Temple Study


Santanu Roy
Written by Santanu Roy

When  the British ruled the country, some outstanding personalities from the West, who made an immense contribution to further the interest of “natives “ and vernacular languages, were William Jones, who established the Asiatic Society, Henry Ferdinand Blochmann, the Orientalist and historian who translated many works like “Ain-i-Akbari” ,James Prinsep, the Anglo-Indian scholar and antiquary who deciphered the rock edicts of Ashoka, and the missionary William Carey , who set up a printing press in Sreerampore. They were man who operated within the colonial framework and are still remembered for their valuable work.

Soon after Independence, there arrived in Bengal a youngish, independent-minded academic from Britain, who, in spite of his pioneering work- a extraordinary number of photographs and a series of writings on the terracotta temples of both West and East Bengal which he travelled extensively, “patas”, brick temples of Bengal and was also one of the first scholars to write a study of the emerging field of Indian writing in English (IWE), a field in which his work is still regularly read a quoted today.

McCutchion was born in Coventry, England, 12th August,1930. David went to King Henry VIII Grammar School in this city in West Midlands. While there it was bombed in a German raid and he was evacuated for a time. After the war he spent a year on National Service in Singapore. He went up to Cambridge in 1950 to read Modern Languages (French and German) at Jesus College. In 1957 got an MA degree from the same university. In the Jesus College his interest in the east had led to him being a keen member of the Tagore Society, a factor which must have drawn him to Bengal.

He went out initially on a temporary six-month contract to teach English at Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan. Thereafter in Calcutta he mixed with a circle of  Indians writing in English around Purusottam Lal’s Writer’s Workshop, a publishing house that went on to publish many of his works, some posthumously. As an academic McCutchion also took this phenomenon as his field. He became Professor, then Reader in Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University in Kolkata after 1960, where he taught eighteenth-century French and English literature and thus begun the most active period of his short life.

Around 1960 McCutchion also met and developed an important friendship, based on a relaxed rapport, with Satyajit Ray, with whom he shared a taste for Western classical music. Ray asked him to help translate his film dialogue from Bengali into English, a task that helped inversely to increase McCutchion’s command over Bengali. It was while on shooting location in Birbhum district for “Abhijan” in 1962, McCutchion developed a fascination for the brick temples scattered across the Bengal landscape. Over the next decate they become a passion; of categorizing, conservation and documentation, driving his use of photography as a recording device. His photographic collection amounting to some 20,000 images was held by the “International centre for study of Bengal Art(ICSBA)”. He also studied and collected the Bengali Patua art, or scroll paintings of traditional artists, which developed out of the religious art surrounding the temples. The collection was later bequeathed to the “Herbert Art Gallery” in Conventry.

Two man who often accompanied McCutchion on his tireless and unrelenting quest were Tarapada Santra and Hitesranjan Sanyal, both of whom continued their research on Bengal’s built heritage and folk culture till their death. Both Sanyal and Santra addressed him as “Davidbabu”, a name not unsuited to a man who lived like a hermit and dressed at home like any middle class Bengali in crushed pyjamas and bush shirt.

In his tribute to David McCutchion , Hitesranjan Sanyal had made an assessment of his exhaustive documentation of terracotta temples: “ When David McCutchion started his work on Bengal Temples there was not much information on them….. But the countless temples that were constructed all over Bengal between 15th century and early 20th century had not attracted much attention…..The material he collected is a huge repository of information- a data bank.”

A volume of homage from Indian and foreign friends and admirers of McCutchion – we get an impression of the high esteem in which this man of varied interests was held by people from different fields , Satyajit Roy, Lila Roy ( the American wife of litterateur Annada Sankar Roy) Ashin and Uma dasgupta, Amiya Bose, in whose house at 4 Nandy Street, he lived as a paying guest.

Sadly McCutchion died prematurely at the age of 42, due to an attack of polio, leaving his work on terracotta temples incomplete but in the process inspiring a generation of terracotta lovers. His mortal remains lies in the Bhawanipur Cemetery in Kolkata. The grave decorated with small terracotta panels attracted visitors. The grave is well maintained and from time to time the terracotta enthusiasts of Kolkata have paid tribute to the great man by putting up plaques in his grave.

Sources:  1.  The Temples of Bankura District (Calcutta, Writers Workshop)

  1. David John McCutchion  -Wikipedia
  2. The Brick Temples of Bengal: From the Archives of David       McCutchion edited by George Michell. ( Princeton University Press).
  3. Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal By Devid McCutchion and Suhrid K. Bhowmik.(Firma .KLM)
  4. Unpublished letters and Selected articles by Devid J. McCutchion. (Monfakira Books)
  5. Photo courtesy : The Telegraph, Kolkata, Facebook of Devid J. McCutchion.
  6. The epistles of David-Kaka to Plalm’n {1960-71}: The record of a friendship ( P.Lal: CWW).

Research  -Santanu Roy.

Picture Courtesy –  Sudip Ghosh.

About the author

Santanu Roy

Santanu Roy

Leave a Comment