And how he helped in the rebirth of cartoons as the “funnies”.
A tribute in The Times of India to their long-time cartoonist and illustrator Ajit Ninan Mathew, who passed away, aged 68, on September 8, in Mysuru, quoted an arts professor describing him, splendidly, as “the man who knows the human face better than any plastic surgeon”. I beg to be allowed to disagree even as I applaud this insight.
For Ajit’s scalpel, rather than construct a face, managed in fact to dig deeper and pull out the truth and character underneath and reproduce before us, not the face, but the very hidden nature of the person. He managed to trap between his lines the subtlest of nuance that converted the face into a delightful landscape exposing every comical personality trait and pompous self-love that inhabited it which the possessors of the face themselves were unaware of.
Which is why his lethal caricatures of the high and mighty as well as of the hoi polloi triggered instant amusement without a word having to be spoken. Like Arjuna’s arrow, he hit the bird’s eye every time. You just have to assemble together the few annual double-page caricatures, in the 1980s, of the entire journalistic staff of the India Today magazine—produced in lieu of a group photo—to understand what I mean. These were, easily, the last word in character analysis and instantly endeared each one of those self-important celebrity names because of their sheer vulnerability before Ajit’s surgical laser eye.
I say this with an amount of self-assuredness because, along with a few colleagues from Madras Christian College (MCC), we might have been responsible for putting Ajit on this track. When Ajit joined MCC, in 1972, to do his Bachelors in political science, some of us Heberians who were in our final year MA (and were called “mighty seniors”) heard from the grapevine that he was the nephew of the distinguished cartoonist Abu Abraham. One already knew Abu’s sister Ammu Mathew, a professor of Physics at Women’s Christian College and one of the founders of Chennai’s legendary English theatre group, The Madras Players.
The ‘ragging’ that launched cartoonist Ajit
We decided that young Ajit should be spared the rough and tumble of the rather harmless ragging that newcomers were subjected to by invoking a special privilege we had as “seniors” of choosing a few newcomers for our own brand of “superior” ragging. Basically, there was Abraham Jacob, among the seniormost of the hostellers, having been there since his pre-university days. Abe later joined the Indian Railways Traffic Service and retired as Additional Member, Railway Board, in 2008. Then there was Sajeeve Thomas, who later went via IIM Ahmedabad to Citibank and was in a senior executive position for several years in Tokyo until, along with the famous “Gang of Four” Indian executives, they took over the sinking Shinsei Bank of Japan and heroically turned it around. And there was me. And all of us were sprinters in the college as well as university athletics teams.
On a given evening, Ajit Ninan was summoned to a room. A few short questions relating to political science, and it was clear that with regard to the subject of his choice, he was still treading on eggshells. But he expressed the intentionality of a possible future in the civil services or academics. Neither journalism nor an interest in drawing was mentioned. The three of us put on a grave and severe face and said it would be unpardonable for the nephew not to emulate the uncle and that it was a shame he could not draw. Under our combined malevolent gaze, he hesitantly, reluctantly whispered that he had tried his hand at drawing. We were ready for this. Instantly, from behind the shelf, a clipboard with paper and pencil was produced and he was asked to demonstrate his skill. In an even fainter voice, he asked if he could draw us. We were ready to guffaw seeing him so nervous and apprehensive. But we put on a stern face and asked him to go ahead. He squinted and cocked his head and ran his tongue across his lips as he looked us up and down and in about 20 minutes showed us the results. All of us burst out laughing, for he had drawn near likenesses of the three of us in our most fierce-looking avatars. I have never forgotten the insight, even if half mocking, I got into myself that evening.
This was enough glimpse of his talent. I told him he would be spared all future rounds of ragging provided he did what we asked. So, his ragging was to arrive with his sketchbook and pen every evening at 4 pm to the athletics track and make caricatures of each of the 40-odd members of the MCC athletics team. That year (1972) the A.L. Mudaliar Inter-Collegiate Athletics Meet was being hosted by our college. So, both at the entrance to the college as well as at the entrance to the track we put up huge boards with Ajit’s hilarious caricatures of our team accompanied by short, wicked paras on each member of the team, written by me. (The para on me was written by someone even more wicked). The posters became enormously popular and everyone had a jolly laugh.
This was among the things that eventually turned both Ajit and me towards journalism—he to the serious business of cartooning and me to the less taxing process of weaving a fabric with words.
He went on to get a master’s degree in public administration (probably with an IAS still in mind) but by the late 1970s was very much part of the initial, post-Emergency success story of India Today magazine. I met him off and on through the years and a wee bit more when I too moved to Delhi in 1991 to take over as the Arts Editor of The Economic Times. Those days, many young, aspiring cartoonists—mostly from Kerala—were attracted to Delhi and would seek me out for work. A few I could offer freelance assignments, but most of them I used to send with introduction letters to Ajit at India Today and it was remarkable how many successful careers he launched in cartooning, illustrating, and graphic design.
However, it was at a three-day cartoon symposium and exhibition that I convened in 2015 at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai that we got to spend some quality time together. I reminded him of his “cartoon ragging” at MCC and he chuckled, remembering how nervous he was about the “punishment” that awaited him if he got the likeness of a “mighty senior” wrong. He also conceded that, while his uncle Abu Abraham was always a pole star, he started seriously considering cartooning/journalism as a career option only after the “success” of the athletics hoarding that we did together. It was also at this 2015 symposium that he reconnected with Sandeep Adhwaryu and was witness to the enormous response Sandeep’s work generated among the ACJ students. It did not take long for Sandeep to be pulled into the Times of India, where Ajit was now a group head after a few forays elsewhere.
Pea under the princess’s pillow
My real bond, however, was with his uncle Abu. As a dissenting journalist during the Emergency myself, Abu’s pushback through his cartoons in The Indian Express was an object lesson for us. Later, I was to spend several hours with him at various venues and also spent half a day photographing his lovely Laurie Baker-designed house in Thiruvananthapuram. I even ended up delivering the “Abu Abraham Memorial Lecture” at the Kozhikode Press Club in 2003 and later curated a major exhibition and symposium on Abu and his work for Himal, in Kathmandu. Inevitably, one is drawn towards a comparison. This is also true of the other uncle-nephew cartoonist duo—O.V. Vijayan and Ravi Shankar. It is a unique Indian phenomenon, it seems. But it is interesting to observe how different generations and contexts produced different approaches.
At a symposium on “Cartoons in the Times of Communalism” in New Delhi, in 1993, Abu had said, “Cartoonists can function only if there is public awareness. A cartoonist cannot create a mood or public opinion by himself. He can only pursue what is already forming in the public mind.” Abu along with early stalwarts of Indian cartooning, such as K. Shankar Pillai, Vijayan, Kutty, and Rajinder Puri upheld the principle of not just the “right to dissent” but also the “right to offend”.
However, another early colossus, R.K. Laxman followed a gentler path of being a fly-on-the-wall, a sharp and committed observer, where the viewer was included in what the cartoonist/observer was seeing and was left to draw her or his own conclusions. Another lampooner, Mario Miranda created his own thesaurus of “types” of humanity—from the world of politics, cinema, business, the bazaar, the elite club, the police, and so on and allowed them—in his frames—to confront their idiosyncrasies. Ajit Ninan was quintessentially a gentle mix of the last two.
Not for Ajit any messianic route to offend. Even in his bluntest cartoons after the demolition of Babri Masjid, a pungent political critique of communalism gets dissolved in the laughter evoked by his drawing. After three decades of a history of devastatingly brutal cartoonists in Indian print media, Ajit with his stupendous talent, manic energy, and sublime technical finesse came to redefine the cartoon once again as the “funnies”. It was inevitable that in the changed “public awareness” after liberalisation, Ajit would also produce at least a dozen clones of himself in print media. The cartoon, here, enters the marketplace and transforms itself into a consumable commodity—no longer lethal or dangerous or even injurious, just a well-packed product that you could take with you to bed.
Abu Abraham’s cartoons were described in the British press as the distinctly uncomfortable “pea under the princess’s pillow”. By the time his nephew Ajit’s cartoons made their mark, the pea below the pillow had been tossed out. All those in power slept undisturbed, with a smile on their lips.
Sadanand Menon is a Chennai-based writer.