initially, feeling overwhelmed by the volume of content…I delved into it, I started to enjoy the process. Once you identify the valuable parts, it becomes more about storytelling and enjoyment. It’s similar to writing; you revise it several times until it conveys what you intend”. Purgas’ words capture the essence of relational listening, which transcends mere auditory reception to embrace the intricacies of storytelling and personal connection. 

The process of relational listening is further exemplified by the inclusion of a poignant interview from the data set, where Avtar Singh describes their labour-intensive work as making their “hands feel like stone”. Purgas finds a personal resonance with this narrative, stating that the “recording resonated with me personally, as my Grandfather worked for British Steel. Many migrant workers in the UK faced harsh conditions”. This personal connection sheds light on a deeper understanding of the subject’s lived experiences and historical context, aligning with the IWA’s historic aim to secure union recognition within the workplace. Purgas further elaborates on the methodology behind their selection of content, noting that “even though I had extensive recordings discussing the process of unionising labour in industrial contexts, the part about their hands struck a chord”. Signifying the power of relational listening to capture a humanist element within historical narratives, ensuring that individual experiences are vividly portrayed. 

Furthermore, Purgas’ familial background influenced their methodological approach, which went beyond an objective examination. Decisions were instead made based on personal connections rather than strictly logical reasoning. This departure from a strict documentary approach infuses the study with an auto-ethnographic element, showcasing the potential of relational listening to challenge conventional research paradigms by creating a narrative that is both empathetic and comprehensive, thus enhancing listeners understanding of the complex sociocultural contexts. 

Field Recording 
Field Recording is an audio capture technique used to document and reproduce the acoustics of various environments and sound events in their natural context. It is a practice highly regarded within disciplines such as ethnomusicology, acoustic ecology, and soundscape studies. Here is a detailed description of how inner-city field recordings were captured and utilised for this study: 

The field recordings captured illuminate the acoustic environments surrounding the Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use, notably the intersection with Cox Street and Primrose Hill, along with the area where Cox Street meets Lower Ford Road and the pathways encircling the ring-road. These recordings depict the distinctive auditory signatures composed of traffic sounds, human voices—particularly those of young adults near the newly rebuilt school and university buildings—and the ambient noise of the city’s public transport hub, Pool Meadow, among other auditory elements typical of built-up environments. These recordings are invaluable for examining acoustic ecologies and the impact of sound on and within constructed spaces, especially given the recent concentration of student accommodations near the Ring Road, an area once considered less desirable, and not fit for housing.[136] Despite the comprehensive nature of these data sets, Purgas noted, “it would have been beneficial to have more field recordings. Having a few more would have enriched my sonic understanding of the city. However, there was already enough spoken word, poetry, and song content, which was my main concern”. Despite this practical setback, the field recordings were interspersed throughout the soundwork as a foundational layer, positioning the listener within the narrative of the location. Sections were enhanced at specific points to heighten awareness and foster an audible connection with the participants and the concurrent activities documented during the recordings. 

Sound Archives – Media and Documentation:  
Sound archives preserve audio recordings for historical, educational, artistic and research use, encompassing media like reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, CDs, and VHS tapes, documenting auditory cultures and environments. The archive/data set for this research holds a diverse collection of audio recordings, including Bhangra music, oral histories, poetry recitals, committee meetings, academic talks, and natural and industrial noises. To register the breadth of the information available, Purgas explains that “the process incorporated the use of Ableton Live 11 software. I imported nearly the entire audio data set into it, listening attentively and marking moments of relevance or significance. This approach offered a streamlined method for annotating while listening, ensuring that I maintained a clear record of pertinent data set elements for the arrangement. Furthermore, I used colour-coding for various audio segments, aiding in easy reference for future use”. 

Audio – Human and Non-Human 
The audio files in the soundwork, primarily sourced from established archives, consist of oral histories, interviews, and historical speeches in various languages, expressing political and cultural themes. They are accompanied by non-human audio from environmental field recordings and incidental sounds from the technical equipment used. The collection includes analogue broadcast media recordings from digitised videotapes, featuring newsreels, documentaries, and DIY footage. These are sourced from the British Film Institute archives, British Library, Coventry Archives—with a particular emphasis on the Virk archive—Mace Archives, and the Centre for Modern Studies at Warwick University. 

Oral histories and accompanying transcripts were accessed with authorial permission from historical research initiatives. Accompanying these were predominantly personal testimonies and narratives in audio form, offering intimate insights of various individuals’ experiences and insights into the historical events of the IWA, Bains, Virk, and the working conditions for migrant workers during this period. These oral histories were curated for relevance and clarity to evidence specific narratives and academic goals. While the collection of unedited interviews with the descendants and friends of Ajmer Bains, Harbhajan Virk, and Geoffrey Holroyd provided unvarnished, authentic accounts, capturing the genuine unrehearsed responses and spontaneity of the conversations—key to the authenticity and the in-depth approach integral to the research. 

Overcoming issues related to technological obsolescence was crucial for accessing information about the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) from Coventry Archives’ recordings stored on superseded formats. The archive manager, Paramjit Sehmi, granted the necessary authorisation for digital conversion and public dissemination. This process incurred costs and necessitated the engagement of specialists for transferring audio-visual content from outdated technologies to contemporary formats. The conversion process, spanning three months, delayed the soundwork’s completion due to Purgas’ professional obligations. However, the recordings proximity to the event and the opportunity to incorporate new content justified the wait. Additionally, Purgas emphasised, “from a quality perspective, having the file format as WAV or AIFF would have been preferable, but if the archive only contains MP3s, that’s acceptable. The emphasis should always be on securing the highest quality audio possible. It’s vital to pair this with reference text detailing the content, ensuring both are readily available”. This technical consideration has been noted and integrated into the curatorial toolkit. However, as mentioned in the appraisal, the recordings in the respective archives were saved as either MP3s or MP4s. 

Sonic Ecologies  
Sonic ecologies denote the intricate networks and interactions among varied sound sources in specific environments, integrating natural, technological, and human-made sounds. They examine how factors such as language, music, voice, and writing both shape and are shaped by acoustic environments. This research specifically concentrates on the language and voice of the South Asian diaspora in relation to their cultural outputs and political attitude. This interpretive approach synthesises multiple academic perspectives, including Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogical Imagination, (1981), which examines the voice’s multifaceted roles. Firstly, as an actual acoustic phenomenon, secondly as an intermediary between linguistic and musical expressions, and thirdly as a metaphorical reflection of subjectivity, intersubjective relations, and political agency across varied cultural and social landscapes. Adriana Cavarero and Paul Kottman reinforce this framework, interpreting the voice from an “embodied” stance, positioning “the voice as the sound of the individual, capable of expressing the uniqueness of each being”. They view the voice as a critical factor in subject formation, arising from the interplay of socialisation, musical involvement, and the evolution of literacy, thereby presenting voice as both a tangible and symbolic architect of identity. Furthermore, Steven Feld notes that “language shapes an environment as much as it communicates” calling attention to the rhythm, pitch, and volume of spoken language which all interact with ambient sounds, creating a unique auditory experience.[137] 

This Voice Was Once Spoken: Conclusion 
In conclusion, Paul Purgas’ audio essay, This Voice Was Once Spoken, (2023) is anchored in the vibrant history of the Indian Workers Association (IWA), specifically the 1978 Poetry Festival at the Sidney Stringer Centre. Despite initial concerns over the “initially daunting” volume of data, Purgas delivers a poetic and perceptive study of sonic environments and diasporic narrative that skilfully merges cultural memory with present-day reflection, uncovering the complex interplay of identity, politics, culture, and community resistance within the UK’s South Asian diaspora. 

Employing “active listening... to construct a matrix in which elements had interconnected threads” from the toolkit and other suggested forms of listening praxis, Purgas interprets archival materials sonically to illuminate the IWA’s grassroots activism and the pivotal role of community spaces in fostering resilience. The soundwork revives obscured histories and elevates marginalised narratives, emphasising the significance of storytelling while “intuitively” engaging with material that personally “resonated” to unpack the diasporic experience and its imprint on Britain’s societal and cultural history. Purgas also recognises the hurdles for early career practitioners to navigate the volume and subtleties of information, while praising me as the principal investigator for “ample support and guidance”, appreciating the afforded creative freedom, and noting that “mutual trust was crucial... I think we struck the right balance: offering a structure without being too restrictive.” Thus, the audio piece not only venerates a previously overlooked historical chapter but also enriches contemporary discussions on diaspora, identity, and cultural production’s role in shaping public discourse and collective consciousness. 

Purgas commends the toolkit’s concept and efficacy, achieving an ideal blend of historical context and specific recordings relevant to the IWA and the data set’s interviews. This wealth of material provided a broad cultural and political context for Coventry and the UK, seamlessly integrated into their sound project. The IWA recordings, were central to this sonic palimpsest, enabling Purgas to navigate and contrast distinct eras. These recordings provided a guide through specific diasporic histories, emphasising the reverberant quality of the recordings, specifically a microphone check before a meeting that set the tone for this work. Combined, these elements capture the socio-political climate of the time, forming the narrative’s backbone, which continue to reverberate today. 

By utilising the IWA recordings, Purgas surpasses linear time constraints, engaging in temporal forms of resistance to compose a narrative that alternates between past and present, underscoring the relevance of the IWA’s legacy. The framework from these recordings and oral histories permitted Purgas to navigate various temporal and historical dimensions, highlighting the non-linear character of memory and cultural transmission, and the lasting influence of history on current and forthcoming realities. Inspiring Purgas to intertwine historical incidents, personal stories, and cultural reverberations into a multifaceted soundwork, testifying to the IWA and the South Asian diaspora’s perpetual impact on Britain’s cultural fabric. This sonic palimpsest honours the diasporic experience’s complexity, creating a work focused on remembrance and the historical voices’ ongoing relevance. 

Finally, Purgas acknowledges the toolkits strengths while suggesting improvements, such as adding more ambisonic field recordings to enrich an understanding of the sites and surrounding areas distinctive acoustic environment. Plus, practical issues related to the lack of a reference document for identifying recordings. Nevertheless, Purgas overcame this by engaging with the material and selecting personally resonant moments. In short, the project struck an ideal equilibrium, adhering to the curatorial framework while permitting personal engagement with the material, thereby avoiding a constrictive brief. Furthermore, Purgas highlights the autobiographical aspect of this work, introducing a personal dimension. This approach shifts the soundwork beyond objective commentary, instead favouring a speculative auditory journey that uses past socio-economic and cultural conditions as a catalyst to question the cyclical debates of the present. 

[120] Bagchee, N. (2018). Counter Institution: Activist Estates of the Lower East Side. (New York: Empire State Editions). 

In Counter Institution: Activist Estates of the Lower East Side, (2018), Nandini Bagchee redirects focus from New York City's public spaces to buildings historically serving as activism hubs. These structures, extending beyond civic infrastructure, fostered political participation and protest formation. Located within Lower East Side, New York, Bagchee highlights historical centres of radical politics in the twentieth century. Despite gentrification, they honour their immigrant and working-class heritage, recalling an era when spirited protests against authoritarianism, the First World War, gendered suffrage laws, and racial segregation were led by Lower East Side activists. Bagchee identifies “activist estates”, non-commercialised spaces fuelling protests in New York's real estate-driven market. Buildings abandoned post-federal funding withdrawal in the 1970s were repurposed by activists, creating public-private spaces. Additionally, Bagchee reveals middle-class-led educational programs seeking to impose values on immigrant and working-class communities through inner-city renewal. Despite financial limitations, “Counter Institutions” transcend class boundaries, depicted as vibrant cultures of activism fostering various public gatherings. Bagchee showcases grassroots activism and artists' repurposing of buildings for countercultural experimentation. Repositioning “public spaces” as buildings repurposed by activists for meetings raises questions about such activist estates' prevalence and empowers marginalised communities, illustrating how activism and spatial history shape community dynamics and social movements.

[121] For more information on We Found Our Own Reality visit: exhibition page, and Subcontinental Synthesis

[122] Purgas. P. (2023). Subcontinental Synthesis: Electronic Music at the National Institute of Design, India 1969–1972. (Boston: MIT Press). 

[123] Indian activists who helped change the face of modern Britain. (2021). Available at:

[124] Gill, T. (2013). ‘The Indian Workers’ Association Coventry 1938–1990: political and social action’ in South Asian History and Culture. 4(4). pp. 554-573.

[125] Progressive Writers Association: In 1932, the controversial book Angare, known for its political radicalism and “obscenities”, was published in India. Authored by Ahmed Ali, Sajjad Zaheer, Rashid Jahan, and Mahmud-uz-Zafar, it was eventually banned, inciting these intellectuals to form the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in 1935. Following Angare’s release, Zaheer relocated to London for legal studies. There, he, and Mulk Raj Anand, formed the PWA. Their drafted manifesto stressed literature’s role in promoting freedom of thought and resistance against British imperialism and religious orthodoxy. In the UK during the 1960s, the PWA’s influence spurred cultural initiatives, such as a literary association in Southall and the debut of two Punjabi weekly newspapers in 1965. 123From the 1970s, the Asian Writers Workshop saw Sikh professionals like Ajmer Bains and Harbhajan Virk engage primarily through Punjabi oral storytelling (Qissa). By the late 1970s, the PWA held annual events in Sikh-populated areas like Southall and Smethwick. These gatherings celebrated revolutionary poetry and evolved to include modern fiction, Bhangra music, and Bollywood songs.

[126] Carpenter, M & Kyneswood, B. (2017). From self-help to class struggle: revisiting Coventry Community Development Project’s 1970s journey of discovery. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[127] (Authors not named). (1975). Community Development Project Final Report: Coventry and Hillfields: Prosperity and the Persistence of Inequality. Coventry: The Home Office and City of Coventry Community Development Project.

[128] (Authors not named). (1975). Community Development Project Final Report: Background Working Papers. Coventry: The Home Office and City of Coventry Community Development Project.

[129] Coventry Education Committee. (1972). The Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use. Coventry: Coventry City Council.

[130] This information was shared via an interview conducted with Geoffrey Holroyd in May 2022 and corroborated by the Coventry Education Committee (1972), The Sidney Stringer Centre for School and Community Use paper. Holroyd explained that they would actively visit different places of worship to meet community members and invite them to personally connect and utilise Sidney Stringer’s facilities. After two years, Holroyd left their post as Headmaster to become Dean of Coventry Polytechnic. The successor was Arfon Jones, now deceased, who was Headmaster on 11 February 1978.

[131] Biewen, J. & Dilworth, A. (eds.). (2017). [Online]. Reality Radio, Second Edition: Telling True Stories in Sound. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press). Available at:

[132] Please note that some terms transcribed from the recordings represent the media platform’s language at the time of publishing and do not reflect the opinions of the artist or me as the principal researcher.

[133] The marginalisation of women in the arts in India is a complex phenomenon deeply intertwined with historical, cultural, and social factors. This text briefly draws upon the insights of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Nivedita Menon to gain an introductory understanding of this issue. 

A key advocate for women’s equal rights in India is Spivak, renowned for the analysis of postcolonialism and feminism, shedding light on the intricate dynamics of representation and marginalisation in literature and the arts. The seminal work Can the Subaltern Speak? critiques the ways in which dominant narratives silence the voices of underrepresented groups, including women, applying the concept of “strategic essentialism” to reinforce the necessity for these groups to strategically assert their identities within oppressive structures. In the Indian context, this implies that women must navigate a cultural landscape where patriarchal norms often dictate artistic expression, relegating their voices to the periphery. 

This is further supported by Mohanty’s writings, which examine the intersections of race, gender, and colonialism, offering insights into the representation of women in postcolonial societies like India. Mohanty argues against essentializing the experiences of women in the Global South, highlighting the diversity of their lived realities. In Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses, Mohanty critiques Western feminist perspectives that exoticize and marginalise women from the Global South, perpetuating hegemonic narratives. This critique resonates with the marginalisation of Indian women artists whose work may be overlooked or commodified within Western-centric art markets, reinforcing colonial power dynamics. 

Finally, Menon’s work on gender, sexuality, and identity politics in India provides a framework for understanding the marginalisation of women’s voices across various spheres, including the arts. In her book Seeing like a Feminist, Menon interrogates the mechanisms through which gender norms are constructed and reinforced in Indian society. To highlights how women’s agency is often circumscribed by patriarchal structures, limiting their opportunities for artistic expression and recognition. This underscores the need to challenge existing power structures and create inclusive spaces where women can assert their creative agency without facing discrimination or erasure.

[134] Back, L. (2012). The Unfinished Politics of Race: Histories of Political Participation, Migration, and Multiculturalism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 

Bickford, S. (1996). The Dissonance of Democracy: Listening, Conflict, and Citizenship. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press). 

[135] Saunders, J. S. (2015). The British motor industry, 1945-77: How workplace cultures shaped labour militancy. Ph. D Thesis. University College London. Available at:  

In chapter 4 of Jack Stacy Saunders Ph. D, The British motor industry, 1945-77: How workplace cultures shaped labour militancy, (2015), they identify from 1968 onwards, developments in factory organisations, social practices, and cultural norms were influenced not just by economic conditions and industrial policies, but also by their unique histories and participant dynamics of its workers. Car Factories across the Midlands saw distinct activism forms emerge via organised union structures, affecting the negative behaviour of the motor industry chiefs. As a consequence worker to exert collective power, shaping individual and collective agency within economic and political contexts.

[136] En-suite education: the unstoppable rise of luxury student housing. (2016). Available at:

The UK’s student accommodation landscape has transformed, with a surge in high-spec studio flats for students amidst a local demand for affordable housing. Adam Forrest in an article for the Guardian highlights this shift, emphasising the £5.8bn investment into student housing and the rapid development in city centres like Coventry, where private sector and universities alike are driving the change. This boom is seen as a regeneration tool but raises concerns about the affordability and gentrification, with tensions between local residents and the growing student population. Despite the economic benefits, there’s a risk that only wealthier students can afford these accommodations, potentially impacting the diversity and inclusivity of cities. 

[137] Cavarero, A & Kottman, P. (2005). For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).