Kolkata: Long before Satyajit Ray put Indian cinema on the world map, the polymath was much sought-after for his skills as a book-jacket designer, graphic artist, typographer and illustrator and it was “unfortunate” that the “Pather Panchali” maker did not live long enough to see the computer age, eminent cartoonists and illustrators say. “It is unfortunate that he did not get to see the age of computers. Given his mastery over art and his strong vision, he would have used it differently and perhaps in a way that none could use computers for typography,” lamented noted art scholar and illustrator Pranabesh Maity.
He was speaking at a discussion on Ray’s illustrations at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute here on Monday. Known for detailed sketches of his films’ frames, Ray’s exposure to drawing came at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan’s Visva Bharati University where he trained in art for two years under Nandalal Bose, one of the pioneers of modern Indian art. There, he gained a deeper appreciation of both Eastern and Western art culture.
But he did not complete his art education and upon returning to Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1943, Ray got a job as a junior visualiser in DJ Keymer, a British-owned advertising agency. “He blossomed as an illustrator, a book cover-page designer and typographist. We see these aspects later in his professional filmmaking career where he himself used to design the promotion booklets and posters of each of his films,” said Maity, while analysing the yellow-white hues of the poster of Ray’s 1962 film “Kanchenjungha”.
Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable and appealing when displayed and the meticulous Ray lettered ‘Kanchenjungha’ in Bengali in such a way that the word resembled a mountain range with part of it drenched in sun-kissed yellow shade and the other half in snow white. Once, Ray also used three colours of the French flag (red, white and blue) in a French Embassy and Federation of Film Society poster for ‘Eight French Films of the Sixties’ in three distinct strokes to illustrate each alphabet in the artwork.
“He did nearly 10,000 illustrations for the Sandesh magazine. It is not the technology but the person who chooses how to use that technology and Ray would have done something extra-ordinary with the applications available today,” said cartoonist Debashish Deb. Echoing Deb and Maity, artist Debraj Goswami believes Ray would have given a different meaning to the use of Photoshop today. “He used the basic tools that were available back then. It was how he had envisioned and observed people and things… that came across in his illustrations,” said Goswami. Ray in his entire career, directed 36 films which include features, documentaries and short films. He was awarded an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement and a Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour, in 1992.
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