Satyajit Ray’s Little-Known Past As A Graphic Designer

Satyajit Ray’s Little-Known Past As A Graphic Designer
APN News

“Ray was, without knowing it, the first ‘graphic designer’ in India”

-Sandipan Deb

For those who know him as a household name, the mention of Satyajit Ray would evoke stark, monochromatic images of Apu from Pather Panchali, the first film in a trilogy that captures a young boys journey from boyhood to manhood— a saga of beautiful, yet harsh, portrayals of reality in 35 mm. For those who know his work more intimately, either through study or complete submission to his incomparable repertoire, the name may bring back warm memories of turning the pages of his short stories, a recollection of the way he brought his characters to life, such as detective Feluda and his sidekick Tapesh. Perhaps, for others, his name strikes a feeling of nostalgia for the hardcore geekery he manifested in all things supernatural, sci-fi, artificial and intelligence-related. Even they, however, often forget Ray for one of his least-lauded talents — that of incredible graphic designs.

In truth, all of these abilities and interests were deeply interlinked, none more so than his graphic design and film, yet his work with the former remains overshadowed by the latter. A fact that pays tribute to the paradoxical as it was his talent as an illustrator that first lifted him into the world of filmmaking.

Ray may have first caught the world’s attention with Pather Panchali, but the effort and talent that emanates from the film dates 13 years back to Ray’s position as a junior visual artist for D.J. Keymer, a British advertising firm. It was here that Ray developed his vision and began to bring Indian motifs into pop culture for the first time. In many ways Ray’s time in the advertising world was his Boot Camp, where the backbone of his style grew into its own and eventually augmented his career in film.

He followed his own philosophy as an artist, “if the theme is simple, you can include a hundred details that create the illusion of actuality better” and embellished his technique of minimalism, to form his hallmark blend of traditional and deco elements.

Ray’s obsession with calligraphic elements and illustration followed him throughout his profession (in 1971 Ray won an international typeface competition for his two designs ‘Ray Roman’ and ‘Ray Bizarre’) and became a tell-tale sign of his film posters and book covers. Moreover, his illustrator’s aesthetic permeated into his actual films as well. For example, his 1960 film poster Devi Goddess, or virtually any of his other film posters.

Image source: The Guardian

Or the 1961 revived version of his Grandfather’s, and shortly his father’s, children’s magazine ‘Sandesh’.

Image source:

Much like Hitchcock, he became, “infamous for spending significantly long periods of time setting up shots, (as) Ray wanted every detail to be exactly how he envisioned”. Both artists felt it was of paramount importance to meticulously plan every shot of their films before they even attempted to consider shooting the frame.

In fact, Ray was known to sketch out scenes in his shooting scripts, which explains how some of his movie scenes have such a pull to them; an ability to draw audiences right into the moment, because Ray structured (actually drew) the moment to ensure multiple visually appealing characteristics and layers. For example, the rain scene in Pather Panchali is filmed as if it were a sequential series of paintings, each frame containing heavy traces of artistic forethought and execution.

To better articulate this skill of Ray’s we lean upon the words of artist-scholar K.G. Subramanyan. “His films too, at least some of them, reveal it in ample measure in the image detail, tone and texture of the general presentation and the conjuring up of an atmosphere charged with various shades of emotion, all on the basis of various kinds and grades of visual stimuli.”

This is perhaps why academics and artists, alike, are so drawn to Ray’s graphic designs, as they see the conscientious artistry he subtly emerges his work in. Akira Kurosawa, a director who is essentially a film school demigod, speaks to this point, “not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon”. Kurosawa, another man of the ‘subtle suggestion school of thought’ is not being dramatic in this statement. In truth, he is most likely being rather literal, extolling that to see a film by Ray is to see the beauty of life, as Ray, like a painter, strives to capture the true essence of a beautiful moment, like a fleeting monsoon breeze rustling a field of lily pads.

When Ray looked back on his stint at art school, Kala Bhavan, he himself admits that “it was there that I learnt to look at nature, how to respond to nature and how to feel the rhythm of nature”. However, he only felt comfortable interacting with visual art as a filmmaker, despite his obvious inclination to graphic design, which is why he ultimately quit art school. Even at an old age Ray was his own harshest critic when it came to graphic design, which might explain the lack of literature that surrounds this part of his repertoire.

Subramanyan explains that when an exhibition of Ray’s graphic design work was displayed in 1990 he wrote a self-deprecating note in the catalogue, the latter part explaining, “I have never taken my graphic work seriously and never considered it as worthy of being exposed to the public”. This suggests Ray’s judgement of his own graphics work is one of the reasons it did not translate with the times as well as his movies.

However, today, many years after his death, the memory of Ray’s talent as a graphic designer is not entirely lost, as his films carry on the legacy of a visual artist determined to capture and explore, in his words, “the half shades, the hardly audible notes” of human beings and their relationships. Nonetheless, to truly appreciate the man’s impact on the world of cinema, one should concern themselves with his visual art. Sinuous designs on sheets of paper were Ray’s first form of expression, and these illustrations display, in our humble opinion, the purest form of his vision.

Feature image via APN News.

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