Guest Author: Ankit Santra
How often do you come across a particular frame that immaculately draws the film in your mind? An honest answer would be ‘very’. But seldom does the stylistic need of a poster demand it, mostly because it is peripheral to what the film in its entirety is. Half a decade post the progressive art revolution in India and half a century before the technology boom, such photographic frames donned the mantle of the first look or posters of Satyajit Ray’s films. At a time when film posters were mostly hand painted, Ray’s self-curated graphic arts swept across the streets of the newly dethroned capital and could rightly be called posters for posterity.
Having to write about Ray as a graphic designer, and probably India’s very first, is to talk about one side of a man whose other side has appreciably eclipsed it. In this article, rather than exploring this side of him, I would attempt to view it from a more universal perspective. As one of the forerunners of Indian cinema, Ray believed that to delve into details one needs to keep it simple. The nitty-gritty of rustic dilapidating relationships that took the world by storm, his magnum opus was not just a result of the “Bicycle Thieves” effect but also revolutionary in the field of commercial art as much as in cinema- its poster was one of the first use of a photographic image within a profusely stylized backdrop. Made over a span of five years, Pather Panchali was released in 1955 when Ray was thirty-five years of age. Then what was the auteur up to in his fledgling years?
With a degree in economics, Ray took up fine arts in Shantiniketan under the tutelage of Binode Behari Mukherjee (who went on to become the subject of Ray’s 1972 documentary, The Inner Eye) and Nandalal Bose. The very inherent Bengal school aesthetics developing into a more modern folk form had become representative of Indian art when Ray entered the art school, and Shantiniketan was seen as the hub of a progressive antithesis to occidental conventions. The imprints of this aesthetic compassion acquired from Vishwa Bharati would be conspicuous in almost all his works. Drawn back to Calcutta’s growing cinema culture, he left Vishwa Bharati to join the British run advertising agency, D. J. Keymer in April 1943, at the mere age of 22 and worked for the next thirteen years there. Ray’s encounter with literature happened when a senior colleague, D.K. Gupta asked him to design book covers for his Signet Press. Giving him the task to illustrate an abridged version of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali, D. K. Gupta remarked that it would serve as a good text to be made into a film!
Born into a family of virtuosos like Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury and Sukumar Ray, he was surrounded by literature since childhood, but barely carved a piece out of it for himself until late when it helped in his cinematic pursuit. Upendrakishore revolutionized photography and printmaking for which he received acclaim from the western front while Sukumar Ray was one of the first to accept and pilot modernity along with his scathing commentary on Kolkata’s babu culture. Sandesh, a magazine started by Upendrakishore and pinnacled by Sukumar Ray had become synonymous with the legacy of the family. It is here that the satirist modern folk art and nonsensical literature found its place. Satyajit Ray revived the magazine and filled it up with the best of his children’s works accompanied with illustrations and highly modern graphic design, alongside the practice of realism typifying art house cinema. Ray was neither a composer of fables, nor a nonsensical author, yet carried the lineage forward as an innovator in his own field, with equal reverence to his father’s camouflaged commentary and Tagore’s rationalist poetry.
Satyajit Ray went on to adopt the latter’s works with a realist style that set off Indian parallel cinema apart from the mainstream in every aspect. What remained subservient was the masterwork of a graphic artist who had also incorporated traditional sensibilities into commercial art to create a unique style of poster-making and typography.
Goopy-Bagha has been on the desk for many projects in recent times with heavily stylized and colorful works. The original film and the poster, with a simple surreal sketch, however, remain the true speaker of Ray’s art. The practice of chiaroscuro in monochrome has also produced two other iconic posters of Ghare Baire (1984) and Aranyer Din Ratri (1970), which instantly generate the impression of a noir behind the first look.
A distinctive shift in the paradigm had affected his posterwork as a dying culture of hand-drawn posters and increasing use of photographic imagery led Ray to experiment with motifs and calligraphy. He opted for a more graphic approach like in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Shonar Kella and developed a distinctive style of using quirky face cutouts that irked the minds. According to son Sandip Ray, he took great interest in photography and extensively studied the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Was photographic stills distinctive of Ray’s posters? The answer is ‘no’. But a side-by-side comparison with contemporary graphic work brings out the relevance of concomitant elements in a collage that constitute a narrative in itself. Even other graphic posters with prominent verisimilitude like Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar, the interaction between the subject and the typography were different from the style he had developed. Ray’s posters like any other role in his films, were characters unto themselves.
But at a time when Ray’s films were accused of disregarding contemporary political scenarios, can the same be held against his graphic art? As Sandip Ray reminisces, Ray’s introduction to him happened holding hands of his prowess as an illustrator. Although a poster is generally made only in the post-production process, most of his illustrative work even went into the meticulous planning of every shot – some made to the mise-en-scène like the Jamini Ray painting in a Feluda film, and some were retained for purposes beyond screen time. The unique style of children’s narrative started by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury was only tail-ended by Ray with stories and illustrations for Bonku Babur Bondhu, the Professor Shonku series et al., which became texts to be adopted across media of performance arts. To talk about Ray’s book jackets and magazine layouts is a vast topic in itself and have hence been kept out of this article. Thus, India’s introduction to graphic designing happened pretty much with Ray but was truly received only half a century later.
Calcutta through the lens of Ray is starkly divergent from the vibrant posters of the Calcutta trilogy, Kapurush Mahapurush (1965), Nayak (1966) and Ganashatru (1989). The typical face-cut of characters embedded in rich, vibrant colors, though not the best of Ray’s works, are still gimmicky and evoke consciousness against topics growing increasingly relevant with every passing day. All the characters, though of different walks of life, amalgamate to give a character to the city beyond its social order.
Ray’s knack for calligraphy was reflected in the typographic idiosyncrasy of his artworks. A curator of four original fonts- Ray Roman, Ray Bizarre, Daphnis and Holiday Script, he is also accredited for curating a Bengali style widely used till date and colloquially named after him. His typography remained true to each film, story or cover and bore conspicuous inspiration from his fine arts coursework. The calligraphy for his book Badshahi Angti, similar to Abanindranath Tagore’s style of writing Bengali disguised as Urdu is another instance of his close association with works of the Tagore family. The title text for Devi (1960) alongside the half goddess picture is another example of his experimentation with simplistic subject and gaudy penmanship. As images exceedingly took over the streets filling all poster-work across the nation, the multilayered collages, conscious use of complementary colours, ornately designed titles and voracious experimentation carved a style different from not just the mainstream, but also the techniques across the world.
The typographic genius and bold use of colours is yet again seen in the poster of Mahanagar (1963), that captures a very powerful image of Arati applying lipstick- imperative of her newfound agency. The bright red set against a desaturated backdrop instantly draws attention to the lipstick that is symbolic of the underlined message. The font bears an eerie resemblance to the geometric patterns of a growing city of brick giants that Rabindranath Tagore used to describe buildings. Very similar to it again is the verbose poster of Devi. The face cutout is split into two distinctive colors showing the two sides of Dayamoee’s persona, one in striking resemblance with Goddess Kali. The films, although different in timeline and setting, have been linked in contrast by Ray’s artistry. The abundance of red in Devi, the story of religious dogma in a rural setting is held against the growing agency of a bread-earning Arati in a city, whose only source of vibrance is the red, that seems overpoweringly bold in the monochromatic background. The typography again is complementing the narrative and never lets the interpretation digress from the central theme.
The poster of Charulata (1964) is as simplistic as it gets with a tremendous concoction of ornate calligraphy and minimalist portrait of a woman with a gaze. The brushstroke portrait of Charulata with flowing tresses is the epitome of the subtle school that Ray believed in. Charulata’s kinesis of relationships is studied as a text in many institutions till date, and not even the poster gives anything away.
Ray reminisced about Santinketan saying, “It was there that I learnt to look at nature, how to respond to nature and how to feel the rhythm of nature”. For every 30×40 poster that would veil the growing metropolis encaptured in his ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ and a 20×30 that would traverse the rustic homelands of Apu and Durga, two posters were made – one in litho and another silkscreened, of which only a few remain. Ray’s posters were further studied and interpreted by artists of international acclaim yet Ray himself was the most depreciative of his own works.
While his skill as a designer was held back by his own scepticism, artists like Peter Strausfeld and filmmaker Akira Kurosawa spoke highly of his work, describing them as reflexive of Ray’s vision of his film. Here goes the famous Kurosawa quote:
“Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon”
- Satyajit Ray’s Little-Known Past As A Graphic Designer: Link
- Posterphilia: The Poster Designs of Satyajit Ray: Link
- The Oscar-winning Filmmaker + Graphic Designer Satyajit Ray Made the Best Posters You’ve Never Seen: Link
- Satyajit Ray’s Fonts – A Story of His Affinity with Typography: Link
- A Modernist Public: The Double-Take of Modernism in the Work of Satyajit Ray: Link
- The Reception of Modern European Art in Calcutta: a Complex Negotiation (1910s-1940s): Link
Ankit Santra is a painter-turned-filmmaker who, more often than not, runs into trouble for his cartoons. This picture was taken while painting ‘Aang’ from Bonku Babur Bondhu for a theatrical act, and therefore depicts him at his happiest.