The Font of Genius
Satyajit Ray’s graphic designs are underrated, says ORIJIT SEN. The comprehensive compilation is a much-needed corrective
EVERYONE KNOWS Satyajit Ray was a great filmmaker. But not many are aware that he was also a prolific composer, writer, illustrator and designer who created hundreds of advertising campaigns, wrote and illustrated books for children and adults, edited magazines and designed the sets, title sequences, posters and other publicity material for almost all of his own films. Ray was also a master calligrapher and typeface designer, combining the roles of editor, author, designer and illustrator on many a print project. Through this wide-ranging engagement in the print medium, he helped give shape to a distinct contemporary idiom in Bengali graphic design over the course of three decades of active practice. In more than one way, Ray’s grounding as a fine-turned-commercial artist working alongside able and gifted contemporaries, in the exciting early years of Indian independence, became the solid foundation on which he built his unique vision of Indian cinema in the 1950s. And for that reason alone, Looking Beyond — Graphics of Satyajit Ray by Jayanti Sen should be considered essential material by anyone interested in Ray’s cinema, its sociocultural context and its aesthetics.
But there are several other reasons. Jayanti Sen, daughter of close associates of the great man, has accessed not only Ray’s original artwork, but also his fellows, family members and friends to put together a comprehensive and very enjoyable overview of this somewhat forgotten aspect of his oeuvre. And what a delightful aspect it is! From the bold strokes of brush calligraphy to delicate traceries of pen-and-ink, from dramatic oppositions of dark form and light space to subtle harmonies of colour, every page of this book reveals Ray as a passionate and skilled practitioner of the graphic arts. And we learn that it all began at Kala Bhavan, in Shantiniketan, under the enlightening tutelage of masters Benode Bihari Mukherjee and Nandalal Bose. Or did it? Perhaps it really began much before that — from the day he was born into the household of Upendrakishore Roychowdhury and Sukumar Ray, of Leela Majumdar and Nalini Das — Calcutta’s illustrious family of writers, artists, photographers and printers.
Hey, with antecedents like that, we could all be geniuses! But since we’re not, it’s instructive to allow Jayanti Sen to walk us through a chronological and thematic unravelling of Satyajit Ray’s graphics, beginning with his earliest years at DJ Keymer — then Calcutta’s leading advertising agency, through his years with the astute DK Gupta’s Signet Press, past the series of dazzling posters and logotypes he created for his own films — from Pather Panchali onwards, to the years of Sandesh (the children’s magazine originally launched by Sukumar and later revived by Satyajit), and the amazingly detailed sketches and storyboards for his 1977 film Shatranj Ke Khilari. We only begin to perceive the slowing down of this incredible output in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in the years leading to his death, as he tried to conserve his waning energies for the final films of his career.
The book throws up some very interesting nuggets. We learn, for example, that Ray had been commissioned by an American type foundry in the mid-’60s to design a series of new fonts — resulting in the creation of ‘Daphnis’, ‘Bizarre’, ‘Ray Roman’ and ‘Holiday Script’. Who would have thought? The pages from his Bengali primer Hatekhadi are also a revelation — featuring montages of beautiful jewel-like images to go with each of the alphabets. Elsewhere, we are allowed to compare his illustrations for an abridged version of Pather Panchali, the