Satyajit Ray the designer has always been subsumed by the film-maker, although both these aspects of his work are intimately related to each other. A definitive critical evaluation of his genius as a designer is still awaited. One of the problems is the scattered evidence of his work as an advertiser and a book designer, especially during the early part of his career.
A prolific creator, he left his mark on everything he worked on, whether it was advertisements, book covers, book illustrations, film posters, film booklets, title cards, logo designs and even set design. Initially, he saw design more as a functional aspect of his art but as he grew in stature, he became more experimental. Here I try to give a rudimentary sampling of his exceptional work.
At the beginning of his career, Ray was working as a junior visualiser at D J Keymer and Co., where he developed a close relationship with the assistant manager, Dilip Kumar Gupta (popularly known as D.K.). So, when D.K. established the Signet Press in 1943, Ray was one of the principal artists entrusted to design books.
Ray took it as a challenge and revolutionised the look of Bengali books forever. For example, if we look closely at the book jacket of the translation of Jim Corbett’s book Man-Eaters Of Kumaon, Kumayuner Manushkheko Bagh (published in 1950), we can understand why Ray is regarded as a pioneer in this field. Here Ray uses metonymy as a design principle. A part of a tiger’s skin evokes the image of the fearsome beast. A lesser artist would probably have drawn the mighty animal in its entirety or at least focused on the growling face. A bullet seems to have entered the skin (and the book) and gone out of its back. The difference in the size of the two holes—the one behind is a larger hole, being torn wider by the bullet (a bullet’s exit hole is always wider than at the point of entry)—tells us a lot about Ray’s eye for detail. The book blurb nestles within that bigger hole at the back while the front hole creates space for the title and the author’s name.
Satyajit Ray created four English typescripts—Ray Roman, Daphnis, Holiday Script and Ray Bizarre. He was specifically commissioned by a US type foundry based in Florida in the 1960s. All the typefaces are vastly different in style, yet they show one common design element—a rare sense of geometrical balance.
Ray Roman is definitely influenced by the work of Herbert Bayer, the father of Bauhaus typography, who is known for his design of the geometric sans-serif Proposal for a Universal Typeface in 1925. Like Bayer, Ray reduces letters to their essentials, without the additional adornments typical of the blackletter typography. Daphnis, on the contrary, is more adventurous, with its default italics tilt and wispy rounded endings in rotational symmetrical letters like “s” and “z”. The lower cases of both Ray Roman and Daphnis these typefaces have a relatively taller x-height in comparison to their ascenders and descenders, thereby ensuring perfect legibility. This has been done without disturbing the harmony between the ascending and descending strokes and the balance between the inner and outer space of a letter.
Holiday Script imitates a handwritten cursive flow while Ray Bizarre is decorative, without sacrificing the inherent symmetry of the letterforms. It is to be noted that Ray Bizarre does away entirely with the lower case. Many artists like Paritosh Sen have stressed on the pictorial quality of each letter created by Ray and infer that this quality is actually a throwback to the influence of Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee, his teachers at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan.
Ray’s penchant for minimalism is visible in the logos he designed throughout his career. His signature logo for Nandan, a government-sponsored film and cultural centre in the heart of Kolkata, is probably the most recognisable. However, he felt equally at home while creating a brand identity for big publishers like Rupa or a logo for a little-known sci-fi magazine like Fantastic. He even meticulously crafted the logo for Peter’s Fan, an imaginary company mentioned in the film Seemabaddha!
My personal favourite is the one he created for the Eisenstein Cine Club (ECC). Founded on 14 February 1981, the club became the meeting ground for film-makers who supported and promoted socially responsible cinema, especially those from the erstwhile Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Incidentally, Ray was its first president. The logo itself is a play of geometrical shapes around the acronym ECC. It breaks up the letter “E” into two half circles, flanked on both sides by the two “Cs”, which are already semi-circular in shape. It utilises the concept of harnessing the affective value of the circular/semi-circular shape that normally hints at the ideas related to integration, unity, wholeness and completion. The interlocked half-circles may also vaguely signify arms holding each other in an act of creative cohesion that forms the ideological basis for the existence of the club itself.
Ray literally used to make the posters in the conventional 30x40-inch dimension himself. He would buy 30x40-inch cartridge paper from G.C. Laha’s shop (a famous artist shop at Esplanade, Kolkata), place it on the wall or on the ground and make the design. That would be printed directly—a hand-crafted, finished artwork. In addition, two 30x40-inch posters would be created—one in litho, another in silk-screen.
I have a soft spot for the Charulata poster where Ray draws the profile of the eponymous heroine in a single black, bold brushstroke on rough handmade paper. The Bengali calligraphy of Charulata in dark maroon (complemented by the bindi of the same colour on Charu’s forehead) is decorative, with a motif of hand-sewn border work adorning its base. The poster has everything that makes Ray a standout cerebral designer—strong and bold flowing lines within optimum negative space in order to give shape, symmetry and balance to a big idea.
Booklet and folder designs
Film booklets and folders are now a thing of the past. However, these were an essential part of film promotion during Ray’s time. Ray designed each and every film booklet from Pather Panchali to Agantuk. In his case, the booklets were simultaneously produced for the regional (in Bengali) and international (in English and sometimes, in French and German) audience. However, they are radically different from each other in terms of layout and imagery which means that Ray conceived them as stand-alone designs. In the English folder of Parash Pathar, the circular dot of the exclamation mark (alternatively divided into gold and black colour down the middle) contains the profile of the protagonist Paresh Chandra Dutta, evoking the sense of wonder and disbelief that marks his rags-to-riches journey in the film.
The Bengali booklet cover of Kanchenjungha is a classic example of Ray’s minimalism. Ray channels his calligraphic genius to create a pictogram of Kanchenjungha as letters take the shape of the mountain peak while the accompanying sentences crawl around to hint at a hilly terrain. The alternate use of a yellow-white combination in the letters that spell out “Kanchenjunga” implies the interplay of sun and mist that dominates the palette of the film. It is contrasted with the stunning use of deep blue as the background colour.
One of the least discussed areas in the oeuvre of Ray’s design is the exquisite, hand-drawn title cards that display the credit-roll of various people associated with the making of that particular film. In Sonar Kella, for example, the entire sequence of title cards imitates sketches made by a child depicting various scenes from the story. Everything from calligraphy to crayon marks recreates the messy spontaneity of a child! The moment those illustrations flash across the screen, we plunge headlong into the world of the child protagonist, Mukul.
My personal favourite remains the beautiful title cards of Kanchenjungha—a sequence of 12 drawings, painted and written by the master. The credit-roll is in Bengali, handwritten in a cleverly disguised Tibetanised form of the Bengali script. The attention to details is stunning—note especially the vowel-markers. The film is set in Darjeeling, within sight of the mountain whose name provides the title of the film and where the Tibetan and Bengali scripts naturally coincide. The soft watercolour sketches accompanying the text refer to the imagery of the film, humorously showing vignettes of a Bengali family on holiday in the company of local people—the relationships between them constitute the subject of the film.
Pinaki De is a graphic illustrator and designer, who has designed The Pather Panchali Sketchbook, Travails With The Alien and the forthcoming Three Rays.