The filmmaker in Satyajit Ray was stronger indebted to the illustrator in him. Ray became a great filmmaker, and made films from 1955 onwards, because he was a great artist first.
I will not call him a 100 per cent modernist, but you can see modernist influence in his works, seamlessly blended with the decorative Oriental style of painting. You can also see the influences of the Ajanta and Ellora style. Ray was well informed about the various Indian folk styles and in his drawings you see a lot of traditional day-to-day rangolis, known as the alpana or the patachtira style of painting.
His family background also helped. Both his father (Sukumar Ray) and grandfather (Upendrakishore Ray) were pioneers and authors and they even owned a printing press named U Ray and Sons. That must have given the young Satyajit the opportunity to get acquainted with the process of making printing blocks, block printing and block carving techniques. It is an important and integral part of art making, and you usually get to learn these techniques when you study in an art college.
Seeing the world
In 1940, he joined Rabindranath Tagore’s Vishva Bharati University at Shantiniketan, where he studied art under Nandalal Bose and Binode Behari Mukherjee. This stint also gave Ray the opportunity to experience the rural life of Bengal that would go on to play a major role in his movies. Ray’s life in Shantiniketan and its surroundings find a strong reflection in films like Pather Panchali (1955) and Apur Sansar (1959).
Some of the scenes of Spielberg’s ET are eerily similar to the sketches Ray had done for his unproduced sci-fi film, The Alien!
In fact, Ray started his career as a junior visualiser at D J Keymer, a British-run advertising agency. Later, he moved to D K Gupta’s newly-opened publishing house, the Signet Press. His stint at Signet Press, which resulted in some of his best book covers, was the place where seeds of Pather Panchali were sown when he illustrated a children’s version of the classic Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. In fact, when he made the film, he sketched all the sequences, instead of writing them!
Reading transforms into words which then transform into imageries which lead to the creation of a movie. As a block printer and sketching artist, he would often first draw those images on paper before turning them into a movie. That made him an illustrator in the truest sense. His daily practices as an artist made him the great filmmaker he was. You can see that also from the way he framed his shots.
From illustrating book covers and film posters to creating typography, Ray was an artist in the true sense of the word
The man, his art
Then there are his film posters, which have influences of Russian poster making, and are great examples of his mastery over typography and calligraphy. He was a real reader of typography; he created four of his own types which won him awards. And he was an excellent calligrapher. Calligraphy is a kind of real drawing and great painting starts from great drawing. For example, look at the poster of Devi or even the portrait of Karl Marx. Also, if you see his self-portraits you will realise that he was constantly experimenting and using his pen and pencil in different stylisations. Even his sketches of Feluda are kind of self-portraits. It is amazing how he created a persona of himself and became part of the stories he wrote.
Then there were his sci-fi books and their illustrations. I don’t want to get into the controversy surrounding the issue, but some of the scenes of Spielberg’s ET are eerily similar to the sketches Ray had done for his unproduced sci-fi film, The Alien!
Ray initiated the first film society in Kolkata in 1948. He was interested in introducing new cinema to the community. More than two decades of Ray’s carved and sculpted exceptionally attractive looks and life have been captured by Nemai Ghosh who visited my studio a decade ago and discussed his photography on Ray.
Ray was a naturalist and poetic artist-film maker.
(As told to Ananya Ghosh)
Bose Krishnamachari is an artist and founder of the Kochi Biennale
This is Part Two of a series of essays celebrating the legendary filmmaker, Satyajit Ray. Next week’s tribute is by Gulzar.
From HT Brunch, June 21, 2020
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