The Ray of Wisdom

The Indian artists whose names graced the list were but few. Benode Behari, Nandalal, Ramkinkar, Rabindranath, Abanindranath and for a change Jamini Roy. No artist from Bombay could find favour in this elite list.

The Ray of Wisdom

An iconic figure of Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray [Photo:SNS]

Before emerging as an iconic figure of Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray was a graphic illustrator and perhaps that has become a less-known side of him today. Long before he created wonders in the world of celluloid Ray had established himself as a promising illustrator in the arena of advertisement.

According to the famous Indian painter Paritosh Sen, “Ray brought a mini-revolution in printing design.” Before joining D.J. Keymer’s office in 1943 as a junior visualiser, Ray extensively practiced “Oriental Art” under the tutelage of Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee. It is true that the “Kala Bhavan” of Shantiniketan was well-known for its emphasis on Indian tradition and originality but Ray and his batch-mates were not restricted within Indian culture and tradition.

Dinkar Kowshik – the well-known visual artist and Ray’s batchmate in Shantiniketan – says in the book “Satyajit Ray – an intimate Master: Those Kala Bhavan days”: “The hostel verandah was usually our drawing room.


We would gather and talk endlessly about the current world scene of art. The discussions were rambling and endless; names like Paul Klee, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Juan Miro, Picasso, Salvador Dali and Cezanne were used as sterling currency.

The Indian artists whose names graced the list were but few. Benode Behari, Nandalal, Ramkinkar, Rabindranath, Abanindranath and for a change Jamini Roy. No artist from Bombay could find favour in this elite list.

They were just crass imitationists who painted to please customers instead of themselves.” From Kowshik’s memory, it can be noticed how well updated they kept themselves in those days and they were intensely looking for an alternative path by rejecting the commercial Indian art of that time.

Ray joined D.J. Keymer in 1943 and in a very short time he became a well-known face in the Calcutta advertisement world. Some of his commercial illustrations were warmly accepted by the people. The half-opened Margo soap, one cigarette stick sticking out from the tin of Chelsea cigarettes and the woman in the “Tea with Music” commercial were some of the famous designs Ray did in his early career as a graphic designer.

Ray’s career as a graphic designer was not confined to the commercial advertisement world, he designed book jackets too. For instance, the book cover of Jibananda Das’s “Banalata Sen” shows the artistic brilliance of Ray. In this cover we can see an enigmatic doeeyed mysterious woman peering from behind the foliage (this cover tells us that Ray had a deep understanding of poetry too).

The book-covers of Sukumar Ray’s “Khai Khai”, Leela Majumdar’s “Jonaki” and Jim Corbett’s “Man Eaters of Kumaon” were some of his notable works but Ray’s life took a completely different turn when D.K. Gupta of Signet Press asked him to illustrate for “Aam Antir Bhepu” – an abridged version of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s masterpiece “Pather Panchali”. Today, we consider Ray as a predominantly image-driven storyteller. Perhaps he formulated his deep understanding of image composition in cinema during this period of illustrating for “Aam Antir Bhepu”.

“The Pather Panchali Sketchbook”, which Harper Collins published in 2016, gives us an insight into Ray’s process of composing scenes for his debut film. His son, Sandip Ray writes in the preface of the book – “Ray did not use his now-famous kheror khata (red notebook) to write the screenplay. He did some sketches in a drawing book after he had come back from London in 1950 and illustrated a succession of pictures (in pen, brush and ink) for the sequences of frames as they would come up in the film. He used to take them to the producers and explain the sequences.

The producers he approached, however, had no interest, nor could they understand the whole process. Some of the shot divisions were scribbled on chits of paper and cigarette packs.” When Ray shifted to his career in filmmaking, he decided to leave his full-time job; although his career as an illustrator did not end but took a new turn. During this time, Ray’s creativity flourished in poster designs for his films.

He eschewed the then prevalent commercial Bombay-made posters — which depicted the star’s face most of the time — and took an aesthetic, abstract approach towards poster designing. For instance, the poster of his 1960 film “Devi” (The Goddess) shows a young woman directly gazing at the viewer. Ray divided the face of the woman in two shades to portray the superstitious ambiguity of orthodox society. Ray took a minimalist approach while designing the poster for his 1964 classic “Charulata” (The Lonely Wife).

With swift brush strokes he created a profile-image of Charulata. The loneliness was very apparent in the melancholic longing eyes of the lady in the poster. In 1961 Ray revived the famous children’s magazine “Sandesh” which was originally founded by his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. During this time, Ray started his second innings as an illustrator and he also blossomed as a writer and translator.

He spent a monumental amount of time sketching and sketches became an inseparable part of his narratives. Almost all of his “Feluda” stories contain some eye-catching sketches. He took a dark silhouette-ish approach toward the pictures he drew for Feluda and his short stories; while the pictures he used for the Professor Shanku series were a bit complex.

The illustrations of “Eksringo Abhijan” and “Hypnogen” are quite reminiscent of the psychedelic art which gained momentum in the early 70s. Ray also sketched for others stories too; for instance he sketched “Ichingka” – an alien who appeared in the short story of Amitananda Das. Ray also adopted an unique style for the cover designs he made for Sandesh – the covers incorporated colorful geometric and floral patterns native to alpana art done by Ray himself. Ray also developed his skill in sketching portraits.

For instance, he made some impressive portraits of figures such as Sergei Eisenstein and V.I. Lenin. Ray was one of those few men of wisdom who was able to share the ray of his wisdom with people of all ages. He has left his traces not only in the world of celluloid but also in literature, illustration, music, advertisement and calligraphy.

Ray had a special quality through which he molded his ideas of western aesthetics with Indian art and incorporated them in his films, music, commercials and illustrations, and these Ray-made aesthetics are still very much prevalent in our society.

The ideas of Ray which are reflected sometimes in celluloid, sometimes in the pages of books, shape our early minds. We still develop our early social values, principles, taste for art and eyes for aesthetics from Ray – who was a committed social artist. We are still indebted to Satyajit Ray.

(The writer is pursuing a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University.)