Swapan Dutta is a descendant of the Dutta family, whose members have been taking care of Kolkata’s clock towers for the past four generations, and are famously known as the‘timekeepers’ of the city (Courtesy: Anjali Jain)

In Conversation with Swapan Dutta: My Heart Skips a Beat When a Clock Stops Ticking

in Interview
Published on: 06 February 2021

Anjali Jain

Anjali Jain is a conservator at the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur. She completed her MSc in Conservation from University College London and has worked in the conservation departments at INTACH Mumbai and at the Science Museum, London.

Swapan Dutta is a descendant of the Dutta family, whose members have been taking care of Kolkata’s clock towers for the past four generations, and are famously known as the ‘timekeepers’ of the city.

He and his son, Satyajit Dutta, currently run the T.R. Clock Company that restores all types of antique clocks and has worked on clock towers across the country. 

Following is an edited transcript of excerpts from the interview with Swapan Dutta conducted on June 9, 2020, in Calcutta.

Anjali Jain (AJ): How did your family start restoring tower clocks and how did you learn to do this work?

Swapan Dutta (SD): In the late 1800s, various British clock companies like James Murray, Black & Murray, etc., set shop in in Calcutta. My great grandfather, Dharanidhar Dutta used to work on clocks with one of these, the Cooke & Kelvey Company. Eventually, with the construction of new clock towers in Calcutta, he was given the responsibility of looking after most of them. 

This responsibility was later carried out by my grandfather Kanhailal Dutta, and then by my father, Patit Paban Dutta. In 1956, my father established the firm P.P. Dutta and Sons with the aim of ensuring survival of the skills necessary to maintain antique clocks.

My preoccupation with clocks began in my childhood days, when I used to sit by my father and watch him work. He taught me the basics of the clock mechanism, and by helping him repair complex clocks, I developed a knack for it myself.  One of my sons, Satyajit, has also developed a passion for the work and I hope that my grandchildren also do the same in the future


AJ: How do you repair or restore a tower clock? What are the problems that you commonly encounter while working with such clocks? 

SD: There are three types of tower clocks: 1. clocks that do not strike, 2. striking clocks that strike a gong every hour, and 3. quarter chiming clocks that have musical chimes going off every 15 minutes. In addition to this, the mechanism of different clocks is characteristically different. Therefore, while carrying out the initial assessment, we try to understand the mechanism and functioning of the clock, assess the condition of all its parts and thereby identify the problems that need to be fixed. 

Generally, the clocks that we restore are 100—200 years old and have stopped working due to problems in their mechanisms. We sometimes manage to repair the clocks by addressing minor issues, but very often it is the parts of the clock mechanism that have gone missing. In such cases, we need to cast the parts either in steel or gun metal. We make calculations to identify the needed dimensions — for instance, a wheel’s diameter, number of teeth, etc.— before casting. We then insert it into the clock mechanism to set it and the clock in motion again. 


AJ: How do you ensure that the clocks are maintained after you have repaired them?

SD: After we repair the clocks they generally run well for a lifetime if proper care is taken. However, these clocks are not automatic. They run on weights, and need regular winding, cleaning and oiling. We try to involve one or two local people in the restoration work and simultaneously train them to undertake regular maintenance of the clocks. In some places we also sign an annual maintenance contract with the owner that allows us to revisit the clock and ensure adequate cleaning and timely fixing of minor issues. 


AJ: How many clocks would you say you have restored till date and where are they located?

SD: I cannot give you an exact number, but I must have probably worked on about 50 tower clocks in my 50 years of professional life. Other than those in Kolkata, I have worked on the BSNL tower clock in Shimla, the clock at Christ Church in Kasauli, the sunken garden in Mandi, and even on some tower clocks in Nepal and Bhutan. My son and I still maintain the clock situated along the bank of Ganga at Har ki Pauri, Haridwar and another heritage clock in Kapurtala, Punjab. 


AJ: Could you please tell us something about your favourite tower clocks?

SD: The one at the Patna Secretariat is one of my favorites. It is more than 100 years old. In addition to its huge mechanism, its dial measures a whopping 13.5 feet, making it one of the biggest clocks I have seen. Another clock in the new market in Kolkata is also around 100 years old. It is a beautiful clock that chimes with enlivening music every 15 minutes. At quarter past the hour it chimes four times, eight times at half past, 12 times at quarter to the hour, and 16 times before striking the hourly gong as many times as the hour. 


AJ: What has been your motivation to work in this field all these years?

SD: I strongly believe that clocks on public buildings must show the correct time, of course allowing an error of a few minutes in the case of heritage clocks. Whenever I see a clock that has stopped ticking, it feels like it is my heart that has stopped beating. That’s how attuned I am to the tick-tocking of the clocks. 

I think words such as ‘love’ and ‘passion’ are not enough to describe how I feel about my job. It is a great privilege to see the wonderful moving parts behind the clock dials. Also, the clocks that we work on are 100 – 200 years old and knowing that, with a little help from us, they will outlive us all is not only mentally but also emotionally gratifying for me.


AJ: What are some of the problems you face in this field of work?

SD: I think earlier people were more interested in heritage and the percentage of people who care about it has reduced over the years. Sometimes my work helps to improve people’s interest in the tower clocks. For instance, when I was working on a clock tower in the Vasco da Gama market in Goa two–three years ago, a lot of people became curious about my work. My work has also been published in the newspapers and has made people aware of such heritage. But that is not the norm. People have become very busy in their daily lives and it becomes difficult for everyone to appreciate such things or even be concerned about the fact that a tower clock in their surroundings is not working. Due to the lack of specific legislation to ensure that clocks on public buildings keep accurate time [as in several countries in the West], many of those on heritage buildings have seen neglect and have stopped working.

Another problem that we face is that people do not know we exist. People know Steve Jaggs, the clock engineer of London’s Big Ben, but there is hardly any reason for them to know me. Our company’s name is also not very well-known and there have been many instances where people looking for their tower clock to be repaired do not know whom to approach. 

Finally, people today are not keen on undertaking this work even though it is very respectable. Travelling to different cities to work on these invaluable timepieces requires a lot of determination that most youngsters do not have, putting the future of this profession in jeopardy. 


AJ: How do you think things can be improved to ensure the sustainability of the clock restoration profession?

SD: People who want to learn this work have to be personally motivated. This is because it is partly an art and not a one-size-fits-all work. Every clock is different and in order to understand its problems and carry out repairs, one must be passionate about learning and undertaking the work. Right now in Kolkata, it is only my family that is carrying out this work. Even within my family, only my elder son, Satyajit, was interested in the trade, and after me, he will take care of the tradition and business. We also train a few other people, hoping that the appropriate skills will be passed on to future generations, but I am not sure if that’s enough.