Ad Guru Ram Ray passed away on Monday. The author recalls his time spent with Ray, as his mentor and friend.
The last time I put down a few words to eulogise Ram (Ray) was quite a few years ago, when he was very much amongst us. That’s why it is a struggle for me to refer to him in the past tense. And not just because enough time has not elapsed between his passing and this remembrance, but because as someone so aptly put it yesterday, “He seemed immortal.” Almost exactly a year ago, the advertising world lost Alyque Padamsee, another towering personality that I was lucky enough to have worked closely with. Many called him God, and not always in jest. Ram, on the other hand was never referred to as God by anybody. Perhaps he was too human, but as I said before, somehow not mortal.
Many people remain forever young by dying young. Ram had turned 77 in January this year and he managed to remain young all through these years by living young. His curiosity was insatiable and his quest for new experiences was tireless. He had such a command over a variety of subjects that it would embarrass most self-proclaimed specialists in those fields. An incomplete alphabetical list of his mastery would include, apart from advertising, art in all forms, Bengali culture, calligraphy, design, the English language, food, furniture, pens, photography, technology, typography, wines and of course whatever business his clients happened to be in. A voracious learner, he would never shy away from asking to be tutored in any subject that he deemed someone more proficient than him. These, as you can imagine, were few and far between.
His knowledge and adoption of technology in the field of advertising and design was a generation ahead of the rest of the industry in India. He founded WYSIWYG, a design company, when design was still in its infancy in India. To me, WYSIWYG is also a very fitting description of Ram, and a vivid example of how complete transparency can happily co-exist with bottomless depth. He could seamlessly combine ancient wisdom with childlike innocence, often both at the same time. He could simultaneously see the big picture as well as the minutest details within it.
If I had to tweet about Ram (Ray), that would have been an impossible task for me. There is no way I could have summarised him in 140 or even 280 characters. He was too multi-dimensional to be shoe-horned into a single, neat definition. Probably, the closest someone has come to the impossible is when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Calcutta Advertising Club in 2013 as the ‘The Last Renaissance Man’.
Among his myriad qualities and talents, the one that stands out most is his sense of aesthetics. His taste was impeccable. He had a healthy tolerance for people’s various foibles, but bad taste was anathema to him. I often find myself inadvertently quoting him in my conversations, and one that I quote the most is his view on taste – “taste may be subjective, but bad taste is absolute.”
The various paeans that have been written about Ram maybe doing him a bit of an injustice, portraying him as a mere intellectual giant, which he certainly was. But there was another side to him that perhaps was revealed only to his family and close friends. That of an extraordinarily warm and caring person, someone who would go far above and beyond mutual expectations to help people out. There was no limit to his generosity. The reverence that many people have for him, myself included, was rooted in this aspect of his nature.
A few of us worked with him in Clarion in the 1990s, when he took over the reins of the beleaguered agency. He led us for about five years after which most of us went our different ways. What can be a more eloquent testimony to the reverence with which all of us hold him, than the fact that more than 20 years since we all worked together, we drop everything else to get together in a biennial ritual of spending two to three days with him to celebrate that association. I can imagine that to some the idea of eight people with a combined average age of well above 60 years dropping all else to enthusiastically participate in this ritual would seem juvenile, if not downright pathetic. But somehow with Ram as the central figure and the glue that bonded us, none of us felt the slightest bit self-conscious. The last time we got together, which was also the last time I met him, was in December 2018 in the Tollygunge Club in Kolkata, which was usually our default venue. As always, he had made elaborate arrangements and personally designed an exquisite commemorative motif that featured on our individual t-shirts and customised bottles of wine – perfect to the last detail. While his enthusiasm for meeting us had not waned in the slightest – in fact he was all prepared to discuss his latest world-changing idea and how to take it forward– he did look frailer than I had ever seen him. But I never thought I would not see him again.
Samit Sinha is managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting.