One of the most prominent children’s writers and pioneer of nonsense literature in Bengali, Sukumar Ray (1887-1923), father of Satyajit Ray, was an inheritor of his father Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s genius of artistry. A graduate in Physics and Chemistry from Presidency College and then trained in photography and printing technology in England, Ray invented new techniques of halftone block making that he carried forward from his father.
Ray was actively involved in his family’s publishing business, U. Roy and Sons which was the most advanced printing press at that time. Coming to literature, the press used to publish the most popular children’s magazine of its time,- ‘Sandesh’ (cleverly means both ‘traditional Bengali dessert’ and ‘message’), which was the prime abode of Ray’s literature. The magazine was primarily contributed by members of Ray family and just after his father’s death, he took over the magazine and started his cult nonsense rhymes, limericks, stories and essays on various topics in Bengali for filling up the pages.
Ray’s literature was dominantly inspired by the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. The illustrations that accompanied his poems in books like Abol Tabol, Khai Khai or novella Ha Ja Ba Ra La are unique in their own right. Ray’s illustrations are mostly character oriented that depict a particular character, fantastic or real. He rarely drew scenes and even if he did, that rarely is edge to edge, except his comic fillers. Thus we rarely see boxing or panels in his graphic art.
Sukumar Ray, like his father Upendrakishore, was not a trained artist. One cannot detect that from Upendrakishore’s illustrations but Sukumar’s work is faulty in places. Yet, he has his own style of drawing that made his fantastical characters from his literature come alive.
The advanced technical knowledge of printing and photography helped Ray to make illustrations for Sandesh. For example take the iconic illustration for ‘Tyashgoru’, a nonsense rhyme of his about a fantastic cow. The lines drawing is very precise, though the wings of the creature does not blend with the whole figure or the placement of the can could be more close. Yet, in his inimitable style, Ray has given it a precise look so that the poem looks incomplete without this illustration even today.
Again, take for example the illustration in ‘Ekushe Aine’ a satirical rhyme about some bizarre rules in a fictional country. Here the figures in the illustration look like wooden dolls. It’s like the people are so bound by the absurd laws that they have become puppets. It is not mentioned in the poem, but the illustration delivers this idea and makes the poem complete.
In another poem ‘Khudor Kawl’ that ridicules Bengali’s love for food, Ray blended his passion for mechanics and science with humour. In his final poem, the title poem of the book ‘Abol Tabol’, where the lines signal Ray’s own consciousness about his upcoming death, the cartoon accompanying the poem resembles much of his father, laughing out pointing at some geometric calculation on paper. It seems a tribute to Upendrakishore and Sukumar’s own passion for science and mathematics before his own death. He was a very scientific man and in his illustrations, which is very action oriented and European/Victorian in mood. Sometimes, he incorporated even European character,e.g.-there is clearly a European lady in the illustration for the poem ‘Kandune’ in the book Abol Tabol. In most illustrations, the male characters are sporting European blazers and dhotis or sometimes blazers and baggy trouser combinations while the females are wearing sarees.
Ray’s works have been illustrated later by other artists like Satyajit Ray, Anup Roy among others in later editions by publishers like Signet Press etc, but the poet’s own illustrations are still inseparable for his texts for the Bengali readers. His most remembered and decorative works are for his most prominent work ‘Abol Tabol’ (Rhymes of Whimsy, 1923). In his other poetry book Khai Khai, he used minimal illustrations which are basically scribbles with comparatively straighter lines.
Not only illustrations, Ray has explored comic strips with rhythmic dialogues that used as a filler for Sandesh. These strips are without speech bubbles or text boxes. The text is written under the panels that are arranged vertically. Here Ray, being way ahead of his time, played with the literal meanings of phrases that are very visible in modern graphic novels. For example in one panel, the text is-‘Haru, a dull boy got zero in class test’. Ray showed the teacher has handed over a sphere to him. In the other panel, his father is fiery angry (‘Rege Agun’, a Bengali phrase literally means so angry that he becomes fire ) after knowing his son’s result. Ray showed that the father has become fire himself!
In one of his most prominent prose Ha Ja Ba Ra La (Mambo Jumbo, first edition in 1916), a Bengali adaptation of Alice in the Wonderland(yet utterly Bengali in mood), which shows strange creatures with social satires of colonial India,Ray drew characters that may have figurative defects but blended so perfectly.
In another series ‘Pagla Dashu’ (The Crazy Dashu, basically school stories), Ray used minimal, bushy line drawings that are similar with the Abol Tabol illustrations, though less decorative.
In another story, ‘Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary’ (The diary of Heshoram Hushiyar, an eccentric Bengali adventurer with a shadow of Professor Challenger), Ray again incorporated illustrations of some more fantastic beasts that resides in some unexplored region of the Bandakush Hills. In Satyajit Ray’s word, after seeing these illustrations, it feels strange when we do not see these creatures’ skeletons in museums.
In his scientific essays in English like- ‘Notes on System in Halftone Operating’, we can see his hand-drawn scientific diagrams, which are noteworthy for the time they were made in. He also sketched literal meanings of various Bengali idioms for word puzzles for Sandesh. Apart from these, he was a pioneer for making the human alphabet (i.e. alphabet written with human body postures) for Bengali letters. He drew some posters and banners for Monday Club (in Ray’s term ‘Monda’ i.e. dessert-Club), a cultural gathering that used to held in Ray’s residence in 100, Garpar Road, Kolkata.
Another gem is his ‘Kheror Khata’, the diary of the rough sketches of his. There we can see sketches of many unrecognized characters, that are not written. After his short life of 36 years, Bengali literature still misses those unwritten characters that remained a mystery in those enigmatic unfinished sketches.