Those of us who enjoy visiting and studying the terracotta temples of Bengal, are indebted to David McCutchion for his contributions to our understanding of Bengali temples and their art and architecture.
In the 1960s and 70s, David, along with Hitesranjan Sanyal, Tarapada Santra, and Amiyakumar Bandyopadhyay, and others spearheaded a decade of pioneering research on terracotta temples. From the moment he saw his first decorated terracotta temple (the magnificent Damodar temple at Siuri), Bengal’s temples became McCutchion’s abiding passion. Stories of his tireless travels on local trains and bicycle into the Bengal countryside to discover, survey, and photograph temples are well-known to us through his letters, and from articles others have written about him.
McCutchion’s extensive (and carefully catalogued) collection of black and white photographs of temples is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 2010, the V&A kindly gave me permission to view and photograph some pictures from this collection of thousands of photographs, collected over a period of just about 6 years, and housed in a large chest of drawers about 5 feet high, 8 feet wide, and 2 feet deep.
The size of the collection is testament to McCutchion’s commitment to discovering and documenting as many temples as he possibly could, as he was constantly worried that the turbulent political situation in 1970s Bengal might prevent him from continuing his work. In addition to photographs, the collection also has hand-drawn maps of many villages specifying the locations of temples. We know that many temples that McCutchion saw and photographed are now ruined or renovated. Digitizing the collection would create a very valuable resource for Bengali temple enthusiasts and researchers.
But McCutchion’s interest in Bengali art went beyond temples. In the introduction to the book “Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal”, he mentions how during a 1966 lecture on temple art, some students in the audience commented on the similarities between temple art and scroll paintings. This seems to have initiated McCutchion’s interest in patua art.
A later article by him titled “Recent Developments in Patua Style and Presentation” shows deep knowledge and understanding of patua art. It is a highly evolved piece of writing showing several years of research into scroll painting — by studying the collections at museums in Kolkata including the Ashutosh Museum (College St), the Gurusaday Museum (Behala), the Anandaniketan Kirtishala (Howrah), and the Sahitya Parishad (Manicktala), and through personal research.
The article starts with a discussion on various influences on patua art from early Rajasthani or Mughal influence, to European realism in the 19th century, Santhal art, and the impact of oleographs in the 20th century. He also tentatively explores regional variations, for example, discussing a Birbhum-Burdwan style as distinct from the Midnapore style, and specific regional art forms such as Bishnupur playing cards, Jadu pat, Chakshudaan pat, and Gazir pat.
In the second half of the article McCutchion describes trends in contemporary patua art. From the article it is clear that during his temple trips, McCutchion saw diminishing but still-active patua communities in many parts of Bengal. He describes in detail the changes in the patuas’ choice of colours, styles, and themes, mostly with disapproval, but he also mentions some artists who are “meticulous and precise”. He also remarks at the “individuality of these artists: quite different styles within the same district or even village” and suggests that the individualism goes back at least to the 19th century, perhaps based on similar individualism he saw in 19th century temple terracotta.
Several paragraphs in the article are devoted to “iconographic errors” by the patuas such as not depicting Kamale Kamini correctly or “mixing up the order of the Krishnalila or Ramayana scenes”. In my view, whether these incorrect sequences are errors is debatable as they are also found on 19th century terracotta temples. He does occasionally draw the parallel with temples: “A curious example of independent transformation … is the treatment of Kamale Kamini … she should be “swallowing an elephant” – and this is what the patuas sing. But what they paint is Parvati nursing Ganesh on her lap – as in temple terracottas”.
While discussing contemporary patua art, McCutchion mentions of the patuas of Amdabad several times, in particular Biren and Panchanan Chitrakar. These artists feature again in some of his letters to his student Suhrid Bhowmick (written between 1964 and 1971). In a letter dated 8th Oct 1969 David discusses a “scheme for selling scrolls through a large London store” through a friend in England, “Derek”. In this letter he outlines in detail the potential economics and the mechanics of the scheme with Amdabad (Suhrid’s village) as the place where the scrolls are to be made.
In several of the following letters the complications and frustrations of the scheme unfold (allegations that the artists are not being paid enough to “Still no letter from Derek – always a bad sign”), but also progress as the patuas Panchanan, Biren, Santosh, and Khandu are selected as the main artists to paint the scrolls. McCutchion also encourages Suhrid to write a book on patua art (eventually published in 1999 as “Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal”). Eventually the scheme to sell scrolls in London fails as “the girl who was going to sell some scrolls as commission did not succeed and also got married!”. However, McCutchion exhibited these scrolls in Calcutta in 1969 where some scrolls did sell. The rest he probably took with him back to London.
Upon his death, McCutchion’s family bequeathed his collection of scrolls to the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery in Coventry. This museum was chosen because David was born in Coventry, and, according to Martin Roberts, senior curator at the museum, he was born in a building that “stood more or less where the Herbert now is” situated. Mr Roberts kindly provided me with a list of the scrolls in the collection as well as five photographs of the scrolls and permission to print them. The collection includes two rare scrolls from the 19th century, several scrolls from before the 1950s, and the rest possibly commissioned by David himself. We see some of these later scrolls attributed to Biren, Khandu, and Santosh chitrakar of Amdabad.
Art-forms in Bengal are closely inter-related and artisans are often multi-skilled or draw deeply from each other. To understand temple art, it is necessary to understand patua art and vice-versa. Temple sutradhars possibly carried with them scroll paintings from which the temple’s patron would select the scenes to be depicted on the temple. Again, both temple and patua art draw on jatra (theatre) for inspiration. McCutchion mentions patuas drawing scenes that are inspired by jatra, and we know that terracotta temple panels such as the Govardhan lila are based on how the scenes were enacted in jatra.
David McCutchion’s research and his collections bequeathed to museums in the UK reflect both the richness and the inter-connectedness of Bengali art.
(A Bengali version of this article was published in Lipinagorik)
- Saikat Mukherjee and Ajoy Konar for the idea of writing this article
- Martin Roberts for access to McCutchion’s collection at The Herbert Art Gallery.
- Nick Barnard for access to McCutchion’s photos at the V&A Museum
- Dr George Michell for telling me about David McCutchion’s archives and the work he carried out in the 1980s based on those archives
- David McCutchion, Unpublished Letters and Selected Articles (Monfakira)
- McCutchion and Bhowmick, Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal (Firma KLM)