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Essay

The Kaleidoscopic World of Satyajit Ray

By Anasuya Bhar

Satyajit Ray in New York. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The last year and a half has seen exhaustive commemoration of the works Satyajit Ray (1921 – 92) as it marked his birth centenary. To us in India and to the world in general, Satyajit is now revered as a filmmaker, primarily. He has become a myth and a legend in the art of filmmaking, so much so that Akira Kurosawa has pleaded that the ignorance of the former’s art is comparable to not having seen the sun or the moon. Nevertheless, it would be highly unjust to his artistic persona if we study him merely as a film maker. He was a polymath intellectual who was versatile in several arts, where literature, visual art and music were only among a few of his talents apart from cinema. Satyajit had re-invented himself severally, in various times of his life and career.

The Beginnings

Born to the illustrious and talented family of the Rays of Gorpar in north Kolkata, Satyajit was grandson to Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (1863 – 1915) and the only son of Sukumar Ray (1887 – 1923), whom unfortunately Satyajit lost, when he was merely two and a half years old. The vein of versatility ran high in the family. Upendrakishore distinguished himself as a pioneer in the art of photography and later also in printing technology. In fact, to him we owe the science of half-tone printing and photography. His research papers were published in the prestigious Penrose journals of England. Upendrakishore also distinguished himself as a writer of children’s literature and published not only in Bengali journals like Mukul, Sakha and Sathi (in the nineteenth century), but also founded his own magazine for children in 1913, by the name Sandesh – a name indicative, not only, for a Bengali sweet meat, but also for information and news. Sukumar Ray was primarily a student of science, with a double B.A in Chemistry and Physics honours from Presidency College Kolkata. He, however, went to England to study Printing Technology with the long term goal that he would assist his father in their own press, U. Ray and Sons. Sukumar too, got his research papers published in prestigious scientific journals. He was in England at a time when Rabindranath Tagore, too, had made his visit in 1912 and was a witness to some of the poet’s reading of his poems from Gitanjali (1912) in the company of many influential people in that country. Sukumar returned to Kolkata and was compelled to take up the editorship of Sandesh from 1915, after the death of his father. Sukumar had already started the ‘Nonsense Club’ and his hand written journal Share Batrish Bhaja (Thirty-two and a half Fried Savories) even before he went to England. The vein of the ‘nonsense’ tradition only perfected itself after his return; his own poetry and prose began to see the light of day from the time he began to edit Sandesh. However, and rather unfortunately, his life and career too, came to an abrupt end in 1923. It was only a few years after this that the magazine Sandesh closed down.

Satyajit Ray was largely brought up in his maternal uncle’s home in Ballygunge, from where he completed his schooling at Ballygunge Government School and attained his B.A in Economics (Honours) from Presidency College Kolkata. His mother Suprabha Devi, preferred that Satyajit follow up his education under the guidance of ‘gurudev’ Tagore and hence cajoled him to join Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan in the year 1940. The reluctant Satyajit actually wanted to study ‘commercial art’, but was denied that opportunity in Santiniketan. Nevertheless, he was struck with the brilliance of Nandalal Bose and Binodebehari Mukhopadhyay, whom he got as his mentors in Kala Bhavana. Satyajit was steeped in the nuances of western art, music, films and books; ever since his childhood he was an avid listener of western classical music and a keen viewer of foreign films as they appeared in erstwhile Calcutta.

Santiniketan, for the first time, afforded a glimpse of the beauty of rural Bengal, a gift that he would utilise later when he would make films. While here, Satyajit still felt restless and left after completing only over two years of the course. He returned to Kolkata and joined the advertising firm of D. J Keymar in 1942 as Junior Visualizer, where D.K. Gupta was then Assistant Manager. Among his colleagues were the talented artist Annada Munshi and the younger O.C. Ganguli and Makhan Dutta Gupta. It may be mentioned here that Satyajit, at that point, was rather keen on getting a job and procuring an independent residence for himself and his mother. The scourge of having to labour without a father was quite evident. In 1943, the Signet Press was founded by D. K. Gupta and Satyajit was assigned several books to design. Thus began a career in book designing, which marks an interesting chapter in his artistic career.

The Composite Artist

Satyajit Ray has designed as many as over 300 book covers. The repertoire of Ray book covers is extensive and varied; he continued to remain a composite and wholistic artist throughout the span of his career when he evolved as a writer, mainly for children, even while continuing to make films. He designed books for a host of writers beginning with Sukumar Ray to Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, to Premendra Mitra, Jibanananda Das, to Lila Majumdar, while he worked for Signet, and later even for other publishers. Each of these covers were aesthetic statements linking themselves to the themes and the content within. The frontispiece as well as the illustrations inside, ranged from the linocut / woodcut designs to fine lines and geometric solid shapes. Each one of these designs proved beyond doubt his versatility, talent and uniqueness of vision. Some of Ray’s book covers found pride of place in internationally reputed journals like the Graphis (in 1950).

Book cover by Satyajit Ray from personal collection

Ray’s artistry found new space in the covers of Ekshan, a Bengali bi-monthly periodical edited by Nirmalya Acharya and actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay between 1961 and 1995. The periodical died an untimely death after the demise of Nirmalya Acharya. Satyajit designed several of its covers and each one of them is a masterpiece of visual jugglery. There are three letters in the title and Ray seems to act as a visual conjuror of these three letters using various planes, letterings, geometry and even characteristics of various art forms.

Ekshan journal, Photograph from Frontline Ray Commemorative Issue, November 2021

The 1950s saw Ray totally emerged in films and his own maiden attempt at a directorial venture took shape in 1955, with Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) Ray also designed his film posters, title cards and even fliers, apart from writing the screenplay himself. Later, he also graduated to composing his own music and writing his own stories; seldom do we see such a versatile artist.

It may be pointed out here that while we keenly study the various facets of Satyajit Ray, he was not alone in diversifying the art of design and illustration in books. One may mention here the works of Purnendu Patri, Pranabesh Maity and several others whose works are significantly remarkable in the history of book making. As mentioned earlier, Satyajit has constantly re-invented and adapted himself to the changing face of time. This has allowed him to survive several cultural and historical changes.

The Writer

Satyajit began writing consistently from his fortieth year, somewhat out of necessity. Before that he wrote sporadically. That year, 1961, saw the revival of the children’s magazine Sandesh under the entrepreneurship of Ray and his poet-friend Subhas Mukhopadhyay. The magazine, inactive since the thirties, saw a new lease of life when Ray and Mukhopadhyay decided to revive it in 1961. They were also the editors of the new Sandesh. Ray designed most of its covers and like the various letterings of Ekshan, he juggled with the masthead of Sandesh as well.

The magazine continues to be among the leading children’s magazines till date and is currently being edited by Sandip Ray, Satyajit’s son. In the first issue of the new Sandesh, published in May 1961, Satyajit decided to translate some of Edward Lear’s The Jumblies into Bengali, simply as a gesture of participation. The second issue of the magazine carried his first short story in Bengali along with his own illustration. That marked the beginning of a series intriguing literature primarily published in the pages of Sandesh in a Bengali that is modern, contemporary, smart, and attractive to the young and inquiring minds of children. Some of his works were also published in Anandamela, another children’s magazine in Bengali and Target, a children’s magazine in English, which was quite popular in the 1980s. The latter mostly published Ray in English translation, mostly made by himself. Some of his English translations were anthologised in Stories, published by Secker and Warburg in 1987. There are many more translations of Satyajit now available in English; those of the adventures of Feluda and Professor Shonku, and Fotikchand and many others are also published by Penguin.    

Satyajit Ray’s books were a staple to the children of the eighties in the last century. Most of us then, welcomed our teenage with the scientific adventures of Professor Shonku and those of the private investigator Prodosh Mitter alias Feluda. These books were the repository of a variety of knowledge – one emerged cleverer and better enriched after regaling oneself with the exhilarating laboratory experiments of Shonku, while on the other hand, one cajoled one’s brains with the cerebral magic of Feluda. For children like us, Ray’s identity as a filmmaker came second to his writing, as we understood less of that art in that age. In fact, his stories were a rage among our contemporaries then, and we marvelled at his plots, along with his accurate illustrations and cover designs, all of which made him a supreme artist-figure in our childhood. There were also occasions when we connected his films on children with respect to his books. Hence, the adventure tales around the ‘golden castle’ (Sonar Kella, 1974) or those around in Benaras (Joy Baba Felunath, 1978), were only a derivative of what we perused in the books of the same names.

The Ray Generation

It would, perhaps, not be wrong to say that Ray’s writing created a brand in the genre of children’s literature. As contemporary and the immediate consumers of his books, some of us identify a part of our childhood with the Ray literature. He was a master in the handling of the bizarre and the fantastic, the investigative crime thrillers and also the evolution of the science fiction. Again, Ray may not be said to be a pioneer in any of these genres, but he made them highly palatable and attractive to the young minds. One would be guilty of falsification if one does not mention Sukumar Ray himself, or Hemendrakumar Ray and Premendra Mitra, who made, perhaps, the earliest forages into the art of the bizarre, the supernatural or the sci-fi in their own times and generations.

Satyajit Ray’s repertoire as a writer for children is extensive. He is credited to have composed thirty-eight adventures of Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku. In him, Ray creates a familiar Bengali with extraordinary scholarliness who was once a teacher in Scottish Church College Kolkata, but now resides in Giridi. Although his only companions are now his valet Prahlad and pet cat Newton, he has an elaborate family history which the author creates as a back drop for his readers. Professor Shonku’s various travel destinations offer extensive scope for young minds to travel within the safety of their homes. In creating the several marvels of science Satyajit must have surely drawn extensively from the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells as well as The Chariot of the Gods (1968) by Erich von Dӓniken – works with which he must have been familiar ever since his childhood. Scholars also propound similarities between Professor Challenger of Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World) and Professor Shonku. However, there is also reason to believe that Professor Shonku has a distant antecedent in the character of Professor Hushiyar (Heshoram Hushiyerer Diary) created by Sukumar Ray. With time, of course, Shonku evolves as a more serious and responsible, internationally acclaimed scientist. Ray had also wanted to make a film on aliens, with a sound background on science fiction, but this dream remained unexecuted. The first ever film on Professor Shonku was made by his son in 2019.

The Private Investigator Mr. Prodosh C Mitter first made his appearance in the arena of Bengali detective fiction in the year 1965. The Bengali readership was already accustomed to private detectives created by Niharranjan Ray (Kiriti Ray) and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (Byomkesh Bakshi) before Ray launched the career of Feluda, who emerged as a highly identifiable neighbourhood man with his nephew and assistant Topshe and their elderly writer-friend Jatayu. One may again mark the presence of other detectives in contemporary literature like Kakababu (Sunil Gangopadhyay), Gogol (Samaresh Basu) and the boy group of Pandava Goyenda (created by Sasthipada Chattopadhyay), which were also available to the young readers along with the adventures of Feluda. All of them were simultaneously popular among contemporary children, although Ray scored higher because of his razor sharp intelligence and complete artistic and aesthetic package that his books offered. Some, made into films, made him the most popular among children and adults alike. Apart from his series characters like Shonku or Feluda, Ray has created a host of other characters in numerous short stories and novellas, over a period of thirty years or more. There is, quite interestingly, very little adult fiction written by Satyajit, with the exceptions of Nayak (The Hero, 1966), Kanchenjunga (1962) and Pikoo’s Diary (1980), all of which have been made into films.

Ray as Translator and maker of Children’s Films

Ray distinguished himself as a translator as well. The first major translation done by Satyajit Ray was, perhaps, those of a selection of Sukumar Ray’s Aabol Taabol (‘Nonsense Verse’, 1923). About ten such poems were translated / trans-created in the pages of a radical weekly called Now, edited by Samar Sen during 1967-69. These poems were then noticed by P. Lal of Writers Workshop, a pioneering publishing enterprise which patronised (and still does), Indian writing in English, since 1958. They were brought forth as an independent collection by this house in much admiration for Satyajit’s skill in rhyme and meter, in 1970. The edition has remained a popular one and has recently suffered alterations in the fourth corrected and expanded edition in 2019. The text is also prescribed for study in a course on Popular Literature in the undergraduate syllabus of the University of Calcutta, since 2018.

Satyajit also translated some works of Upendrakishore along with other works of Sukumar into English in various times of his career. These are now available with the translations of his own works, in a compendious edition titled 3 Rays (Penguin Books, 2021) and edited by Sandip Ray.According to Sandip Ray, these were mostly done with a view to popularise the works outside Bengal and to a larger audience, mostly as recreational activities, which Satyajit undertook between the shooting of his films.

In 1969, Satyajit Ray directed Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a novella originally written by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury about two rustic simpletons Goopy and Bagha and their careers in music. The occasion was the birth centenary of Upendrakishore and was a result of requests from his teenaged son Sandip, to create something for children. The film was an improvement on the literary text, and continues to be a marvel in the study of the fantastic, given the limited means with which it was produced. Satyajit introduced in the film a dance – the sequence of the ghosts’ dancing – which remains a marvel of cinematography and an example of ingenuous thinking, intelligent editing and deft execution within a limited budget. As always, Satyajit creates a family pattern for Goopy and Bagha, too. They re-appear after a hiatus of ten years in Hirok Rajar Deshe (1980). By this time, the duo has earned fame as extraordinary performers, with magical powers to transfix their listeners and with uncanny powers to unravel the mysteries of state politics. On the domestic front, they are also married to princesses as well as proud fathers.  Hirok Rajar Deshe or ‘The Land of the Diamond King’ is a study on an ugly regime of totalitarianism, where almost all are being brainwashed to worship a power hungry king. The film may be identified as a political satire under the garb of entertainment for children, where good eventually overcomes evil. Satyajit makes extensive use of fantasy and magic as well as creates a world where science is being used to destroy the good sense of people. It is the musical duo of Goopy and Bagha who re-affirm good sense and sanity in an anarchic and dystopian state. The duo returns in Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (Return of Goopy Bagha, 1991) and the setting now is influenced more by a sense of science fiction and fantasy. The last film of the trilogy was directed by Sandip Ray, who re-affirms his presence in a cyclical and metaphorical ‘coming of age’ marking himself as a filmmaker.

The cover page of the Commemorative Calendar celebrating 50 years of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

The enormity of the Satyajit Ray papers, letters, manuscripts, posters, notebooks, sketches, as well as his film prints are now being collectively maintained and conserved by the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives. The Society also organises regular lectures and exhibitions and looks to the publication of books on the maestro. It is significant that Penguin India has decided to dedicate a whole collection of books on Ray as ‘The Penguin Ray Library’. One must not fail to acknowledge the scholarship and hard work of his son Sandip Ray and Satyajit-scholars like Debashis Mukhopadhyay and Pinaki De, who mesmerise with their encyclopaedic knowledge on the master. The past year and half have seen innumerable lectures and scholarly interactions on Ray where the two have shone independently. The present author stands in awe of their scholarship.

( Note: All the photographs used in this article are taken by the author, except the one licensed under creative commons.)

References

  1. Frontline – ‘The World of Ray: A Commemorative Issue’, November 5, 2021
  2. Ray, Sandip (ed.). 3 Rays: Stories from Satyajit Ray. New Delhi: The Penguin Ray Library, 2021.
  3. Ray, Sandip (ed.). Sandesh. Festival Numbers 2020 and 2021. Commemorative issues on Satyajit Ray entitled ‘Satyajit 100’. Kolkata.
  4. Ray, Satyajit (trans.). Nonsense Rhymes – Sukumar Ray. Kolkata: Writers Worshop, 2019.
  5. Ray, Satyajit. Shera Satyajit. Kolkata: Ananda Publisher’s Private Limited, 1991.
  6. Robinson, Andrew. Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye – The Biography of a Master Film-Maker. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1989.

Dr. Anasuya Bhar teaches English at St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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