Hyderabad-born cartoonist Ajit Ninan (1955-2023) not just tickled our funny bones, he held up a mirror to our society and polity
Ajit Ninan (1955-2023), one of India’s best-known political cartoonists, who passed away on Friday at 68, wielded his pen to both tickle our funny bones and hold up a mirror to our society and polity: he teased out his material from our quirks, oddities, and absurdities. He made us laugh, and think. For decades, his wit and wisdom found home in the ‘Centrestage’ series of cartoons in India Today magazine, and ‘Ninan’s World’ and ‘Just Like That’ (also co-authored with Jug Suraiya) in The Times of India.
Ninan’s cartoons offered much more than a momentary chuckle — receptacles of social commentary that transformed cartooning into a form of socio-political critique, they were portals through which we glimpsed the zeitgeist, especially the dramatis personae at the centre of the country’s political stage, who script the national narrative. From the high and mighty in the corridors of power to the man on the street, Ninan spared none: in his brave and burlesque cartoons, he lampooned them all, making mundane moments acquire new meaning. Things said in lighter vein would never be just that. They would force you to ponder over our failures, follies and foibles.
Born in Hyderabad, Ninan’s journey into the world of cartooning was influenced by his uncle, the renowned cartoonist Abu Abraham (1924-2002) who, in a career spanning 40 years, worked with several publications like The Bombay Chronicle, Shankar’s Weekly, Blitz, Tribune, The Observer, The Guardian, and The Indian Express. Ninan would hide his early sketches under his pillow, eagerly awaiting his uncle’s visits to showcase his talent. Ninan also credited his love for art to his hostel life, during which he watched a lot of animation films; they piqued his adolescent imagination and became a source of inspiration.
“In a world enveloped in the toxic clouds of climate change, and conflict, and crises, Ajit Ninan’s brilliant daily pocket cartoon… was a bright ray of joy and pleasure, lightening the daily landscape of gloom and doom. A picture is said to be worth ten thousand words; a cartoon, which is a very special type of picture capable of bringing the leavening of humour into the humdrum, might be worth a whole dictionary of words,” Jug Suraiya, a former associate editor with the Times of India, known for his popular column ‘Jugular Vein’, wrote in his tribute to Ninan.
‘A master of caricature’
Besides touching scores of lives through his cartoons, Ninan also influenced several generations of cartoonists and satirists. “I have held deep admiration for him for an extensive period. I had the privilege of meeting him for the first time in 1989 during my visit to Delhi and collaborated with him from 1997 to 2000. He was not only a brilliant artist, but also a true master of caricature. His ability to transform any object into something extraordinary was nothing short of incredible, and this talent preceded the era of computer software for such tasks. The lessons I learned from him have left an indelible mark on me. His passing is a profound personal loss,” well-known cartoonist Manjul, who has worked with Dainik Jagran, Rashtriya Sahara, Financial Express, India Today, The Economic Times and Daily News and Analysis, told The Federal.
Sajith Kumar, senior cartoonist at Deccan Herald, too, admits that the seeds of cartooning were sown in him by Ninan’s work in India Today. “I learned the early lessons of cartooning from him, without him even knowing. By studying his works, I acquired a greater understanding of composition, draftsmanship, and wit. He was my 'university' then. It was only later in life that I discovered cartoonist Abu, his uncle, who inspired me on great levels, which is another coincidence. Ninan has inspired a lot many cartoonists of my generation to wield the mighty pen and have a similar story to tell,” says Kumar.
Walked the fine line
Ninan’s distinctive style combined sharp wit with simple strokes. His keen eye for facial features played a key role in his caricatures. He believed that India’s diversity provided cartoonists with the perfect canvas. His cartoons — send-ups of the slices of our lives — often featured minimalist lines, and yet they were quite loaded. His ability to distil complex issues into easily digestible capsules lay at the core of his skill as a cartoonist. His characters, caricatured representations of leaders like Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Jayalalithaa, Sonia Gandhi, Laloo Prasad Yadav (his favourite) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, managed to convey a broad spectrum of opinions through their exaggerated features, and through the astuteness of his imagination.
Though he made fun of many, Ninan remained a responsible cartoonist, always aware of the fine line cartoonists walk. “A cartoonist has to be careful and socially responsible too,” he told documentary filmmaker Anita Barar during his Australia tour in 2016. “We can’t play around with our map, our national symbols, national bird, and our president. So, one must respect and always remain socially sensitive,” he said.
Senior journalist Nona Walia, who worked with Ninan, shares heartfelt memories of her colleague. She describes him as a genuine, caring friend and mentor, one who went the extra mile to support others. She remembers his dedication, creativity, and the warmth with which he welcomed colleagues into his life, both in the office and at home: “You became a friend and mentor — in our personal and professional life. You stood by us like a rock when the organisation failed us and kept checking almost every other month. You were the most genuine in a sea of sharks…. Hope you are laughing at the world from up there and doing your illustrations of those who wouldn't allow you to make fun of them.”
Go well, Ajit Ninan. Your laughter and insight will be dearly missed, but your art will continue to inspire generations to come.