Ray and David McCutchion

David McCutchion and Ray

David McCutchion (12 August 1930 – 12 January 1972) dedicated the last 12 years of his life to the study of Bengal’s terracotta architecture. He travelled across the Bengal countryside, on difficult journeys on local trains and bicycle, photographing, cataloguing, and documenting the thousands of brick temples built in Bengali villages in the 17th to 19th centuries. His photographic collection of more than 20,000 images is now housed at the V&A Museum in London. He also studied and collected Bengali patua art (scroll paintings), which were later bequeathed to the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry, where he was born.

McCutchion first arrived in Bengal on a six-month assignment to teach English at Visva-Bharati. He met Satyajit Ray briefly at Santiniketan, but later, around 1960, McCutchion met Ray in Kolkata and they developed an important friendship. It was while on shooting location in Birbhum for the film Abhijaan, that McCutchion saw some temples and became fascinated. Over the next decade Bengal’s temples became an all-consuming passion. Stories of his tireless travels on bicycle into the countryside to survey and photograph temples are well-known to us through his letters, and from articles others have written about him.

Sadly, the arduous journeys in search of temples, took their toll. David McCutchion died of polio in India in 1972, aged just 41 years. His extensive notes remained unpublished until George Michell took up the task of researching and publishing them in 1984 in “Brick Temples of Bengal”, which is still the authoritative book on Bengal’s terracotta temples. Satyajit Ray wrote a brilliant preface to this book where he described his long friendship with David McCutchion and David’s life’s work. This article is an adapted and abridged version of that preface.

The buzzer sounded. Satyajit Ray opened the door to let in David McCutchion, just back from a fortnight’s sojourn in the wilds of Orissa. David put his bicycle lamp down on the table and slumped down on the couch. “I’m exhausted,” he said. He looked it too.

“Was it a good trip?” asked Ray. David hesitated, and Ray immediately regretted the casual way he had put the question. David was a stickler for exactitude. For David, every journey into the countryside exploring the terracotta temples of Bengal was a bundle of experiences ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. David responded to Ray’s question by “telling all” a process that lasted about an hour. It left Ray feeling that while David McCutchion was bent upon writing the definitive treatise on the terracotta temples of Bengal, he shouldn’t stop there, but go on to write about the other aspect – the purely human aspect – of his adventures. What a rich tapestry of anecdotes and experiences it would make!

When David McCutchion first arrived in Calcutta, he knew nothing about the terracotta architecture of Bengal, despite spending two years in Santiniketan, surrounded by many Birbhum villages which had exquisite terracotta temples. When Ray met David next in Calcutta, David had joined Jadavpur University as a reader in comparative literature. They had a shared love of Western classical music of the Baroque period. David would drop in from time to time, and they listened to music together.

On one such evening, Ray asked David if he would translate the dialogue of his films into English. David readily agreed, saying it would be an opportunity for him to improve his Bengali. The first film David translated was “Teen Kanya”, and thereafter, every film right up to 1972. While shooting “Abhijaan” in the beautiful Birbhum countryside, Ray wrote to David and suggested he should come down and spend a weekend with the film crew. David turned up with his rucksack and stayed the night in royal style in the palace of the Hetampur Raj. Next morning, David disappeared for a while and returned in the afternoon looking flushed and excited. He had found some temples nearby with carvings of “sahibs and memsahibs”. [This was the remarkable Chandranath Temple in Hetampur, which has a series of carvings of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert alongside the usual images of Radha-Krishna and other deities.]

Chandranatha Temple at Hetampur (1846)

Suparsha engulfs Ravana's chariot (Daspur, 1791)

That was the beginning of David’s interest in the terracotta temples of Bengal. Back in Calcutta, he borrowed Ray’s copy of Mukul Dey’s book on Birbhum temples. He brought it back a few days later and borrowed a 19th century PWD publication “The Ancient Monuments of Bengal” and the two-volume “Banglaye Bhromon” published in the 1920s by the East Bengal Railways. Ray suggested a few more places to visit – Bishnupur of course, but also Bansberia, Guptipara, Kalna, Atpur, and so on. David went to all these places and brought back pictures. He was curious about what the carvings portrayed. “That bird with the enormous beak, what is it” he would ask. Ray replied that it was Bakasura, one of the demons Krishna had slain. [It was more likely to be the bird Suparsha in the Ramayana, trying to engulf Ravana’s chariot, which is depicted far more often in terracotta temples than Bakasura].

David’s interest turned into a remorseless study at the deepest level and lasted till the last conscious moment of his life. Within weeks David finished whatever books Ray was able to offer him and soon, his weekends were consumed by trips to terracotta country. Every trip was followed by three visits to Ray’s house – first for a verbal description of the adventure, then for an examination of the black and white photographs, and finally for a look at the colour slides with David providing a running commentary. In a matter of weeks, David had gained deep knowledge of the subject and was doing most of the talking, while Ray listened.

Soon David was also discovering unknown temples. While some Bengali researchers like Amiyakumar Bandyopadhyay and Tarapada Santra were also researching Bengali temples at this time, no one had ventured as far afield in search of temples as David. It was perhaps this conviction that he was a pioneer in an unexplored field that gave David the determination to continue at whatever cost. Since David was his own sponsor, he was always traveling third class by train, and then cycling or walking up to 15 miles a day on the off chance of finding a temple that a villager had told him was “over there”.

As the study progressed, David became more meticulous. He often visited the same temple twice or even three times to make sure he got the right photograph in the right lighting. He also started studying iconography and architectural evolution at a deeper level, for which he needed to venture further out: to the Pala sites in Bangladesh, and to the major early north Indian temple sites in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. He came back with pictures and more wondrous stories. Such as the night spent on a charpoy provided by the village headman and placed right in the middle of a hall in an 11th century temple in Bhopal. “I lay on my back and kept flashing up my torch at the ceiling and picking out the marvellous carvings”. In Madhya Pradesh, David ignored warnings about dakus and walked seven miles in bandit country to find a temple and return unscathed.

David also expressed his indignation to Ray about the neglect of temples as well as the tasteless attempts at preservation which usually meant painting or plastering over the ancient sculpture or paintings. He poured venom on a new kind of vandalism in the 1960s, when statues were chopped off from temples to sell to tourists.

The only book that David was able to see through was an eighty-page monograph on terracotta temples. He was pleased with the book but worried about details and typography. “Nothing exasperates me more than irrationality” David used to say. But in the end what could be more irrational than the sudden death of David McCutchion himself, his life’s work unfinished, at the young age of 42.

Bhojesvara Temple, Bhopal (11th century)

This article was first published in the BHF Diaspora Magazine 2020: A Ray of Hope (https://www.londonsharadutsav.org/publications)