David McCutchion: On Bengal’s Terracotta Temple Trail
Chances are, you haven’t heard of David McCutchion and yet his obituary, published in 1972 by The Times, London, called him a man who “did more for Anglo-Indian friendship than a Government or an ideology can undo”. So who was he?
David John McCutchion (12 August 1930 – 12 January 1972) was an Indophile who blazed a lonely trail in the ’60s and ’70s across remote, rural West Bengal as well as Bangladesh, to provide detailed photographic and informational coverage of Bengal’s signature brick and terracotta temples. He was also one of the first noted Indologists to record and classify these temples.
His major work, Late Mediaeval Temples of Bengal: Origins And Classification (1972), is considered ‘the Bible of Bengal’s terracotta temples’. He not only documented them through exhaustive field surveys but was also the first to present an elaborate classification of these monuments. He categorised them into 12 main types and several sub-types. The work of other scholars after McCutchion is primarily an extension of his work.
Early Studies on the Temples
For a region in which stone is rare, the religious art of Bengal was mostly expressed through the medium of terracotta, usually in mosques and temples. Constructed between the 12thand 19th centuries, the terracotta mosques and temples of Bengal are among the most distinctive religious structures in India. Many temples were sponsored by local Maharajas, affluent merchants and zamindars (feudal land owners).
Reflecting the multiple artistic influences in the region during this period, the brick temples of Bengal exhibit a wide range of forms and techniques of construction. For instance, in the 16th century, temple architecture and terracotta panels were mostly influenced by Vaishnavism. Interestingly, in the late-19th century, European influences are predominant.
Despite the abundance of these temples in Bengal’s countryside, little academic research has been done on them. They were first brought to the attention of the Western world due to the efforts of Armenian-Indian archaeologist Joseph David Beglar (1845-1907). During the late 19th century, Beglar recorded a short description of some brick and terracotta temples in his Report of a Tour Through The Bengal Provinces while reporting to the Archaeological Survey of India under Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893).
Noted Bengali folklorist Gurusaday Dutt (1882–1941) published an article on “Bengali terracottas” in the Journal of The Indian Society of Oriental Art, Vol9, 1938, although his writing was devoted largely to terracotta art rather than the temples per se. The next work on them was by Mukul Chandra Dey, a leading painter of the Bengal School of Art, Kolkata, who documented the temples of Birbhum district in his book Birbhum Terracottas (1959). But despite being architectural marvels, a comprehensive study still eluded these monuments. Ironically, it was David McCutchion who would change all this.
McCutchion Arrives in India
In the 1950s, as British nationals were leaving a newly independent India to return home, David McCutchion was a rare Englishman who left England to seek a job in India. He came to India in 1957 to teach English at Tagore's Visva-Bharati, Shantiniketan. Later, he took up the post of a reader in the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, where he taught 18th-century French and English literature.
McCutchion’s interest in Tagore went back a long way. He was a member of the Tagore Society at Jesus College, a constituent college of the University of Cambridge, England, and read Modern Languages at the college, after completing his secondary education from King Henry VIII Grammar School.
In Calcutta, McCutchion lived a simple life and dressed in crushed pyjamas and a bush shirt. He stayed at 55/5 Purna Das Road, and shifted to 4, Nundy Street, as a paying guest with a Bengali family. Once in the city, he created an intellectual circle around Professor Purusottam Lal’s Writer’s Workshop, a publishing house dedicated to Indian Writing in English (IWE), a body of work of Indians who wrote in English but whose native language was one of many Indian languages. In fact, he was one of the pioneer scholarswho wrote on IWE. His book Indian Writing In English: Critical Essays was published by Writer’s Workshop in 1969. McCutchion also contributed to the Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature from the very first edition of this journal, which was edited by Bengali poet Buddhadeva Bosu (1908–1974).
As a lover of Bengali culture, this English academician enjoyed Bengali folk songs, kirtans and songs of Baishnavso much that he used a radio transistor to listen to these melodies. Why, he learnt to play them on a bamboo flute!
While he indulged his literary and cultural pursuits, McCutchion met Academy Honorary Award-winning film director and writer Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) and translated the dialogue of some Ray’s film from Bengali to English. It was while Ray’s film Abhijan (1962) was being shot at Hetampur in Birbhum district that McCutchion developed an interest in Bengal’s terracotta temples.
A unique architectural beauty of octagonal Chandranath temple of Hetampur, Birbhum appealed to him. What makes this particular temple unique is a distinctly British influence on the traditional Bengali style. Terracotta plaques in the Chandranath Shiva temple showcase European men and women along with characters from Hindu mythology.
Not long after that, he met Tarapada Santra, founder of Ananda Niketan Museum, Howrah, and Dr Hitesranjan Sanyal, a fellow of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. They helped him to decode and interpret the terracotta plaques in the temples. He painstakingly traversed the Bengal landscape to chronicle undivided Bengal temples along with Tarapada Santra, Dr Sanyal, IAS officer Amiya Kumar Banerji, and others.
As part of his field work, McCutchion compiled a prodigious collection of photographs and wrote numerous articles on Bengal’s terracotta and brick temples.
Some of these articles/notes were published in local magazines and some were published posthumously. He delivered lectures on Bengal’s terracotta and brick temples in The Asiatic Society, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, Kolkata. He also wrote notes on temples of district Purulia, Hooghly, 24 Parganas in ‘CENSUS 1961 West Bengal District Census Handbook’, published in the mid-1960s.
But these terracotta marvels were more than just monuments to him; he literally worshipped them and always slipped off his shoes before entering one of these shrines.
McCutchion’s connection with the temples ran so deep that he endured enormous physical hardship to access these historic monuments. Often, he went on foot and sometimes rode a bicycle along twisting and bumpy paths through rice fields and went without food and water for long spells. One of his associates, Amiya Kumar Banerji, in a short note in the book Late Medieval Temples of Bengal: Origins And Classification (1972), says this of McCutchion: “I can affirm without any fear of contradiction that such a genuine lover of our architectural treasures is yet to born among the sons of the soil.”
After McCutchion’s death, his writings and collection of temple photographs were incorporated in a book titled Brick Temples of Bengal: From the Archives of David McCutchion (1983) edited by George Michell and published by Princeton University. McCutchion’s friend Satyajit Ray, the legendary filmmaker, penned the preface of this book, where he said that “for adventures they (David’s original collections) truly were, comic and tragic by turns, triumphant and despondent in equal measures”. A large body of his photographic work on Bengal’s temples is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in England.
An Artistic Legacy
If McCutchion is known for his ground-breaking work on Bengal’s terracotta temples, he also contributed to the promotion of Pota (engraver) and Patua (scroll) paintings. He had been introduced to this typically Bengali art by his favourite student in the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Suhrid Kumar Bhowmik.
The growing popularity of television and cinema, and the changing economy after World War II was eroding the market for Pota art in the 1960s, and McCutchion was distressed by this. He had been introduced to a few of the artists and also visited Amdabad, a village where these scroll paintings are made.
In a letter to Bhowmik dated 16th February 1970, McCutchion, who was fondly known as ‘David Babu’, says, “Thinking about your suggestion for a book on the Patus, it occurs to me that this is the opportunity for an important original contribution to research.” Upon his death, McCutchion’s family bequeathed his collection of scroll paintings to the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery in Coventry, England. His study of Patua scrolls was finally completed as a book titled Patuas And Patua Art In Bengal by Bhowmik in 1999.
In 1970, McCutchion was in England as a visiting lecturer at the University of Sussex for the 1970-71 season. Not long after he returned to Calcutta, he suffered a virulent attack of polio and died shortly thereafter, on 12th January 1972. He was only 41.
McCutchion was buried at Bhowanipore Cemetery, which is near the Indian National Library in Kolkata. Sadly, the grave of David McCutchion, who spent his life chronicling Bengal’s heritage, is neglected.
Just over a decade ago, Bhowmik compiled and edited a book titled David J. McCutchion: Unpublished Letters and Selected Articles (2008), published by Monfakira, Kolkata. This British professor is still remembered in the heart of every terracotta temple lover.
Cover Image: David John McCutchion (Courtesy: Suhrid Kumar Bhowmik)
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sk Abdul Amin is a research scholar at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He is a travel writer and heritage enthusiast with an interest in history through the lens of art, culture and religion.
Suhrid Kumar Bhowmik, Amit Guha, Suvodip Sanyal, Sarbajit Mitra are gratefully acknowledged for providing inputs.