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Ray’s Secret Lives

Meet the other Satyajit Ray — illustrator,book designer,font-maker,poster artist and adman

Written by Anjum Katyal | Published: October 20, 2012 2:38 am

Book: Looking Beyond: Graphics of Satyajit Ray

Author: Jayanti Sen

Publisher: Roli Books

Price: Rs. 895

Pages: 162

Ray was a multifaceted genius,who will be remembered as much for his graphic designing and illustrations as for his storytelling prowess,” says the late artist Paritosh Sen,who is quoted in this book,which is a worthy attempt to fulfil this prediction by bringing Satyajit Ray the graphic designer to a wider audience beyond the cognoscenti of Bengal.

Satyajit Ray the legendary Oscar-winning filmmaker had a reputation for involvement with almost all creative facets of filmmaking,including music,costumes,set design and credit title graphics. This volume establishes him as a consummate graphic designer and illustrator with an impressive portfolio — 5,500 book covers,posters,advertisement layouts and film titles and innumerable illustrations for Bengali fiction,both his own and others’,according to the book blurb.

Profusely illustrated with Ray’s drawings and designs,the book takes us on a journey through his parallel creative life in the realm of two-dimensional visual art,starting with his childhood penchant for drawing and his rewarding stint at Santiniketan,where he was taught by Nandalal Bose. He worked in advertising at D.J. Keymer,was involved with book design and typography,and produced art for print and cinema. With visuals supporting the text,this a comprehensive depiction of Ray the graphic artist.

Ray developed his talents in graphic design in the Independence era,when the advertising and graphic design industry in Kolkata was defining its identity and aesthetics for the new nation state. An Indian feel was a priority,in complete contrast to the increasingly global look advertisements aspire to today. In terms of cultural history alone,the reminiscences and interviews brought together in this volume,from stalwarts of the field at the time,serve an important archival purpose.

Ray was deeply involved with book design — layout,typeface,illustration and covers — particularly through the path-breaking Signet Press,which showed the way in Bengal with excellent design and production values. Started in 1945 by D.K. Gupta,who came to publishing from advertising,“Signet Books ushered in a completely different style,both in terms of visual expression and book design” testifies author Jayanti Sen. Along with poetry and contemporary fiction in Bengali,Signet brought out a newsletter,Tukro Katha,in which then budding writers — now established names like Sunil Gangopadhyay,Naresh Guha,Shankho Ghosh and Shakti Chattopadhyay — were written about. From its inception,Ray was involved as a designer and illustrator.

A significant early assignment was “the entire responsibility of layout,illustration and cover design of the abridged version of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s immortal Bengali classic Pather Panchali (Aam Antir Bhempu)” — with far-reaching consequences. That’s how closely entwined his lives as filmmaker and graphic artist were. We see this in his illustrations as well,which capture character with a penetrating and perceptive eye familiar to us from his filmmaking.

In the 1960s Ray was commissioned to create a series of typefaces by a type foundry in Florida. His fonts Ray Roman,Daphne,Bizarre and Holiday Script are displayed here. Paritosh Sen pays homage to Ray’s skill: “Types are designed by a specialist who must ensure its perfect anatomy,harmony between the ascending and descending strokes and a balance between the inner and outer space of a letter… Ray fulfilled these demands with great panache.” Ray himself is quoted as saying that if he had the time,he would like to design Bengali typefaces as well. He displayed a strong interest and expertise in calligraphy and lettering,with bold experimentation that many of the visuals reproduced here display.

More homage than critique,this book does an invaluable service by showcasing a lesser known aspect of Ray’s creative career. The visuals reproduced include rare artworks,illustrations and film-related materials. However,there is no attempt at a comparative study of Ray’s graphics and those of his peers,which is essential to evaluating his significance to the evolution and history of book and graphic design in independent India.

The book’s strength is the number and variety of illustrations. The long captions are a useful feature,parallel texts to be read with the images. However,a list of illustrations would have been useful,and page references for visuals which are described in detail in the text.

This otherwise worthy volume has suffered from shoddy copy editing and proofing. Errors ranging from typos to major errors impede the smooth understanding of the text. One glaring example: “Since the married life of Apu is the central theme of this film,Ray divested the graphic material of the film with Indian folk-motifs associated with marriage (pg. 61).” ‘Invested’ was perhaps intended. Such errors are regrettable in a book devoted to the work of a perfectionist.

Writer,editor and translator,Anjum Katyal also sings the blues

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