In 1943, Satyajit Ray entered the world of advertisement as a junior visualiser at the Calcutta office of DJ Keymer, one of the most respected advertising multinationals in the country during that time. In fact, it was a rather fortuitous appointment as he was recommended to DK Gupta, Keymar’s influential assistant manager, by someone in his family. In order to join the agency, he actually cut short his stint as a student of fine arts at Kala Bhavan Santiniketan. Ray was always inclined towards commercial art which was not taught as a separate discipline at Santiniketan, yet he joined Kala Bhavan in 1940, primarily due to his mother’s insistence.

Although he left mid-way without completing the course, important changes took place in Ray’s life at Santiniketan which would virtually shape his aesthetic outlook in future. First of all, he got acquainted with the finer nuances of art, particularly oriental art under the tutelage of masters like Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee. His intensive training in figurative drawings and calligraphy under their supervision would later come in handy as he evolved as a graphic designer and illustrator. As a student, he also undertook field trips to Ajanta-Ellora caves, Elephanta caves, Sanchi stupa, the Sun temple at Konark and the temples at Khajuraho in order to absorb and assimilate the best of classical Indian art with his modernist outlook. Moreover, at Santiniketan he became close friends with his fellow students — Prithwish Neogy, Dinkar Kaushik and Na Muthuswamy. The long discussions they had about various art movements across the world virtually opened a new window before him. As Ray himself tells us, Neogy literally taught him how to ‘look’ at a picture.

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When Ray joined Keymer, the agency was going through a purple patch, handling accounts of major brands like Philips, Liptons, Dunlop, CK Sen, Tea Board, Burmah Shell, ICI, ITC, Atlantis East, Bata, Martin Burn Group and others. The art director was Annada Munshi, considered a maverick in advertising circles. It was he who mentored young and talented artists like Satyajit Ray, OC Ganguly and Makhan Dutta Gupta who joined the agency around the same time. Under his supervision, Ray picked up the technical intricacies of layout and production design. This skill was essential in the pre-digital era as every artwork had to be done by hand, judged by the eye, and measured to scale.

Gradually Ray gained steady recognition in the ad world and in 1950 he became the art director of the agency. The same year Ray was sent to London and Europe at the behest of his employers to gain further global exposure. The trip which he undertook along with his wife Bijoya turned out to be a turning point in his career. He soaked in the culture of the British capital and began to binge-watch a lot of films — “in four and a half months, I saw ninety-nine films” as Ray confessed to his biographer Marie Seaton. It was here that he stumbled upon Vittorio de Sica’s neo-realist masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves which made a deep impression and helped him choose filmmaking as his vocation in life.

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Above: Ray at work in DJ Keymer office. Courtesy Sandip Ray

It is to be noted that although the world of British-owned DJ Keymer was relatively informal yet there were some instances of subliminal tension among the British managers and the Indian employees regarding the difference in pay. Ray, however, concentrated more on the creative aspect of his work and maintained a dignified relationship with the English or Scottish managers. He even drew a portrait of one of them — JBR Nicholson, with whom he developed a close bond.

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Above: Portrait of JBR Nicholson drawn by Satyajit Ray. Courtesy Sandip Ray.

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It is difficult to ascertain Ray’s contribution to the Indian advertising scene. One of the reasons is because it is difficult to determine the ownership of every advertisement published during that time which was designed by the creative team at DJ Keymer. Unlike paintings or book covers, ads don’t come with signatures of the creator. Moreover, a lot of it is teamwork with every person contributing to the completion of the final artwork. Some of the iconic works created at DJ Keymer still remain stuff of advertising legend.

Annada Munshi was a pioneer who led the way as he wove a distinctive Indian flavour into the advertising scenario which was earlier dominated by western motifs and figures. His brilliant poster for ITMEB in 1947 presents a chaste, sari-clad ‘mother India’, seated behind the iconic Gandhian charkha, enjoying a cup of tea, against a field of little cups-saucers and wheels, and above the triumphant announcement that tea is now 100 percent indigenous ('swadeshi') and hence okay to drink. The drawing style fuses elements of traditional Kalighat ‘pat’ painting with the incipient modernism of Jamini Roy.

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Above: Poster by Annada Munshi for ITMEB, 1947. Courtesy Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

Ray followed in his mentor’s footsteps, recreating everyday details using Indian motifs from past and present, while emphatically rejecting the imitative borrowings from mythological references that he disliked in Oriental Art. He also brought to his work a fascination with typography, both Bengali and English, which he shared with his father and grandfather. Moreover, he is often credited for introducing more calligraphic elements than before in advertising imagery which accentuated the playful use of words and catchphrases. He worked in DJ Keymer from 1943 to 1956. Soon after he left the company, the agency closed down and became Clarion in Calcutta and Ogilvy, Benson and Mather (OBM) in Bombay.

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It is a tough ask to select only five of the numerous advertisements he created but a close reading of those gives a rare insight into the mind of a man trying to balance commercial demands with his fine aesthetic sensibilities.

1. Sunday is Paludrine Day

In 1949, a series of three advertisements were sanctioned by the company ICI to promote the anti-malaria pill Paludrine with the catchline “Sunday is Paludrine day”. For those advertisements, Ray meticulously recreates busy domestic scenarios of three typical households on a Sunday morning — each distinctive in their depiction of class and mood. The amount of background detailing in each illustration to build up the ambience shows a keen observant mind at work. Moreover, the gestures of each character jostling for attention (and having Paludrine) within a busy frame has a rare cinematic quality about them. The packed layout imitates the ‘spot-the-difference’ worksheets that were a staple of British magazines in the 1940s. Later he created similar layouts for Sandesh magazine where readers are encouraged to notice the subtle difference in two comparable illustrations.

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Above: The Paludrine campaign. Courtesy The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives.

2. Chelsea Cigarettes

One of his sketches for an ad for Chelsea cigarette tells a story in four panels wherein a cricketer is unable to bowl well until after lunchtime when he smokes Chelsea cigarette and succeeds in taking wickets! Another one depicts a scene from the racecourse where a dejected punter is rejuvenated after having Chelsea cigarettes only to win a “double”.

These adverts are so foreign in look (obviously to cater to a niche target audience), that if not known, few would be able to make out the fact that it is created in India. Here Ray imitates the fluid brushstroke style of James Whitfield Taylor who was a rage in Britain during this time for his cartoons in Punch magazine. In another copy-dominated advertisement of Chelsea where Ray plays on the equation q (quality) + p (Price) = c (Chelsea cheers you up), he uses a didone or modern font which looks like a variation of Bodoni. The aesthetic ideology related to the typeface makes it an apt choice as it combines a modern symmetrical look with elegant and thinner strokes.

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Above: The Chelsea cigarettes campaign. Courtesy The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives.

3. CK Sen

One of the strongest works created by Ray is the advertisement celebrating 75 years of CK Sen and Co Ltd. Two circular seal-like shapes flank the rectangular spreadsheet with the headline and copy forming the spine down the middle. The metaphorical illustrations of the end-user (a classical Indian lady looking at the mirror) and the producer (a man preparing a traditional herbal concoction) fits the brand image that Chandra Kanta Sen (CK Sen) wanted to create for his family’s traditional Ayurvedic products. Their most valuable product was Jabakusum oil, the first hair oil to publish an advertisement in Bengal Gazette. It was marketed as “The Royal Toilette” and ‘By the appointment to the Princess of India.’

It is interesting to note that Jabakusum was also the first hair oil brand in Asia to commission a film advertisement which was made by Hiralal Sen, considered as one of India’s first filmmakers. Ray’s illustrations are reminiscent of his teacher’s Nandalal’s Bose linocuts while the decorative floral motif inside the headline and the company title creates a sense of nostalgia. Ray also illustrated two iconic Jabakusum advertisements – both depicting a sari-clad woman clad fearful of combs and shower. The slightly off-centred shadow in black imparts a kind of dynamism in the figures foregrounding the revulsion to comb and shower. The accentuated letter J containing the product photo within it is also a fine touch.

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Above: The CK Sen 75 years commemorative advertisement. Courtesy The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives.

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Above: The Jabakusum advertisements. Courtesy The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives.

4. Philips for light

The image of the lady reading with the tagline “Philips for light” shows the versatility of Ray, the artist. The minimalist illustration of a “modern” woman reading a book is a metaphor for “light” itself and thus there was no need to pinpoint a material light source that was a staple of conventional ad about a lighting company.

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Above: The Philips for Light advertisement. Courtesy The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives.

5. Signet Press for Khai Khai

Ray’s life as an advertising professional is punctuated by his simultaneous association with Signet Press, a publishing company established by DK Gupta, the assistant manager at DJ Keymer, in 1943. Ray was given the responsibility to decorate and design books published by Signet. He took it as a challenge and revolutionised the look of the Bengali books forever.

The numerous publicity designs that he did for Signet Press to announce the launch of new books are no less beautiful. I am particularly fond of the advertisement done for Sukumar Ray’s Khai Khai. The path-breaking cover of the Signet edition of the book designed by Ray in 1950 has 5 rows of people sitting and eating together while some are standing or leaning forward to serve food. The posture and gesture of each figure draw attention to the title “Khai Khai” (literally “to eat, to eat”). The title is also repeated side-by-side and placed in the interstitial spaces between the 5 rows, conveying a sense of happy excess. The publicity design uses the draft illustrations of those figures as a decorative border of the page holding the content inside. Even the lettering of the title has been done specifically for this advert. If we look closely enough at their shapes, we can discern the subtle hint of the outline of figures serving or eating.

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Above: The cover of the Signet edition of Khai Khai designed by Satyajit Ray in 1950 (left); The advertisement announcing the publication of the book (right); Courtesy The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives.

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Of course, there are many other interesting examples of print advertising created by Ray but these examples provide a representative glance of his range. During Ray’s stint at DJ Keymer, there was no scope for TV spots and it is tempting to think of what he would have done if given that opportunity. In this context, it is important to remember that Ray wrote the script of A Perfect Day (1948) directed by Harisadhan Dasgupta, a featurette promoting cigarettes sponsored by the National Tobacco Co. In fact, we can also see his assured command of the visual imagery in the one-minute-long commercial spot for “Peters Fan”, an imaginary brand which is strategically placed within the film Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971) with stunning effect.

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Pinaki De is a graphic designer-illustrator who works for renowned publishers across the globe. He is the winner of the PublishingNext Prize for the Best Book Cover Design in India twice in 2017 and 2019. His book cover for Kalkatta by Kunal Basu won the prestigious Oxford Bookstore prize for the best cover design in India at Jaipur Literary Fest 2017. He has designed the cover and layout of important publications related to Ray’s work like The Pather Panchali Sketchbook (2016), Travails with the Alien (2018) and upcoming Three Rays (2021). He is also a member of The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives.