Birbhum Terracottas: Mukul Dey's Documentation

— Satyasri Ukil

Terracotta temple at Adityapur village in Birbhum.
Photo: Mukul Dey
One of my earliest childhood memories is the image of burly Mukul Dey, in long johns and apron, drenched in the mellow glow of his darkroom safelights. The part of our family house Chitralekha in Santiniketan where his photographic darkroom was located is dilapidated now, covered with a thick green layer of moss and creepers. Once upon a time, this was a place of great fascination for us youngsters‚ with its bottles and jars of chemicals, trays, tongs and timer—a place that magically came to life under the red-orange spell of those safelights.

Mukul Dey was busy making prints of  the photographs he took in the course of a massive, five-year-long (1946-51), self-funded project of documenting the terracotta temples of Birbhum and Barddhaman districts of Bengal. The negatives were processed, however, on location, in a tent set up wherever he was working at that time.

Dey came across this strange location some place near village Surul. A man playing his stringed instrument amid piles of human skulls. This almost is a sure evidence of Tantric human sacrifice being practiced in Birbhum. At Surul there is a small Kali temple, which is known to be exclusively frequented by dacoits in the past.
Photo: Mukul Dey
Sixty-five years ago, when Mukul Dey embarked on his project, this part of Bengal was a difficult, dangerous place to travel in. Malaria infested, and lacking in good roads and transport facilities, it was also plagued by dacoits; as they moved along on a bullock cart, travellers had to remain alert for dacoit raids especially on lonely stretches in the evening. Birbhum was also notorious for the practice of various forms of Tantrism, and the dark, almost medieval, rituals that go with it‚ often bizarre and gory.

As Mukul Dey writes, in a short monograph titled Discovery of Neglected Hindu Art of Bengal, self-published from Chitralekha on 13 September 1949:

“In this district of Birbhum the bullock-cart is the main and only conveyance. Many a time one has to walk on foot as there is no road at all. Sometimes one has to walk through swampy paddy fields and cross rivers or partly dried up canals… Even a bullock-cart is difficult to get, and the driver will charge at least Rs. 12/- to Rs. 15/- per day, and sometimes a trip into a distant village takes about a week or more.”

Typically, Mukul’s cart would carry everything he needed on such a trip. In the same monograph, he records:

“I soon collected essential materials, light but strong enough for the rough journey through the undulating country, rocky tracks and rice fields. Mosquito-net, beddings, camp-cot, folding chair, field-umbrella, water filter, American water tanks, food provisions, cooking stove, utensils, medicines, folding ladders, planks for scaffoldings and the materials for the photographic dark-room were all collected. The results of photo exposures must be inspected on the spot, to prevent needless expenditure and repeated visits.”

Pages from Mukul Dey’s notebook. He scribbled his plans to buy a pair of bullocks, a cart and the canopy.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
From childhood I had heard many a time of Mukul’s adventure; there was also the monograph where he recorded some of his experiences during the project. But I felt the need to unearth some more concrete evidence of his feat, perhaps something in his own hand. And so I began a search amongst the piles of papers he left behind.

In a small notebook that I found, Mukul had scribbled his plans to procure a pair of bullocks and a cart for his transport. All the details were there: the approximate cost of each item and the locations where procurable. Thus we know now that in the mid-1940s a pair of sturdy bullocks would have cost about 400 to 500 rupees, whereas the cart was priced about 150 rupees at the bazaar of Mallarpur, which was about 30 miles from Dey’s residence. However, one had to procure the canopy for the cart from a location further away. These details in Mukul’s handwriting brought home  the planning and excitement of the preparations, making his adventure come alive for me.

The notebook gave other details as well. Mukul carried a firearm for occasional pot-hunting and self-defence: a 20-bore double-barrelled shotgun and boxes of Eley cartridges (purchased from Manton & Co. of Calcutta). And he had with him four cameras: one wooden field & view camera, one Voigtlander Bessa (Zeiss, 1:3.5), one Rolleiflex (Zeiss, 1:3.5)  and a tiny Kodak Vest Pocket model using No. 127 format roll film. Thus equipped, Mukul Dey was more than ready for his solitary journey into the heartland of rural Bengal.

Facade detail from a temple in Suri, Birbhum.
Photo: Mukul Dey
For five long years, Mukul Dey toiled over this project, producing about 5000 excellent B/W negatives while working at about 18 locations in the districts of Birbhum and Barddhaman. His main focus was ton he decorative terracotta panels found on the facade and, occasionally, the base of these temples. Dey would also often pan his camera to take in interesting aspects of rural life, seldom to be seen these days; these constitute a significant record of the socio-religious practices of those times. The forlorn ruins of the indigo factories set up by Europeans also attracted his attention.

A self-taught photographer, Mukul Dey picked up the fundamentals of the craft from two immensely popular photography handbooks by C.I. Jacobson (Focal Press, 31 Fitzroy Square, London). The notations he left on the margins of these pages give an idea of the enormous range of experimentation he undertook with various developing agents and alkalis while processing his films on location. Today in the age of digital photography it is difficult to imagine a solitary man processing films and plates in his tent, in the backwaters of Bengal, more than half-a-century ago.

Japanese artist Tetsuro Sugimoto and his son Ichiro taking ink rubbings of terracotta decorations. These rubbings were later on exhibited in USA.
Photo: Mukul Dey
Dey was not bereft of support and encouragement from friends and well-wishers. Apart from his wife Bina and daughter Manjari, who were usually very supportive of his projects, there was Rathindranath Tagore to infuse Dey with enthusiasm and ideas. Nihonga style Japanese artist Tetsuro Sugimoto and his son Ichiro from Kyoto lent practical help to Dey by taking ink rubbings off terracotta decorations on sheets of fine Japanese tissue paper. And Angela Latham of  UK, wife of musicologist Peter Latham, penned a sensitive piece on Dey’s photo-documentation work in the early 1950s. In 1952 came Professor Kurt F. Leidecker from Mary Washington College in the US, who was very appreciative of Mukul Dey’s efforts. However, his appeal in 1949 to the Government of India and private art lovers for a fund of Rs 20,000 to complete his work came to naught.

In 1959, the Lalit Kala Akademi of New Delhi published Birbhum Terracottas with text and photographs by Mukul Dey, but unfortunately that title included a mere fraction of this massive body of photo-documentation: only about 45 images. The full text prepared by Dey is unpublished till date.

Front cover of Birbhum Terracottas by Mukul Dey, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi 1959
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
The rest of his negatives, labelled contact prints on gaslight paper and photo enlargements were stored in wooden and cardboard boxes which were stashed away in a room seldom opened. During 1978 rains, and floods thereafter, these were heavily damaged, with many of the negatives and prints turning to pulp almost overnight.

Barring Swiss photographer Martin Hurlimann, who visited at least one rural location in Birbhum to photograph the terracotta temples in 1927-26, I know of no researcher who has photo-documented these temples so extensively prior to Mukul Dey. David McCutchion started his documentation about a decade later than Mukul Dey. Also, while McCutchion’s work is more comprehensive in terms of the number of temples, it focused on the temples’ typology and architectural aspects. Dey chose to focus on the themes depicted and the decorative aspects of these temples. Scores of these exquisite terracotta temples have decayed steadily over the years, and many have ceased to exist altogether; some were destroyed even before McCutchion could document them. In these circumstances, Dey’s surviving photos assume a huge significance as an invaluable primary source for these temples.


Read Temple Terracottas of Bengal  by Mukul Dey.

Read  Terracottas of the Ruined Temples of Bengal by Angela Latham.

We are currently working to create an illustrated book out of Mukul Dey’s yet unpublished photographs and text on the terracotta temples of Birbhum and some rural locations of Barddhaman in west Bengal.

Illambazar, about sixty years ago. Photographed by Mukul Dey.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives

Delhi, on November 1, 2010

As recently as  October 2, 2010 night, there was a well planned daring robbery on a section of the main road linking Santiniketan to Illambazar. At this particular section the state highway runs through a patch of dense Sal [Shorea robusta] forest, where the robbers had blocked the passage by felling a big tree. As the traffic came to a halt, the gang looted the passengers of about 22 different vehicles. The operation lasting  more than two hours, I was told.

If this is the scenario in 2010, then it is not hard to imagine what the condition was more than sixty years ago. Mukul Dey was wise to carry a shotgun and cartridges along with his photo-equipments.

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