18 November 2012

Pen, Ink, Action

An example of Satyajit Ray's artwork for Seemabaddha (Company Limited), 1974
A long review essay I did on the graphic art of Satyajit Ray, in the November issue of Caravan:

"NOT TO HAVE SEEN THE CINEMA OF RAY means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon,” Akira Kurosawa once said—rather an overblown compliment, but my adult self would end up agreeing. However, to the Bengali child—or even a half-Bengali one like me, who grew up between cities and languages—Satyajit Ray meant much more than his films. His prolific output as a writer and illustrator, targeted largely at children and young adults, forged a very different connection with young Bangla readers than the ‘serious’ cinema for which he is known worldwide. And though I read Bangla slowly, my father, patiently reading aloud to me through family holidays and long train journeys, made sure I was introduced to Ray through his stories—and, because I would first hungrily flip through the books that were going to be read to me—through his illustrations.

These black-and-white illustrations spanned the whole range of his popular literary creations—the detective Pradosh C Mitter, whose crisply Anglicised surname is the perfect foil for the informal Bengali daaknaam by which he is better known, Feluda; the eccentric scientist Professor Shonku, whose unbelievable globetrotting sci-fi adventures come to us via a diary discovered after he’s taken off in a space rocket; and old Tarini Khuro (uncle), whose fantastic tales, traversing romantic historical settings from colonial Lucknow to the palaces of penurious Maharajas, are invariably told over a steaming cup of tea, with his younger self cast in a starring role. Illustrations also appeared alongside the many independent short stories, published 12 at a time in anthologies bearing names like Aaro Baaro (Twelve More) and Aaro Ek Dojon (And Another Dozen).

As a child who did not otherwise read Bangla fiction, I was captivated by Ray’s universe. It gave me access to a Bengali cultural landscape that was familiar, yet one I could never be part of. One reason for that was simply that I was a girl—whether it was Feluda and his companions, the middle-aged mystery writer Lalmohan Babu and the teenaged Topshe, or Uncle Tarini, or Professor Shonku, the action in Ray’s stories centred exclusively around men and boys. (The one-off stories, too, almost without exception, featured male protagonists. A Ratan Babu or Sadhan Babu or Barin Babu, invariably a single Bengali man with a middle-class job, would encounter something out of the ordinary, usually while on a trip to some smallish town not far from Calcutta, often located in what is now Jharkhand: Netarhat, Ranchi, Madhupur.) But with these very different fictional men as guides (not to mention my father, who functioned as a sort of supra-guide), I could glide in and out of a very particular Bengali masculine world in which adda and sightseeing holidays—arguably the two favourite Bengali pastimes— became actual take-off points for adventure.

Ray invariably illustrated all his stories himself. His illustrations ranged from the simplest, most basic line drawings to more elaborate sketches with a lot of cross-hatching. In the latter type of drawing, Ray’s dramatic—or perhaps we should say cinematic—sensibility emerged in his frequent use of light and shade techniques: his illustrated characters are constantly being lit up or thrown into shadow. His style was cinematic in another way, too. He loved drawing a scene like a point-of-view shot: one character barely seen, either in profile or from behind-the-shoulder, while the focus is on the character he (and it was always a he) was speaking to or looking at or spying on.

(Piece continues...)

Read the whole essay here.

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