Remembering Satyajit Ray - The Illustrator

Remembering Satyajit Ray - The Illustrator

May 2, 2014

We all know Satyajit Ray as this world famous film-maker. While his cinematic genius is celebrated the world over, Ray’s talents as an illustrator and designer are less known. Before he made his first film, Pather Panchali, Ray worked in a British-run advertising firm in Kolkata. He joined DJ Keymer in 1943 as a junior visualiser, and spent the next 13 years there. Blending his love for calligraphy with modern Western influences (like Henri Matisse’s painting style) and Indian traditions (like folk art techniques), Ray created some striking work. Though he left advertising to become a full-time film-maker soon after Pather Panchali, he never left the world of illustrations. Ray designed the posters and publicity material for his films for years. He would also be actively involved in set and costume design.

Satyajit Ray brought in more of Indian motifs and calligraphic elements to advertising. Later, his love for typography and illustration would often surface in the credits and the publicity posters of his films.

A press advertisement by Satyajit Ray, 1949

Another of his creations from his DJ Keymer days

His senior colleague at DJ Keymer, DK Gupta (or ‘DK’, as he was fondly called by colleagues) started a publishing house, Signet Press and Ray was roped in to do the cover jackets. In 1944, DK Gupta decided to bring out an abridged version of a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali, aimed at young readers. The version was titled Aam Aatir Bhepu. Until then, Ray had not read much Bengali literature, or much literature, for that matter. In his own words:

“I had not read the original novel. In fact, in my preoccupation with music and films, my reading was largely restricted to books on these two subjects and to light English fiction. To be quite frank, I was even unfamiliar with the bulk of Tagore’s writings. DK discovered this lacuna and castigated me. Then he gave me the original book of Pather Panchali to read, because, he warned me, ‘you will have to illustrate the abridged version!”

The book itself made a lasting impression. It was DK Gupta, who was also a former editor of a Bengali film magazine, who remarked to Ray that the abridged version of the book would make a very good film. He paid little attention to idea then and carried on with the illustrations, but that was when the seeds of the masterpiece were sown. It was 1955 when Pather Panchali, or The Song of the Little Road, was released, and created an immediate giant impact in world cinema.

Aam Aatir Bhepu was the beginning of Ray’s journey in the world of book illustrations. Almost all of his books have illustrations done by him. And not just his own books; he did the covers for a whole lot of books in his career.

An illustration from Aam Aatir Bhepu

Ray's cover of the Bengali translation of Corbett's Man-Eaters of Kumaon

Ray was also fascinated by typography, both Bengali and English, and produced many innovative advertising campaigns. His designs of two typefaces, Ray Roman and Ray Bizarre, won an international competition in 1971. Ray designed four typefaces in all for Roman script, namely, Ray Roman, Ray Bizarre, Daphnis and Holiday Script, apart from numerous Bengali ones for Sandesh magazine, started by his grandfather, Upendrakishore Roy Choudhury in 1913, and Ekshan magazine.  

Typefaces: (clockwise from top) Ray Roman, Ray Bizarre, Holiday Script, Daphnis

Ray's favourite format of design was to experiment with the fonts and typography of the magazine's title. For two Bengali magazines, he did this with an incredible inventiveness. The first was Ekshan (meaning ‘Now’ in English), a literary magazine founded by Soumitra Chatterjee and Nirmalya Acharya. The second was Sandesh – which was Ray's family enterprise, started by his grandfather and revived by him in 1961, when it began to be co-edited by well-known children’s writer and a cousin of Sukumar Ray, Leela Majumdar and himself.

The first issue of Sandesh to be edited by Satyajit Ray

All the covers of Ekshan were radically different despite being essentially reprisals of the same three letters. Using the concept of negative space, different styles (from ancient scriptures to modern) and motifs, he made them look completely fresh. Ray used the covers to experiment with bold juxtapositions of colours and with lettering of all kinds, from calligraphy like that used in the credits of Pather Panchali and scribbles reminiscent of Picasso to styles entirely of his own invention, and from shapes reminiscent of Henri Matisse and Binode BIhari Mukherjee to geometrical shapes like those made out of paper by children. Some of the covers are also like certain traditional sari designs.

Three of the covers of Ekshan designed by Satyajit Ray

For Ekshan, he also did quite a few portraits for special issues on a really diverse group of famous people, among them novelist Manik Bandopadhyay (one of a series of author portraits Ray drew for Signet Press in the 1940s, which included Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay) and Italian poet of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri (in 1965, for the 700th anniversary of his birth).

Ekshan covers featuring Manik Bandyopadhyay (left) and Dante

Being approachable, Ray got thousands of requests for contributions to magazines, anthologies and special issues – which he refused only on extenuating circumstances. Once, somebody approached him for an article on Pablo Picasso for a special issue on the legendary artist. Ray refused since he was in the middle of shooting a film. But whenever he refused, he invariably got a little embarrassed by the disappointment of the people who came to him. In this case, as compensation, he offered to sketch a portrait of Picasso for their cover. Delighted, the magazine's publishers asked when they should come back to pick up the sketch. The expert illustrator that Ray was, he simply asked them to wait, picked up his drawing book and drew out the portrait below.

And then, of course, there was Sandesh, as already mentioned. Its cover designs followed the same principles – experimenting a lot with fonts and typography – but the visual imagery was completely different, keeping the audience in mind. Sandesh being read – and occasionally eaten (as it meant a type of sweetmeat in Bengali) – was the leitmotif here.

Three of the many beautiful covers of Sandesh

From 1961, Sandesh ran almost entirely on Ray's creative output as he illustrated entire issues of the magazine, wrote stories and novellas, created puzzles and brain-teasers, judged contests and even answered fan mail.

His involvement can be summed up in this paragraph of an article by journalist and editor, Sandipan Deb.

I met Satyajit Ray only once, when I was seven years old. Like every month, my father had taken me to the office of Sandesh, the children's magazine that Ray co-edited, to collect my copy. We rang the bell, and the door was opened by the tallest man I had ever seen. Far above me hung a huge face seemingly carved out of granite, which now turned and called inside in a voice of distilled thunder: "Mini-di, here's a subscriber of yours." (Mini-di, or Nalini Das, was Ray's cousin, whose home doubled as the Sandesh office.) As we waited, my father kept prodding me in the back: "Ask him, ask him!" So, finally, shyly, I did. "I sent in a story three months ago..." I squeaked to this unknown giant. (Sandesh had a section which carried the literary efforts of its underage readers.) "What's it called?" asked Ray. I told him. "I'll see," he said, and we left. The next month, the story was published in Sandesh.

Ray continued to be known as an eminent graphic designer, well into his film career. Ray illustrated all his books and designed covers for them, as well as creating all the publicity material for his films. He also designed covers of several books by other authors. His various influences, from calligraphy to modern Western art to traditional Indian folk art, enabled him to create some striking work.

It must also be mentioned that it was Satyajit Ray who designed the beautiful logo of the cultural complex in Kolkata, Nandan.

(Left) Cover designed by Ray; (Right) Page from a Bengali primer designed and illustrated by Ray

The logo of Nandan

Ray used his sketches as references for set and costume design in his films. He always used red-coloured notebooks for writing his film scripts, where he also did his detailed sketches of sets and costumes. He also did a lot of these in advance. So when he did, he also left behind a rich legacy of designs which he unfortunately couldn’t convert to reality.

Sketches from notebooks: (left) Scene from Devi; (right) Madhabi's costume as Charulata

The film sketches, however, everyone would not have been aware of. It was his film credit sequences which brought his talents as a typographer, calligrapher and illustrator out to a wider audoience. They range from the archaic priestly script of Pather Panchali, through the exquisite ‘postcards’ of Darjeeling life printed in ‘Tibetanised’ Bengali in Kanchenjungha and the delightful drawings of kings, courtiers and peasants in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, to the modern typefaces of the titles in Aranyer Din Ratri and Ghare-Baire, behind which can be seen the blurred motion of the forest and the flickering conflagrations of Nikhil’s funeral pyre, respectively. 

Ray’s illustrations form a tranche of his work which is as rich as his film-making. He was a genius in every sense – film-maker, illustrator, writer, music composer, and excelling in everything. Ray clearly lived up to the nickname of Manik (‘jewel’ in Bengali) that his father had given him.

A simple yet elegant sketch of Mother Teresa by Ray

Written by: Anushtup Haldar for Team

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Comments (2)
Anamika Reply
May 05, 2014
Very well-composed article. I too have a collection of old Sandesh covers. The covers are truly the work of a master illustrator.
Arpan Ray Reply
May 05, 2014
Such a multi-faceted personality has rarely appeared in India.
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