It would indeed be a daunting task to situate Ray in his own art. What critics and his biographers can achieve is an insight into the creative genius of Ray.
Ray’s exposure to the masters, Nandalal Bose and Benod Behari Mukherjee at Shantiniketan made his perceptions more profound. As a graphic designer, he would first conceive of an
idea, almost always as an image, then explore its inner significance, and then give it a realistic shape and form, finally corroborating it with the original image he had in mind, be it for a book cover or an illustration for a story or a film poster.
Ray was able to achieve such a nuanced and penetrating vision because he intensely conceived every shot to probe its interior and then sketched it out. Then he gave it a film form. As an illustrator, book cover and poster designer, ad designer, typographer and costume designer, his creative reach was beyond imagination.
He brought a new wave in Indian commerial art. He added a remarkably innovative and creative aesthetic form and spirit to it. He also revolutionized book jacket design and typography. While working as a graphic artist and visualizer in Calcutta, he grew as a creative person.
Ray’s film art was profoundly influenced by this early experience with graphic art. During his filmmaking days, the designer in him played a vital role. He sketched the scenes of his films like Eisenstein or Hitchcock, but he did it more out of budget constraints but the artist in him also craved to create the perfect frames before shooting. Ray always produced something out of nothing which according to Aristotle is the principle behind the creation of the universe. And Ray left us a rich legacy of artistic creations that became timeless.
A prolific illustrator, Ray mastered his own unique style which we have come to love. As a youngster Ray learnt painting and graphic art for two years and five months at the Tagore University in Shantiniketan. He learnt to wield his brush with amazing dexterity. He learnt the value of using brush strokes in various thicknesses for one composition. Sometimes his brushing became coarse and harsh full of restless energetic straight lines, sometimes his lines flowed lyrically.
He illustrated his book covers, film posters, children’s books, billboards, publicity material and even the title cards.
Ray revolutionized the book cover designing in India. Renouncing the clean formality of the British style of jacket designing, he was the first Indian artist who experimented with a style of brushing that was entirely Indian. His easy brush strokes, pointed or broad was the hallmark of his jacket designs in the early phase of his career as an artist. But his training as a graphic artist in Shantiniketan and the inspiration he found from his art teachers, Bose and Mukherjee, started him on a journey that found expression in various styles and designs. At every stage he re-emerged as a designer, and breaking boundaries he became a legend.
His characteristic style made it possible for him to create masterpiece artworks for Signet Press. It was for this publishing house that Ray designed the cover of the abridged Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay novel Pather Panchali, that went on to become the inspiration for his magnum opus.
Ray exploited his full potential as a graphic designer by creating his own film posters. His skill in calligraphy, illustrations and his training as an artist helped him in expanding his horizon as a film poster designer. There are a large number of such posters in the Ray Family Archive in Kolkata which were restored by Ray Society. He introduced new typefaces both in English and Bengali. Using modern European techniques and traditional Indian and Asian forms he created a unique fusion in poster art.
After Ray had finished his college education, his mother felt it was too early for him to look for work. Wanting to be a commercial artist he studied oriental art in Shantiniketan for over two years. He came back and met the Bengali manager of a British advertising agency D.J. Keymer.
He was asked “to visualize a series of six ads for an imaginary product”. Ray sketched the ads for a perfume and illustrated them with brush drawings “to go with the copy”. These were the first ever ads created by him which got him a job of a junior graphic designer with a monthly pay of Rs 65 (less than the Indian equivalent of one pound now). Ray went on to design some extraordinary artworks that brought him fame and recognition in the advertising community. Out of his ads the Paludrine series (having the caption Sunday is Paludrine Day) that he did in 1949 for ICI, a paint manufacturing compan , still holds a special place in our hearts.
Ray's interest in typography did not actually start with metallic letters used for printing but with calligraphy done with a thick brush.
The flamboyance of Ray's calligraphic typography first attracted people's attention in 1943, the year he started designing the covers for Bengali books published by Signet Press. He also designed advertisements for new publications to fill the very small spaces he got in the yellowish pages of the well-liked periodicals printed in newsprint.
The young Ray, in his mid 20s, often had to design collections of modern Bengali poems. For the covers he found no metallic type suitable enough to go with the moods of the poems. Therefore he depended almost entirely on his own skills for calligraphy. Ray created many new Bengali typefaces which have refreshingly innovative yet perfectly legible form.
The typefaces designed by Ray may be classified into two different streams: architectural (replicable) and calligraphic (non-replicable).
Ray designed architectural typefaces for the titles or logos that would be repeated for a given period in all the issues of periodicals, including Sandesh, the children’s magazine he edited. On the other hand, he quite often designed calligraphic letterings for the frontispieces that would be printed only once.
Ray created only four Roman fonts (Ray Roman, Ray Bizarre, Daphnis and Holiday Script), while he created numerous new fonts in Bengali.
Daphnis is partially architectural. The upper parts of the letters are architectural, while the lower parts are not. Ray Bizarre too is partly architectural for the same reason. Holiday Script looks like an accidental creation in a game played among friends during a picnic.
Ray is the first and possibly the only designer of typefaces in Bengal who inspired an entire community to love the beauty of the letters of their mother tongue. One of the reasons for the Bengali's love of reading is their ability to appreciate the beauty the Ray typography.
Ray maintained red cloth bound books (Kheror Khata) where he sketched his designs for cinematography, art direction and editing. He designed slides, posters, booklets, titles, billboards, publicity material and everything post production required. His genius found expression in the carefully designed costumes for his characters. The most significant costumes that he designed were for his children’s films Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopi and Bagha) and Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds).
He sketched in great detail the costumes of his folklore characters Goopey, Bagha, King of Shundi, the ministers of King of Diamonds, the Chief Minister, the magician, the guards and the sycophant. He designed in great detail the magical slippers that Goopey and Bagha used.
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