A tribute to David McCutchion
12 Aug. 1930 – 12 Jan 1972
I knew it wont be easy, but when I entered the Bhabanipur Cemetery with my friend and fellow terracotta enthusiast Amitabha Gupta, I understood that it was far more difficult than I have imagined. It was like finding a needle in a bunch of haystack.
We were on the lookout for the grave of David McCutchion, famous for his pioneering work on the terracotta temples of Bengal. Had David McCutchion, who had succumbed to an attack of polio in Calcutta at the early age of 41 on January 12, 1972, been alive today, he would have turned 82 on August 12, 2012. Today his mortal remains lies in the Bhawanipur Cemetery in Kolkata.
Finding a single grave in a large cemetery is never a easy task. With almost no information about the graves location, Amitabha and I continued with a random search. Hours past with no results and we almost decided to call it a day when a grave decorated with small terracotta panels attracted our attention, and there it is – the grave of David McCutchion.
The grave is remarkable 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. As I photographed the grave my mind flashed back at the remarkable man whose pioneering work inspired a generation of terracotta lovers, including me.
Soon after Independence, there arrived in Bengal a youngish, independent-minded academic from Britain, who, in spite of his pioneering work — a prodigious number of photographs and a series of writings on the terracotta Hindu temples of both West and East Bengal which he travelled extensively, patas, and Indo-Anglian literature, which was in a nascent stage then — is a forgotten name today.
In 1960 he moved to Calcutta and joined Jadavpur University as lecturer in comparative literature, and in 1964 he was promoted to the post of Reader, and thus began the most active period of his short life. Here he met Tarapada Santra, whose help he sought to decipher and interpret the plaques in terracotta temples.
Two men who often accompanied McCutchion on his tireless and unremitting 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.”
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 baroque music. Ray asked him to help translate his film dialogue from Bengali into English, a task that helped inversely to increase McCutchion’s use of Bengali. It was while on shooting location in Birbhum district for Abhijan in 1962, that McCutchion developed a fascination for the brick temples scattered across the Bengal landscape. Over the next decade they became a passion; of categorising, conservation and documentation, driving his use of photography as a recording device. His photographic collection amounting to some 20,000 images (colour slides and b/w prints) was acquired by the V & A with copies 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. This collection was later bequeathed to the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry.
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.
List of David McCutchion’s work:
- The Temples of Bankura District (Calcutta, Writers Workshop [c1967])
- Indian Writing in English: Critical Essays (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1969)
- Late Mediaeval Temples of Bengal: Origins and Classification (Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1972)
- The epistles of David-Kaka to Plalm’n [1960-1971]: the record of a friendship (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1972)
- Brick Temples of Bengal: From the Archives of David McCutchion, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), his research collected, interpreted and published by George Michell.
- Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal by David McCutchion and Suhrid K. Bhowmik, (Calcutta : Firma KLM, 1999).
- Unpublished Letters & Selected Articles by David J. McCutchion, (Calcutta : Monfakira Books, 2009).
- Davidbabu’s data bank by Soumitra Das, The Telegraph, dated 10 Jan. 2010
- Wikipedia entry on David McCutchion