Celebrated Indian filmmaker, music composer, lyricist, illustrator, and author (among much else), Satyajit Ray was born 100 years ago today, 2nd May 1921. While Ray is most remembered for his films, he had many many talents. This post is going to be all about his contributions to the literary world, and these were not only through his writings.

Satyajit Ray in New York, via Wikimedia Commons, Dinu Alam Newyork, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ray was born in Calcutta to Sukumar and Suprabha Ray. He came from a very talented family; his father Sukumar was a writer and poet, and his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray was a writer and painter (One of Ray’s commercially successful films, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, the Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, a singer and musician who are bestowed with boons by the king of Ghosts, was based on a children’s story by Upendrakishore). Ray’s father died when he was only three, and he was brought up by his mother. He studied at Government High School, Calcutta, Presidency College, and then the Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, founded by Rabindranath Tagore. Ray started his career working in an advertising agency and then went on to design covers for books at a publishers, Signet Press, in Calcutta.

As an author, Ray wrote a range of short stories and story collections, many for younger readers, and also translated English works into Bengali, among them Lewis Carroll’s Jaberwocky and a short story from Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Among Ray’s best known creations is the sleuth Feluda. Pradosh Chandra Mitra or Feluda is twenty-seven and adept at martial arts. But he solves mysteries not using his strength but his analytical skills. In his adventures, he is usually accompanied by his young cousin, Tapash Ranjan Mitra or Topshe and from the sixth adventure by detective-story writer Lalmohan Ganguly or ‘Jatayu’, who brings a comic element into the tales. Feluda was inspired by Sherlock Holmes whom Ray admired. The first adventure appeared in 1965. There are 39 Feluda stories, which have plenty of adventure and take us to different destinations including Kathmandu and London. The stories have been adapted into films and for television, a couple of which were directed by Ray himself. Some others were directed by his son. Sandip Ray.

Satyajit Ray’s other famous creation is Trilokeswar Shonku or Professor Shonku who appears in a set of science fiction stories. Professor Shonku lives with a servant Prahlad and a cat, Newton, who is 24. Professor Shonku was a child prodigy and speaks 69 languages, and was based on Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger. He has several fascinating inventions to his credit (including an air conditioning pill, a remembrain, and a space food for cats), and his adventures take him to real and fantastical places–including to Tibet in search of a unicorn and the Gobi Desert tracking a UFO.

Among several other stories by Ray were spooky stories (Tarini Khuro) and stories featuring the middle eastern philosopher Mulla Nassruddin, remembered for his wit. Ray also wrote his memoirs and an anthology of film criticism.

Besides writing and translation, Ray was also an illustrator, having learnt painting and art at Santiniketan. He illustrated book covers, children’s books, movie posters, and publicity material. As the Satyajit Ray World Website notes, ‘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.’

Ray is also credited with designing the logo of one of India’s largest publishers and distributors, Rupa Publications, which began its journey in Calcutta (find the publisher’s site here–I’m not sure if I can share the actual logo). He also designed the packets for Wills Navy Cut Cigarettes (source).

And if that wasn’t talent enough, Ray was also a calligrapher and depended on his own calligraphy for covers of modern Bengali poetry collections for which he could find no suitable metallic typeface (source). Ray is credited with creating numerous Bengali typefaces. And his talents weren’t confined to Bengali alone. He also created four typefaces in English, Ray Roman, Ray Bizarre, Daphnis, and Holiday Script. (More about his talents as a caligrapher here).

Ray’s English Fonts, image source: https://www.freepressjournal.in/cmcm/knowing-the-lesser-known-side-of-satyajit-ray-the-godfather-of-indian-cinema

When I started writing this (once again, rather last minute) post on Ray, I knew about some of his books and also that he had illustrated the Feluda stories. But reading about him I was awestruck by just how talented he was. The aspects I have highlighted here are just to do with the literary world. Besides this he was also a critically acclaimed filmmaker, music composer, screenwriter, and also designed posters and material for his films. A truly fascinating person.

Have you ever watched any of Ray’s movies or come across his books or other works? Which ones and how did you find them? Looking forward to your thoughts!

For this post I mainly relied on Wikipedia (here, here and here), the website of Satyajit Ray world (here), and a couple of articles (here and here).

4 thoughts on “Centenary Post: The Many Facets of Satyajit Ray

  1. This is absolutely fascinating! What a polymath! Filmmaking, illustrating, writing in several genres, designing typography, and doubtless more. No, though I’m aware of the name I’ve not seen any of his films. But if he designed for Navy Cut I can’t find any reference other than the one you give. The original designs were from the 19th century of course, so perhaps he designed for the Indian market? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Player%27s_Navy_Cut

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    1. A couple of other articles refer to the cigarette pack design:

      “Which is how Satyajit Ray, son of Sukumar and Suprabha, who made a few decent movies later on in life, apparently ended up designing the ubiquitous white and red Wills Navy Cut cigarette packet for Imperial Tobacco while working at D.J. Keymer.” (https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/t1Cfg02YMjpNc34AGBRa1N/Smoke-and-Mirrors.html)

      Few know that he worked in the ad industry and designed the original red and white elegant pack of Wills Navy Cut cigarette. (https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/features/romancing-ray-once-more-784111)

      Honestly I haven’t seen any of his more serious cinema either but I did see the set of fantasy films–Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and its sequels, and the Feluda mysteries.

      I was astounded myself by the sheer range of things he could do and did.

      I will try and review some of the mysteries, may be one of the collected volumes as soon as I can. I was also pleasantly surprised to find his father had written one of the first volumes of nonsense writing in Bengali. There is an English version available which I am keen to explore as well.

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      1. My guess was correct: the pack Satyajit Ray designed was for the Indian market when they launched a filter version of the brand first created by the Wills firm in Bristol:
        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wills_Navy_Cut

        I’m familiar with the old Navy Cut packaging, not only because I used to live in Bristol, but because the image of the old naval sailor within a life belt was so distinctive. The legacy of the Wills firm lives on in Bristol even though the company itself is defunct: the city’s University Tower is named after the family, and the old tobacco factory has been repurposed for shopping and arts purposes, including a theatre.

        I should add that I’ve never smoked: having parents who died of smoking-related diseases (a heart attack, and a stroke) I hope to live to a roper age than they did — my father died at 51 and my mother at 75 after she’d taken up smoking again after a period of abstinence. (I’m nearly 73…)

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      2. Thanks for sharing that. I was trying to look for details but couldn’t find much, not even a picture of the pack he designed.
        The ITC here uses its initials still but has stopped using its full form Imperial (later India) Tobacco Company. Cigarettes are part of what are now multiple ventures from hotels, stationery and apparel to foods and personal care. Its cigarettes and apparel retain the Wills name though.

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