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.]