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Beyond the Reel: Ray’s Illustrations

Beyond the Reel: Ray’s Illustrations

As one of the most celebrated filmmakers, Satyajit Ray and his contribution to world cinema needs no introduction. He has never ceased to fascinate movie buffs with his celluloid masterpieces even after 30 years of his death. Quite expectedly his birth centenary happens to be no exception. However, it is a pity that in the process, a versatile genius like Ray remains grossly underrated as a graphic artist where his contributions are no less remarkable. As a young boy, Ray was particularly good at drawing and had decided to pursue art as his profession. Both his father and grandfather were artists of great eminence, and Ray was all set to follow in their footsteps. He went to Santiniketan and joined Kala Bhavana in 1940 to learn drawing, painting, and calligraphy but majorly to understand the entire spectrum of Indian traditional art—a knowledge he thought would substantiate his creative efforts in advertising later on.

Back in Kolkata, Ray eventually joined a British advertising company D.J. Keymer as a visualiser in 1943. It was during this period that Ray got his first illustration published in a children’s magazine called ‘Mouchak’ with a funny story ‘Attache case’. As a beginner, his composition and characterisation were promising. In spite of his job as a publicist, Ray as an illustrator rose to fame owing to his committed association with the publication house ‘Signet Press’, founded in 1944. During this period he illustrated some of the finest works in Bengali literature including Abanindranath Tagore’s  ‘Khirer Putul’, ‘Rajkahini’; Sukumar Ray’s ‘Pagla Dashu’, ‘Khai Khai’ and Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s ‘Aam Antir Bhenpu’. Just as his adaptation of quintessential Bengal folk motifs on a  large canvas was spectacular in ‘Khirer Putul’, the adaptations of the delicate Rajput miniature paintings for ‘Rajkahini’ stood class apart. Ray was equally at ease in developing lively comic styles while illustrating Sukumar’s downright silly ‘nonsensical works’.

Another example was ‘Aam Antir Bhenpu’, a poignant saga based on rural Bengal, where Ray was prompted to incorporate the linocut effect in his illustrations greatly inspired by his guru Nandalal Bose. The story itself fascinated Ray so much that he started having serious thoughts about making a film on it, which ultimately resulted in ‘Pather Panchali’—his very first film that released ten years later in 1955.

Meanwhile, in 1949, an illustrated press campaign for malaria antidote was designed by Ray with each visual depicting household scenes of families from different social strata. In one of the illustrations, Ray shows all the family members of an affluent aristocratic Bengali family gathered in the sitting room, where he painstakingly illustrated the interior decoration with minute detailing of every furniture and sketched costumes that faithfully represented the characters to absolute perfection. The fact that the cinematic ideas had started pouring in by then was professed by Ray himself. In his entire career, Ray illustrated only a few adult subjects most of which were during his initial days. For the festival edition of Desh magazine in 1953, Ray, then barely thirty, illustrated a satirical story ‘Saralakhsha Home written by celebrated humorist Rajshekhar Bose. It was a visual treat to watch how Ray matured with age to have elucidated the underlying eccentricities of the plot while adding an extra stroke to the narrative. It was obvious that Ray was intending to become more cerebral as a visual artist which in later years would become his pièce de résistance. In the wake of the overnight success of ‘Pather Panchali’ Ray got busy making films and was compelled to give up on his career as an artist which brought his illustration works to a complete halt albeit temporarily.

However, the scenario changed in 1961 when Ray decided to revive the children’s magazine ‘Sandesh’, which was founded by his grandfather Upendrakishore and was discontinued earlier. Sandesh retained a strong sentimental value for Ray since the magazine used to be a family venture with many of his childhood memories attached to it. Not only he took charge as the full-time editor of Sandesh but also started illustrating and designing covers for every issue. Ray, who was by then a filmmaker of international repute, effortlessly propelled back to his elements, although it wasn’t a professional platform altogether. In spite of gruelling film schedules, the question as to how he managed these simultaneously remains unanswered. Yet the fresh wave of Ray’s illustrations brought delightful variety in forms and techniques quite evident in the folklore series  ‘Malashrir Panchatantra’ or cheerful fantasies like ‘Maku’ and ‘Tongling’. From the very first issue, Ray had designed every single cover of Sandesh single-handedly, using vibrant colours and vivid illustrations, showing delighted children reading their favourite magazine accompanied by animals, birds, fishes, and even a robot or a genie. This entire mosaic validates Ray’s deep understanding of the juvenile world. It hardly came as a surprise when at one point Ray himself started writing for Sandesh in order to boost its saleability.

While illustrating his own stories written mostly for young adults, and dishing them out in regular intervals, Ray added another feather in his cap as the illustrator of the sci-fi series ‘Professor Shanku’. Here he refined a realistic style, adding dimensions with light and shadow to suitably establish the dramatic exploits of the undaunted scientist. Pradosh Mitra alias Feluda the young and energetic sleuth was another character Ray created whose adventures tactfully overlapped with travelling, serving the readers with an added interest. In illustrations for the Feluda series, he not only maintained slick and linear drawing patterns but also tried to induce certain cinematic compositions using both space and perspective, which eventually became his signature style. With the mounting popularity of both Shanku and Feluda, Ray grew more conscious of his illustrations, at times drawing many of them afresh. For one of his early Feluda novels ‘Badsahi Angti’, which was serially published in Sandesh, he most willingly replaced the entire set of illustrations with a new and far more improvised version when it came out as a book.

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A few of Ray’s black and white gems would include the exquisite ambience of a Sikkimese monastery in the headpiece of ‘Gangtoke Gandogol’,  the typical Benaras ghat in ‘Joy Baba Felunath’, the use of sharp light and shade contrast in ‘Sonar Kella’ that conveyed the sensation of blasting sunlight, or the row of cutout figures that elevated the suspense in ‘Bakso Rahosyo’. Soon enough Ray had started contributing for mainstream popular magazines like ‘Desh’ and ‘Anandamela’, which, apart from offering a larger canvas, allowed him to illustrate in full colour for the first time. Ray relished this to the hilt and came out with his innovative best. In colour, however, he often displayed unique restrain, opting to give an extra depth to the narrative. Most of his Shanku illustrations had this spectacular quality where actions and settings were rendered with startling photographic effect. One must not miss the illustrations of ‘Mahakasher Doot’, ‘Manro Dwiper Rahosyo’ or his very last ‘Swarnoporni’ to witness the precision in Ray’s works. He might have expressed apathy towards the extensive use of colours in his illustrations, but clearly, Ray maintained a creative supremacy here, which remains unmatched to date.

There is little doubt that Ray enjoyed a wider readership mainly due to magazines like Desh and Anandamela, but as an illustrator, Sandesh always remained his home ground. It was here that he successfully explored his versatility to an epic proportion. To match the thematic mood of each story he illustrated, Ray could perpetually experiment with drawings and forms to fabricate brand new styles. Such was his creative resources that the thousands of illustrations he did for Sandesh displays a commendable heterogeneity that remains unparalleled. Unfortunately due to casual indifference and lack of an organized approach, at present most of these illustrative works of Ray remain untraceable. It is of utmost importance that immediate steps are taken to build a proper archive to save these incredible creative outputs for posterity. This, I believe, would be the best way to pay homage to Ray as we celebrate his birth centenary.

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