Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors
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First Published: Sat, Jun 21 2008. 12 13 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Jun 21 2008. 12 13 AM IST
Who created the original design for the Wills Navy Cut cigarette packet?
Let us begin, as it is only proper, at the beginning.
First of all, we have the Imperial Tobacco Company of India Ltd. opening a little office on Radha Bazaar lane in Kolkata. This happens on 24 August 1910, some nine years after Imperial Tobacco itself was formed in Bristol through the coming together of 13 ciggie companies including, surprise, surprise, W.D. and H.O. Wills.
The Indian branch would do well for itself. After all, Indians had been smoking, in one form or the other, for over 2,000 years. The Atharvaveda made references to dhumapana well before Air India taught me what it means during in-flight announcements. So much so that the company then moved its headquarters to a new plot on 37, Chowringhee (all smokers may now nod in recollection).
The “We have moved” notice was issued by Imperial in 1926. Five years before that, in 1921, a Bengali couple, Sukumar and Suprabha, gave birth to a boy. Sukumar would pass away when the boy was barely three, but his mother would educate him on her small earnings and he would eventually graduate in economics from the famed Presidency College in Kolkata. But his heart was not in economics. It was in more creative realms.
In 1940, Suprabha, out of great admiration for Rabindranath Tagore (as was true of all good Bengalis), would convince her son to enrol at the Visvabharati University at Santiniketan. The boy agreed, albeit reluctantly: He wasn’t particularly kicked about the level of intellectual discourse at the university. Ambitious fellow, this one.
Poor chap soon began to miss his Kolkata, his mother, and first cousin Bijoya, with whom he was having a little fling. December of 1942 was a time of great activity in Kolkata and our man was feeling left out. The Quit India Movement had just been launched and that little ruckus, World War II, was fomenting at the frontiers.
Finally, on 20 December 1942, he quit his five-year programme at Santiniketan and left for Kolkata. The same day, Japan would launch its first bombing raids on the city. Once in Kolkata, he joined D.J. Keymer, a British advertising company, where he was paid the less-than-princely sum of Rs80 a month. Our hero, no point in naming him so early and killing the climax, worked as a junior visualizer. Here, finally, he was happy, and he flourished.
The young man would spend 10 successful years at D.J. Keymer before worldwide fame took him away. But while there, he worked on several advertising campaigns, including ones for ICI, Lever Brothers, Lipton and, nicely rounding up this column, Imperial Tobacco.
Visualizers, I have been told, design logos, packaging, and some even make sketches and paintings. 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.
Parting fact: D.J. Keymer would later evolve into Ogilvy and Mather.
Have a question? Write to Sidin at whatareyousaying@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Jun 21 2008. 12 13 AM IST