The Visual Language of Satyajit Ray

On his 100th birth anniversary, a look back on how the filmmaker redefined Indian graphic design long before he changed how the world looked at cinema.

Bedatri D. Choudhury

May 12, 2021

The Visual Language of Satyajit Ray
Satyajit Ray (Nemai Ghosh, National Gallery of Modern Art Archives)

Over the years, Satyajit Ray’s brilliance as a filmmaker has remained unparalleled and unquestioned. But his talent wasn’t always recognized. The New York Times notoriously called his first film, Pather Panchali (1955) — which would go on to win 11 international awards, including at Cannes — a “rambling and random tour of an Indian village [with] a baffling mosaic of candid and crude domestic scenes” and “quite exotic.” The reviewer even called out Ray on the “ample indication that this is his first professional motion picture job” and on how the film’s “English subtitles barely make some sense.” Undeterred — Ray notoriously said he made movies for Indians, not the West — he would go on to make 36 films as well as win 32 Indian National Film Awards, a Golden Lion, an honorary Oscar in 1992, and the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award.

But Ray’s legacy isn’t limited to heralding New Wave cinema in India and introducing it to the world. Ray had an eye for visual art, which visibly shaped his storytelling aesthetic — some argue that his height (he was 6’ 4”) also contributed to his unique perspective. Ray was not only a filmmaker, but also a graphic designer, scriptwriter, typographer, magazine editor, lyricist, ad executive, author, music composer, film essayist, and calligrapher. As a junior visualizer for the British-run advertising agency D.J. Keymer in India, and later as the book designer for Signet Press, Ray redefined Indian graphic design long before he changed how the world looked at cinema. He would have turned 100 this month, on May 2.

Amritah Sen, a Kolkata-based artist, knew Satyajit Ray, the magazine editor before she knew Ray as a filmmaker. “Our generation grew up reading Sandesh and seeing Ray’s illustrations. That’s how I knew him,” Sen told The Juggernaut. Diptanshu Ray, an ad professional who helped design the first website for the Satyajit Ray Archives, also read Sandesh, the children’s magazine launched by Ray’s grandfather, Upendra Kishore Ray Chaudhuri. Satyajit Ray revived the magazine in 1961, which Diptanshu Ray credits for feeding his creative imagination as a child and “instilling in him a passion for typography.” Sen echoed his sentiments, “You could say he trained us to look at things: the angles in his illustrations, the narrative he laid out. He taught us to notice the smallest details.”