Ajit Ninan was an institution in himself

Sadly, his talents were underutilised as cartooning in India is synonymous with an extremely narrow bandwidth of ‘political toons’

By Sorit Gupto
Published: Friday 08 September 2023

Ajit Ninan. Photo from his Facebook Page

In the late 1990s, people visiting the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)’s main building in New Delhi’s Tughlakabad area used to stop for some time at the reception.

Why? Because there was a big illustration of a jungle and a huge tree with different birds sitting on the branches. The most interesting part of the illustration was that each and every bird had a face of a specific CSE employee.

CSE was the only organisation in India that could have such an artwork in its reception. And only one person had the skill to draw such a big drawing with fine detailing. He was Ajit Ninan.

It was while growing up during the early 1990s in a sleepy north Indian town called Allahabad that I came to know Mr Ninan through his cartoons and drawings on the pages of India Today.

Those were the days when India’s print media had some great cartoonists and caricaturists like Ninan, Unny, Kutty, RK Laxman and Sudhir Tailang to name a few.

Like most of us, I also came to Delhi in search of a job. But unlike others, I came to the national capital to be a cartoonist. I still remember how I dialled the board number of India Today and asked for Mr Ajit Ninan.

Next day, I was waiting at the India Today office which was in Connaught Place at that time. After a 30 minute-wait, I was asked to go to Mr Ninan’s room. It was like someone wanting to be an actor proceeding to meet a superstar.

With trembling knees and an almost dry throat, I knocked on the glass door. For the first few seconds, I had to make myself believe that the person sitting on the other side WAS Mr Ninan. It was tough for me to accept that a cartoonist of his stature could be that simple. How could that normal-looking person draw such marvellous illustrations?

“Have you brought some samples of your work?” he asked me.

I had my portfolio with me. He started flipping pages one after the other and suddenly said, “I like your work because you don’t follow any cartoonist!”

Mr Ninan liked my work. What a pleasant surprise! But it was only the first one. He opened his drawer, brought out one of his recent artworks, asked my name and presented it to me with his signature. At that moment, I was simply on the verge of tears. It was like you went to meet Picasso and were gifted an original artwork by him!

That cartoon is still my biggest souvenir. After that, I started visiting him once every month or so to show him my work. He patiently went through it and suggested how to improve it further.

Cartooning is a strange art form and profession. Almost all Indian cartoonists are self-taught as there is not a single course for the art of cartooning in any art college in India (At least I have not come across one till date).

A teacher or a master is a must to guide one on mastering any art form. For me and countless budding cartoonists of that era, it was Mr Ninan. In other words, he had developed his own school of illustrations which was followed by a number of upcoming cartoonists. Besides him, only Laxman and Mario Miranda have achieved such a reputation.

However, in a very strict sense, Mr Ninan was not an editorial cartoonist. His strength was his drawings. He was essentially a social cartoonist who preferred commenting on social issues.

It’s a sad truth that in India only hardcore political cartoons / cartoonists are remembered. Mr Ninan was in a different league altogether. In online platforms, some of his cartoons like one showing a jail cell scene and another one in which a pilot announces that he is working from home are some of the most widely shared toons of all times.

Like any great artist in India, Mr Ninan was underutilised. While at India Today, he started a highly popular comic strip character Jasoos Moonchhwala for young adults.

The problem is we are a country of ‘One nation-One art form-One profession’. Which is why, for us, cartooning is synonymous with an extremely narrow bandwidth of ‘political toons’.

Contrary to this, the West believes in the maxim of ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’. That’s why they have magazines like New Yorker, Punch and most importantly Mad which produced some of the greatest names in the art of cartooning.

Mr Ninan had the ability to become a Mort Drucker, Don Martin or Jack Davis of India had there a magazine called Mad in India. It’s surely our loss as readers.

Like countless cartoonists in India, I have learnt a lot from him. But the greatest lesson I got from him is to acknowledge and respect the work of a newcomer.

It’s easy to learn the traits of an art form. But it’s equally tough to learn how to treat a newcomer and spare some time to guide him/her. Like my formative days, I think these challenges are still faced by upcoming cartoonists. I am thankful to Mr Ninan who also taught me how to be a good human being besides being a cartoonist.

Thank you, Sir!

P.S. This is not an obituary. People like you never go away. You will remain alive in our work. Forever.

Sorit Gupto is Chief Cartoonist, Down To Earth

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