Pen, Ink, Action

Satyajit Ray’s graphic art proves a fascinating alternative introduction to the filmmaker's visual imagination

The stylistic device of typography allows a thematic reading of the poster for Devi by evoking a temple in the form of the letters that make up the title.
01 November, 2012

"NOT TO HAVE SEEN THE CINEMA OF RAY means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon,” Akira Kurosawa once said—rather an overblown compliment, but my adult self would end up agreeing. However, to the Bengali child—or even a half-Bengali one like me, who grew up between cities and languages—Satyajit Ray meant much more than his films. His prolific output as a writer and illustrator, targeted largely at children and young adults, forged a very different connection with young Bangla readers than the ‘serious’ cinema for which he is known worldwide. And though I read Bangla slowly, my father, patiently reading aloud to me through family holidays and long train journeys, made sure I was introduced to Ray through his stories—and, because I would first hungrily flip through the books that were going to be read to me—through his illustrations.

A black-and-white illustration of Professor Shonku, a fictional scientist who appeared in a series of Bengali science fiction books by Satyajit Ray.

These black-and-white illustrations spanned the whole range of his popular literary creations—the detective Pradosh C Mitter, whose crisply Anglicised surname is the perfect foil for the informal Bengali daaknaam by which he is better known, Feluda; the eccentric scientist Professor Shonku, whose unbelievable globetrotting sci-fi adventures come to us via a diary discovered after he’s taken off in a space rocket; and old Tarini Khuro (uncle), whose fantastic tales, traversing romantic historical settings from colonial Lucknow to the palaces of penurious Maharajas, are invariably told over a steaming cup of tea, with his younger self cast in a starring role. Illustrations also appeared alongside the many independent short stories, published 12 at a time in anthologies bearing names like Aaro Baaro (Twelve More) and Aaro Ek Dojon (And Another Dozen).

As a child who did not otherwise read Bangla fiction, I was captivated by Ray’s universe. It gave me access to a Bengali cultural landscape that was familiar, yet one I could never be part of. One reason for that was simply that I was a girl—whether it was Feluda and his companions, the middle-aged mystery writer Lalmohan Babu and the teenaged Topshe, or Uncle Tarini, or Professor Shonku, the action in Ray’s stories centred exclusively around men and boys. (The one-off stories, too, almost without exception, featured male protagonists. A Ratan Babu or Sadhan Babu or Barin Babu, invariably a single Bengali man with a middle-class job, would encounter something out of the ordinary, usually while on a trip to some smallish town not far from Calcutta, often located in what is now Jharkhand: Netarhat, Ranchi, Madhupur.) But with these very different fictional men as guides (not to mention my father, who functioned as a sort of supra-guide), I could glide in and out of a very particular Bengali masculine world in which adda and sightseeing holidays—arguably the two favourite Bengali pastimes— became actual take-off points for adventure. Ray invariably illustrated all his stories himself. His illustrations ranged from the simplest, most basic line drawings to more elaborate sketches with a lot of cross-hatching. In the latter type of drawing, Ray’s dramatic—or perhaps we should say cinematic—sensibility emerged in his frequent use of light and shade techniques: his illustrated characters are constantly being lit up or thrown into shadow. His style was cinematic in another way, too. He loved drawing a scene like a point-of-view shot: one character barely seen, either in profile or from behind-the-shoulder, while the focus is on the character he (and it was always a he) was speaking to or looking at or spying on.

Ray’s illustrations for his stories were usually not too complex or worked upon. What they had was a sense of immediacy and action, catapulting you straight into the usually suspenseful worlds of his fiction. They seemed almost to presage a cinematic form. Ray probably knew this better than anyone, and the two Feluda mysteries he chose to film—Joi Baba Felunath, set in a wonderfully evocative Banaras, and Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), which has ensured a stream of Bengali tourists to Jaisalmer since—became instant classics.

But these films, which held such tremendous appeal for children and young adults in Ray’s native Bengal, were never quite treated as part of Ray’s cinematic oeuvre proper. The allegorical fantasies of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) and Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980) had it slightly better. But as I grew older, it was only natural to gravitate towards his more ‘serious’ films. And so I did—I was enchanted by Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), stunned by Devi (The Goddess), transported by Charulata, thoroughly shaken by Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and so on, in almost predictable fashion.

An illustration for Aam Aantir Bhempu, the abridged version of Pather Panchali for children, alongside a corresponding still from the movie. The images point to the seamless transition between Ray’s graphic imagination and cinematic visuals.

But rather than superseding an early fascination with Ray’s world based on his stories and illustrations, the films only added to my sense of him as an awe-inspiring polymath. A film director who not only wrote all his scripts, but also designed his credits and title sequences, his posters and publicity material, and in the later films, began composing his own music, could not but be the stuff of legend. I grew up hearing, for example, about his film storyboards, whose visual detailing of architectural spaces, costumes and often of sequential shots was such that they often took the place of a written script. One storyboard for Pather Panchali sketched the interior of the family’s living quarters and added the question: “Sarbajaya taka rakhe kothay? (Where does Sarbajaya keep the money?)”

It was with great anticipation, then, that I arrived at Looking Beyond, a book that promised to archive and annotate Ray’s body of graphic work. Jayanti Sen, a Kolkata-based animator who worked briefly with Ray in 1981 as an observer in the camera department for Ghare Baire and went on to organise an exhibition of his graphic work at the city’s Oxford Book Store two years after his death, brings together a selection of Ray’s graphic work from different phases of his life. There are his earliest advertising campaigns for DJ Keymer, his Bangla book covers for Signet Press, his cover designs and black-and-white illustrations for his own books, and finally, the posters and booklets he designed for his films. The material is not arranged by theme, but chronologically, which means that one cannot, for instance, look at all the children’s book covers together, or all the film posters in uninterrupted sequence.

Chronology, of course, is not unimportant, especially with a subject like Ray, whose story seems to begin before he was born. Like the Tagores, that other first family of Bengali culture, the Rays had their own complicated family tree, each personage with individual claims to cultural iconicity.

Sen begins with a brief sketch of this family tree. Satyajit’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Raychowdhury (1863-1915), was a pioneer in printing and publishing, with a fascination for creative typography. He is primarily remembered, however, as a writer and illustrator of classic books for children: Chheleder Ramayan (The Boys’ Ramayana), Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (which Ray later filmed) and most famously, Tuntunir Boi (The Tailorbird’s Book). (One of the annoying oversights in Looking Beyond is that the titles of these and most other Bangla books are left untranslated, leaving non-Bengali readers to fend for themselves. English translations are only provided, for some reason, in image captions.) Tuntunir Boi is a marvelous collection of tales in which the smaller animals (ants and sparrows and the eponymous tailorbird) defeat the strong (tigers and crocodiles and kings) on the strength of their wits. Upendrakishore’s drawings of these characters were memorable for their superb detail and their quiet wit—the tiny bird perched on the elephant’s tusk to speak to him, the stupid tiger arriving at the sparrows’ house with the ingredients for pithe (sweet rice cakes) in a basket, the ant rowing his sick wife across the waters in a rice-husk boat. It is a pity that none of these drawings are reproduced here. Looking Beyond includes the Signet edition cover of Tuntunir Boi, which was one of Ray’s early assignments, but  Sen makes no attempt to think through the question of how Ray’s graphic style and sensibility engaged with that of his grandfather, whose high quality draughtsmanship he was more than happy to acknowledge.

Upendrakishore’s eldest son, Satyajit’s father Sukumar Ray (1887-1923), is often described as modern India’s greatest writer of children’s stories and verse. He began to publish from the age of nine, displaying a special talent for nonsense verse and fantasy that reached its apogee in his most famous creations, Ha-ja-ba-ra-la and Abol Tabol. Ha-ja-ba-ra-la (pronounced Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law) narrates the strange experience of a boy which turns out to be a dream—a little like Alice in Wonderland, to be sure, but filled with such unique creatures as Sri Kakeshwar Kuchkuche, the mathematical crow who is a clerk, and the elusive Gechodada who, by the time you have calculated where he might be, has already moved on. There’s also a superbly acerbic court scene in which the judge is a bat, half-asleep, and the advocate is a crocodile, shedding crocodile tears. Abol Tabol contains more memorable characters, this time in verse: portmanteau animals with portmanteau names, a boro babu whose moustache has been stolen, a poem in the voice of a man who insists he isn’t going to harm you while implying exactly the opposite in the next line.

The unexpected oddness and ridiculous juxtapositions of Sukumar Ray’s characters makes them unfailingly hilarious to children—but they also quietly upturn received notions of what is “normal”.

The cover of Sandesh, a children’s magazine that Ray revived in 1961, without prior exposure to Bangla literature.

Sukumar Ray was also responsible for editing Sandesh, a children’s magazine started by his father in 1913, adding to Upendrakishore’s colourfully illustrated stories and poems lucid pieces about science and the animal kingdom.

There were others in Satyajit Ray’s family with an interest in children’s literature. Sen mentions Kuladaranjan, another of Upendrakishore’s sons, who was the first to translate children’s classics into Bengali from English. Sukumar’s elder sister Sukhalata Rao and his cousin Leela Majumdar (the daughter of his uncle Pramadaranjan) were also famed writers for children, and Majumdar continued to be actively associated with editing and writing for Sandesh until the late 1990s.

Though Sen doesn’t mention it, Satyajit must have had a complicated relationship with this familial heritage—his grandfather died in 1915, and he never had a chance to get to know his famous father. Satyajit was born in 1921, which he describes in My Years with Apu as “the year that Father was taken ill with what was then an incurable tropical disease called kala-azar”. After being “in and out of bed for two years”, he writes, Sukumar Ray died, at the age of 36. The printing press, U Ray and Sons, carried on for three years after his death, but then, as he recounts, “the business changed hands” and Satyajit and his mother Suprabha had to give up their “spacious North Calcutta residence” and seek shelter in the home of an unmarried maternal uncle in the southern part of the city.

His own account of his school years centres on his twin interests in Western classical music and Hollywood films. He then spent three painful years studying science and then economics at Presidency College. At the end of this formal education, the 18-year-old Satyajit seems to have made up his mind to devote himself to a different interest altogether: he was going to be a commercial artist. The two reasons he gives for this decision in My Years With Apu are revealing: he mentions his “natural flair for drawing”, but also that his grandfather and father had been painters and illustrators.

At his mother Suprabha’s behest, he agreed to hold off the job-search and enrol at Visva-Bharati University to study art. His two-and-half years at Shantiniketan, studying under Bengal School of Art pioneer Nandalal Bose and absorbing the atmosphere of a place that still had the aura of its exceptional founder (Tagore died in 1941, while Satyajit was enrolled there), proved more life-altering than the young Anglophile had expected. In My Years With Apu, he describes how exciting it was, having “been completely under the sway of the Western tradition in art, admiring Rembrandt and da Vinci” to be “suddenly exposed to the magnificence of Oriental art”. Chinese landscapes, Japanese woodcuts and Indian miniatures, as well as a sketching trip he made to Ajanta and Ellora with three classmates, stirred his imagination. He drew constantly, and learnt to use the Japanese calligraphic brush. There was also the very ambience of Visva-Bharati: “the campus was surrounded by villages where we used to go and sketch and I, who was born and bred in the city, was exposed to the varied charms of Bengal for the first time”.

The combination of a Western and Indian sensibility and influence—what film critic and historian Chidananda Dasgupta once described as the Tagorean synthesis—is crucial to understanding Ray’s work. “I do not think my Pather Panchali would have been possible if I had not done my apprenticeship at Shantiniketan,” Jayanti Sen quotes Ray as saying. “It was there that, sitting at the feet of Master-moshai [Nandalal Bose], I learnt how to look at Nature, how to respond to Nature and how to feel the rhythm inherent in Nature.” Looking Beyond, while it gives us very few fresh insights into how Ray thought about these things, does provide glimpses of his incorporation of indigenous motifs and concepts, right from his early advertising and book designs.

Ray did not finish his course at Shantiniketan. Instead he returned to Calcutta and managed, in 1943, through the auspices of a family friend, to get himself a job at a celebrated advertising agency called DJ Keymer. He joined as junior visualiser, with a monthly earning of Rs 75. Sen provides some interesting anecdotes here, such as the fact that DK Gupta, the agency’s assistant manager, warned Ray that “the salary would break your heart”. We hear a lot about the “Indianness” of the advertisements being designed by Annada Munshi and DK Gupta, Ray’s bosses at DJ Keymer. There’s one rather frank account from a colleague of Ray’s named OC Ganguly, who describes how they would buy English books on advertising and magazines like TIME and Life and recreate those layouts “by dressing sahibs up in our Bengali dhotis and Memsahibs in sarees”. But we hear little of the actual sahibs who still ran the advertising business (and much else) in the Calcutta of the 1950s, nor of the brown sahibs who would take over in their wake. Did Ray, with his taste for Hollywood films and Western classical music, fit right into this world of clubs and boxwallahs, a world that he later so masterfully depicted in Seemabaddha? Or, one wonders, was that world already more mixed than we realise, with a man like DK Gupta managing to thrive in the Anglophone realm of advertising while also starting Signet Press, a publishing house which all but revolutionised Bengali book design? Sen does not wonder about any of this.

All she does by way of explaining Ray’s artistic and intellectual development is to list examples of his work—his adoption of a Namabali pattern (“with names all over the cover”) for several books, his use of the Golap-Sundari figure from Kalighat pats (for a poetry collection brought out by Signet Books in 1953), or his early advertisement for CK Sen Medicines, whose figures seem to have walked off the sculpted wall of a Gupta-era temple. Later we learn from his son Sandip that Ray picked up woodcuts in Banaras during the shooting of Aparajito in 1956, which he then used for “designing the posters of Teen Kanya and Sandesh too”; or how his collection of old handwritten manuscripts (punthis), as well as traditional Bengali floor patterns (alpana), provided inspiration for his poster of Apur Sansar.

For the poster of Apur Sansar, Ray sought inspiration from traditional Bengali floor patterns.

“I wasn’t much of a reader,” Ray was to confess in My Days with Apu. It is among the more mysterious aspects of his career—how did a young man who had read almost no Bangla books, not even Pather Panchali until he was told to illustrate an abridged children’s version for Signet Press, suddenly turn into a prolific writer? All we learn from Sen’s book is that in 1961, Ray suddenly made up his mind to revive the children’s magazine Sandesh, “because I felt that it was a great tragedy after my father’s death, the perishing of Sandesh” and wrote what was to be his first science fiction story, ‘Bonkubabur Bondhu’ (Bonkubabu’s Friend) for its first issue.

Cover designs for Sandesh gradually became an important constituent of his design output. They were almost always three-colour or four-colour designs that could feature anything from robots to clowns to monkeys and lions, along with a cheerful typographical masthead that was different for each issue. The recurring motifs were the mascots—a boy and a girl—and a plate or pot of sandesh, the Bengali sweet whose name also means “message”, from which the magazine drew its name.

Starkly different were his covers for the literary and cultural magazine Ekshan, brought out by Nirmalya Acharya and Soumitra Chatterjee, Ray’s favourite actor, who also happened to be Acharya’s ex-classmate. For issue after issue of Ekshan, Ray devised an infinite number of variations on the three alphabets of the magazine’s name, turning typography into design.

The booklet cover for Ray’s film Mahanagar, where the typography emphasises the idea of a housewife setting out to work for the first time.

Typography was crucial to his film publicity material as well. Looking Beyond reproduces some of the finest examples of his ability to make typography speak to the theme of a film. In Ray’s booklet cover for Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), for instance, the squat geometric shapes of the letters evoke a street map, but they also seem a little like a maze. Together with the anxious glance that the protagonist seems to cast behind her as she defensively clutches her handbag, and the architecture of Calcutta looming up on either side, the typography creates an absolutely stellar representation of the film’s theme—a housewife heading out to work for the first time. Then there is the childish, disjointed lettering in his poster for Sonar Kella, a film about a young boy who apparently remembers his past life but can’t quite recall everything; the marvelous evocation of a temple in the form of the letters that make up the title of Devi (The Goddess); or the playfully gory touch in a poster for the whodunit Chiriakhana (The Zoo, 1967)—in the words Chiriakhana Dekhoon! (Watch Chiriakhana!), the letters ‘khoon” are in bright red, as if they are dripping with blood. There is also the rare example of a Roman typeface, which he created for his first Hindi film, Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players, 1977). Here the English letters have the sculpted, heavy-bottomed quality of chess pieces.

Many of the poster designs that use photographical elements tend to feature the faces of actors. Sometimes faces of various characters are simply strewn across the design, as in one rather unattractively cramped Charulata poster; sometimes, when the film has an obvious primary protagonist, a photograph of his or her face is allowed to take centrestage: as is the case for Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1976), Agantuk (1991) or Ganashatru (1990). This penchant for photographed faces may be thought of as an extension of Ray’s interest in portraiture. He started doing portraits seriously early on, Jayanti Sen tells us, in the mid-1940s when he was illustrating for Tukro Katha, the Bangla literary newsletter started by DK Gupta alongside Signet Press.

Later, his talent for portraiture, as with everything else about him, became legendary: Sen mentions, for instance that portaits of people Ray had met in everyday life “helped his assistants to find actors for the film he was about to make”. (Ray himself, in My Days With Apu, tells the story of how in the village of Boral, where they were shooting for Pather Panchali, a sketch he made that successfully identified a local man he had once seen made him more famous there than anything else he had done.)

The two roughly-drawn designs for film sets in the book—the room in which Goopy and Bagha stay in Hirak Rajar Deshe, and Dayamoyee’s room in Devi—are both superb examples of the precision of Ray’s set design. The sketch of Goopy and Bagha’s palatial chamber, for example, already specified all the architectural elements—pillars, arched doors, a vaulted roof, raised semicircular platforms—and even non-architectural ones, such as bolsters, that the filmed scene would eventually contain. The sketch of Dayamoyee’s room is even more interesting, because it not only gives us a sense of the physical space, its doors and wall-nooks and its four poster bed, but also places the primary character in the frame, her back to us, a shapeless form swaddled in a sari: the fragile young girl anointed as goddess already seems to have absorbed the terrible weight of her surroundings.

Among the other valuable images in the book are two of Ray’s illustrations for Aam Aantir Bhempu (A Mango-seed Whistle), the abridged version of Pather Panchali for children which he did for Signet. The image of Apu and Durga under a tree, hugging each other tight in a thunderstorm, has Durga with shoulder-length hair rather than the tightly-wound knot she had in the film—but the emblematic protective gesture with which she would drape her already wet sari around her little brother is already there. Placed next to (sadly grainy) stills from the film that correspond to them, these bold black-and-white images come closest to providing a sense of how Ray’s graphic imagination flowed seamlessly into his cinematic visuals. But there are too few of them. One could safely have done away with some of the meandering text to accommodate more.

Sen has clearly put a great deal of time and effort into assembling this book, collating older articles and fragments of writing on Ray’s graphics, as well as interviews with a variety of Ray experts, surviving ex-colleagues, ex-students and his son Sandip. Unfortunately, well-intentioned archivist though she may be, Sen is no writer. The text suffers from a clumsy, roundabout style, and is littered with unclear, repetitive passages that seem to have been left practically unedited. Here, for example, is Sen on Ray’s design for the children’s alphabet book Hatekhadi: “the most important feature of Hatekhadi is the variance of picture-sizes on each page, thereby introducing a child to the basics of the best in graphic design. These elements are imbibed [sic] in a child’s mind unbeknownst to him or her, the eyes get set to different shapes and sizes of a picture.” On Ray’s poster for his last film Agantuk, she writes, “Ray uses bars on Manomohan’s face in the poster cards, concealing his face through the bars of suspicion and may be hatred at a subtler level, of the society at large.” Meandering passages appear frequently, often making grand philosophical claims in thoroughly banal fashion. Here is Sen on the starry night sky in the poster for Aparajito (1956): “The dark sky on a deeper level reminds us of the vast infinite in which a human being disappears after death. On a symbolic level we are thrown into the realms of the unknown, which can take one through unusual turns even as a human being lives on, like Apu in his own life. Life and death coexist in the film, with Apu’s parents dying as the film unfolds.”

Hatekhadi, Ray’s illustrated alphabet book for children.

The appendices at the end of the book—Satyajit Ray’s short piece on DK Gupta, Nirmal Dhar’s interview with Ray, and another piece by Anirban Roy—are translated from the Bangla in shockingly slipshod fashion. Sample Ray on DK: “Within a minute Dilip Gupta entered the room in his heavy footsteps. He was wearing a half-shirt and pyjamas, a tinted high-powered spectacles in his eyes, a man whose personality struck me at the first sight.”

Despite this clunkiness, Looking Beyond will remain important as the first book-length study (in English) of Ray’s graphics, and Sen makes a brave attempt at taking the reader through the span of a lifetime’s magisterial work. She does try to outline the impact of Ray’s education and early advertising career on his later work as a filmmaker, writer and editor. But the information she has acquired and the anecdotes she has gleaned are set out in so disorganised a fashion, with so much repetition and so little narrative flair, that they lose most of their impact.

Grammatical and stylistic complaints seem churlish, but this is a book in which they are far too frequent to be ignored. In the end, though, what saddens is the book’s failure either to make thematic connections across his oeuvre, or to provide an engaging insider’s view of the man’s artistic process. Sen ends up merely tracing Ray’s graphic output chronologically—film by film, book by book, decade by decade. There is none of the analytic heft that would make for a true artistic biography. But you could still buy it for the pictures.