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My tribute to The Ajit Ninan!

Sandeep Adhwaryu-

“How can you keep interrupting me during meetings? Tell me, what’s so important?” The voice on the other end of the landline erupted in frustration. “Just one meeting, sir,” I begged, “I won’t take more than five minutes. I want to pursue a career in cartooning.” After a moment’s pause, the voice conceded, “Okay, come tomorrow at 7 am to India Today.” I was elated yet nervous.

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It was the year 2001 when Ajit Ninan occupied the “Center Stage” at India Today magazine with his popular series of editorial cartoons bearing the same name. I was an aspiring cartoonist with desperate need of a spark. I had spent countless hours attempting to replicate the drawings of the maestro, but every time I flipped through my scrapbook filled with his work, I felt my efforts had been in vain. Yet, I persevered, believing that if I could achieve even half of his brilliance, I would have made it. But how can this be done? Only the legend himself could dispel this cloud of uncertainty. Hence, my persistent phone calls to his office.

At 6:30 am, I entered the Today’s office clutching a collection of my amateurish cartoons. I was so nervous that I didn’t see Ninan enter. At 7 sharp, the guard ushered me in, and I faced Ninan conscious of seconds slipping away.

“Show me your cartoons,” he said. As he examined my drawings, I couldn’t help but steal glances at his own masterpieces hanging all around on pinboards. “Your ideas are promising, but your drawing skills need more work,” he advised. “And remember, this is a demanding profession. You’ll need to dedicate long hours. So, ensure you’re in good mental and physical shape.”

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He continued, “I prefer to start early because every newsroom turns into a machhli bazaar in the second half of the day. It becomes challenging to focus and come up with ideas.” He then took another five minutes to explain his work process. As I prepared to leave, he offered one final piece of advice, “Try to find humor in everyday life. And if you can’t find it, create it. And don’t forget to climb rooftops to practice perspective drawings.”

Once outside I realised he had given me 15 minutes of his time. What more could I have asked for?

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That day, I learned firsthand that extraordinary achievements are the result of extraordinary sacrifices and discipline. I also realized that to truly excel in your craft, you must thoroughly understand its complexity and nuances; only then can you experience the flow of creativity.

He pioneered the seamless fusion of timeless black and white drawings with the contemporary vibrancy of Photoshop’s colors. His precise and measured lines marked a departure from the bold, deft brush strokes of icons like Keshav Shankar Pillai, R.K. Laxman, and O.V. Vijayan. In terms of style, Ajit Ninan stood in stark contrast to his legendary uncle, Abu Abraham, who embraced minimalism. Ninan was a true maximalist, known for his meticulous attention to every detail within his compositions. Just as a skilled jeweler painstakingly crafts each piece, he lavished meticulous care upon every illustration, transforming each one into a masterpiece.

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Our next meeting happened as colleagues fourteen years later when I joined Times of India in 2015. To my surprise he remembered every bit of our first meeting. He was still his old prolific self churning out quality illustrations and cartoons on demand. I would often wake up to heartwarming email pats on the back: “ Excellent, SA, ”. “ Beauty, SA,” “Lovely, SA”—for many cartoons.

Without you our mornings won’t be the same Maestro.

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