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Draw, for us to trace all the soul in every face

Be it comic strip, gag, editorial cartoon or the pocket format, Ajit Ninan excelled in each

Draw, for us to trace all the soul in every face

1955-2023: Memories are fuzzy, but I will always remember the warm broad smile Ajit Ninan wore when not troubled by tight deadlines or prickly creative ideas. It was the late 1990s. I was on the desk at India Today magazine, and my job entailed keeping tabs on the short snippety pieces called Newsnotes. Ninan's cartoon series titled Centrestage was part of the Newsnotes section. Ninan very rarely missed his deadline.



Bindu Menon

MEMORIES are fuzzy, but I will always remember the warm broad smile Ajit Ninan wore when not troubled by tight deadlines or prickly creative ideas. It was the late 1990s. I was on the desk at India Today magazine, and my job entailed keeping tabs on the short snippety pieces called Newsnotes. Ninan’s cartoon series titled Centrestage was part of the Newsnotes section. Ninan very rarely missed his deadline.

It was a weekly ritual for most of us at the copy desk to marvel at the printed image when it came to us, often hand-delivered by Ninan himself. Carnivalesque and robustly colourful, the cartoons brought to life the cacophony and comicality of Indian politics. They were intricate in detail, extravagant in vision and yet simple in their expression.

Ninan cut his teeth in the cartooning world with Detective Moochwala, a comic strip in the children’s magazine Target. The big, balding detective, with his spiky moustache and dog Pooch, remains a perennial nostalgic favourite for those who grew up in the ’80s. But it was later, with India Today and, briefly, Outlook magazines, that Ninan found his calling as a political cartoonist. He cultivated and mastered a visual grammar that was entirely his own.

In a poem, beseeching the artist William Hogarth to paint political “beasts”, poet and satirist Jonathan Swift wrote, “Draw them so that we may trace/All the soul in every face.” Ninan could effortlessly do that. Be it the inscrutable sphinx-like Sonia Gandhi and the fawning party minions, Lalu’s smirk, Narasimha Rao’s pout, Jaswant Singh’s insouciance or Vajpayee’s frown, Ninan laid bare the soul and quirkiness of his political subjects. Even the expressions of the animals that populated many of his cartoons would draw a chuckle.

Ninan’s good friend and old colleague, Joel Rai, remembers one work ethic the cartoonist swore by: he never put his signature on the editorial cartoons he produced. “Ninan’s rationale was that the regular cartoons, on which he signed, reflected his worldview. But the edit page, he said, belongs to the publication, and the cartoons on that page reflect the opinion of the publication,” recalls Rai.

Once asked during an interview about the heavy detailing in his work, Ninan said people in India were habituated to the visual intricacies that abound in every part of the country, in its art, craft and architecture, and his cartoons reflected that. His style was not minimalistic like that of his uncle, the celebrated cartoonist Abu Abraham, but more aligned to that of another great practitioner of the art, Mario Miranda. Ninan had a reason for the visual exuberance in his cartoons. The puns and punchlines, he felt, would be lost in translation in the regional editions of the magazine.

Rai recalls the cartoonist asking, “Do I draw too much? Should I reduce my lines to the fewest possible?” When Rai assured him that his meticulous drawings attracted people to his cartoons, Ninan was satisfied. “But you never know. He might have pondered over his drawings for long,” says Rai.

And so, when Ninan moved to a daily newspaper, the pocket format was perhaps a little limiting for an artist comfortable with a large canvas. “Give him an entire newspaper sheet, and he could weave magic with his lines,” says VG Narendra, founder of the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Cartoonists (IIC). Pointing to Ninan’s productivity and versatility, Narendra says few have experimented with cartooning the way Ninan has. “Be it the comic strip, gag, editorial cartoon or the pocket format, Ninan excelled in each because he worked hard at his craft. His ideas were sharp and to the point,” says Narendra. The IIC honoured Ninan with the first Barton Lifetime Achievement Award in August 2022. “In the two days that he spent with us, Ninan regaled us with his witty one-liners and mingled freely with all the cartoonists who had gathered,” says Narendra.

Rai remembers a particular mannerism of Ninan’s when reacting to jokes or even droll humour: “He wouldn’t chuckle but would pucker up and let out a small whistle from under his upper lip. That meant he was highly amused.”

Ninan’s geniality enlivened every newsroom. Journalist Archana Rai remembers way back in 2000, when she was a greenhorn at India Today Group’s news website, she would interact with him on the phone over a daily cartoon that Ninan sent for the website. “I guess he encouraged youngsters a lot in his own way. He started a puzzle game with me. He would insert my name’s initials somewhere in his cartoon, and I would have to spot it. He said if I’d spot them thrice in a row, he would take me out for lunch. And he did,” she says. That was the way Ajit Ninan was, spreading cheer beyond his cartoons. 


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