In 1944, 23-year-old Ray had already been working as a visual artist in the British ad agency DJ Keymer & Co. for a year. He had also been illustrating and designing books for Signet Press, the publishing house run by the same ad agency's manager, DK Gupta. Four years back, he had enrolled as a student in Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan. He studied under that teacher of teachers, Nandlal Bose, and the great Benodebehari Mukherjee. He left the 5-year course after two and a half years, but called those years "the most fruitful of my life". Till then entirely under the sway of Western music and art, the young Ray now was exposed to Chinese landscapes, Japanese woodcuts and Indian miniatures, not to mention life in rural Bengal. He travelled with other students to Ajanta, Ellora, Khajuraho, which he found "eye openers". "It was there that I learnt to look at nature, how to respond to nature, and how to feel the rhythm of nature".
Nandlal Bose felt that his drawing had improved enormously in that time, but Ray wanted to become a commercial artist, not a painter. Eventually, he joined DJ Keymer & Co. And so it came about in 1944 that DK Gupta offered that Ray illustrate an abridged children's edition of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's famous novel Pather Panchali. Till then, "to be frank, I was even unfamiliar with the bulk of Tagore's writings". But when he read Pather Panchali: "The book filled me with admiration. It was plainly a masterpiece and a sort of encyclopaedia of life in rural Bengal." It was as an artist that Ray first responded to the story of Pather Panchali. ("Even a year before that summer afternoon in 1952 when I started shooting Pather Panchali in a field of tall white Kaash, the thought of taking up filmmaking as a career hadn't occurred to me at all".)
Throughout his career, he famously sketched his films' scenes by hand to visualise them – indeed according to son Sandip Ray it was like a sacred ritual for him. His detailed storyboards provided guidance to his cinematographers, art directors and costume designers about how he envisaged scenes. [These notebooks have been digitised and can be seen at the National Digital Library website: http://ndl.iitkgp.ac.in/.../YkMvM09RUllGbHR6Y3dSczVZOUlaR... ] When Pather Panchali was ready, he created a booklet in Bangla to promote the film with hand-drawn sequences of the script. However, the government of West Bengal – the producer of the film – was not willing to spend more on it. That booklet could not be published but we are delighted to share some images from it with you today.
Juhi Saklani is a Delhi based photographer and film enthusiast.
First published for Musui Art Foundation.