Ahsan Habib: The boss calling the shots

Mahfuz Mizan | Published: 00:00, Jul 19,2019


Ahsan Habib

An iconic publication on the popular cultural landscape of the country, Unmad, the vernacular cartoon magazine, still has some mileage left in it. Mahfuz Mizan of New Age recently spoke to the man behind this enterprise, Ahsan Habib, who, in his characteristic candidness, shed light on how he grew up in Dhaka and how the magazine stayed the course through thick and thin.  

‘If you ask me about my greatest achievement in life, I will say that I have been able to establish Unmad, which has been the stepping stone for many young cartoonists in Bangladesh. They have gone on to become famous names in the local and international cartoon arena,’ said Ahsan Habib, the soft-spoken editor of the longest running satire magazine of Bangladesh. He is recognised as the ‘Boss’ by his followers and admirers, for the key role he played over the years in promoting cartoon and cartoonists through his unique initiative.

The above quote only shows that Ahsan Habib’s love for cartoons did not only stem from sheer passion, it is something greater than that. Through Unmad several political, international, contemporary and social issues have been brought to light in a very sarcastic and socially critical ways. The goofy buck-toothed boy, fashioned after the American humour magazine Mad, with his silky hair and round goggles has been an icon presiding over the socio-cultural landscape of the country over the years. Unmad, the enterprise that entertained by poking fun at the media as well as the filmdom and by criticising the middle class for its moral incongruity, has also given the country cartoonists such as Mehedi Haque, Rashid Imam Tanmoy and Morshed Mishu, to name a few. In fact it is probably the only satire magazine in South Asia to last for four decades.


The early years

Life was not a bed of roses for Ahsan Habib as he lost his father during the Liberation War. Yet he tried to find joy in ordinary things all his life. ‘We had a pleasant childhood. We had huge open fields all over the city back in those day, which is impossible to even think of today. We used to rush right after our classes to those fields. Between the six siblings, we were like friends. I also used to have a huge friend circle from school and in the neighbourhood,’ recalled Ahsan.

Besides having a carefree childhood, Ahsan along with his friends always had creative aspirations as he states, ‘I remember a group of my friends publishing a paper called “Haater Lekha Patrika”, or hand-written newspaper. We made this box and put a label on it titled News, friends would contribute to the paper by putting their articles inside the box.’

Creativity was everywhere. At their household, Ahsan’s father also made the kids indulge in the creative practices in several ways. ‘My father had creative inclinations and had followed some of the most peculiar ways to keep us involved. He used to hold art and literary competitions among us siblings,’ recalled Ahsan, which explains how his brother Humayun Ahmed and Zafar Iqbal became iconic writers and how Ahsan’s own talent, both as a writer and cartoonist, flourished. 

Life came to a standstill for Ahsan when his father was brutally murdered by the Pakistani army on May 5, 1971 and the house in Pirojpur was burned down. All the siblings along with their mother had to travel to Dhaka in order to settle down.

‘Although we had financial restrictions and used to sleep on the floor, but we never felt like we were in a bad situation.’ Even joining school seemed like an an adventure for young Ahsan, ‘As my father had jobs where he was posted to various places throughout Bangladesh such as Cumilla, Bogura and others. I had to shift about eight schools altogether. So naturally when we came to Dhaka I asked my mother about when we would join a school, she told me if I had any particular school in mind I should go and talk to the headmaster by myself! So I told her about Shegunbagicha High School and went to the headmaster. He asked for my transfer certificate but I explained my situation, he felt sorry for me and got me admitted,’ recalled Ahsan.

Ahsan’s greatest inspiration for drawing cartoons was his elder brother Zafar Iqbal, who took up a job of a cartoonist and he was fascinated by it.

‘My elder brother Zafar Iqbal used to draw for a magazine called Bicchoo. He was my main inspiration and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I used to cut out pieces of his works from the magazine and collect them,’ Ahsan said.

At one point, Ahsan also started to draw cartoons. Gradually he found a place in the daily Observer’s cartoon section. ‘I was not very good at it first, but still I drew cartoons out of passion and in 1974, I finally found a place in the daily Observer’s “Uncle Kimer Pata”. I still remember my number — it was 1905,’ he said.        


The story of Unmad

Ahsan Habib along with a few of his friends, namely Kazi Khalid Ashraf, Isthtiaq Hossain, Nowshad Nabi, Shariful Haque and others thought of opening a satire magazine. They named the magazine Unmad drawing inspiration from USA’s MAD magazine. ‘The type of satire and art the US magazine used to produce, greatly influenced us and we thought of publishing a satire magazine,’ he said.

 ‘We used to draw on tracing paper to skip the hassle of making positives during printing plates. The dialogues had to be pasted separately, unlike nowadays, where everything is digitally processed and can be edited at will,’ he recalled.

Initially, the magazine was published out of interest and it was not a regular publication. After 3 to 4 issues it basically stopped.

‘Each of us started to drift away into our own separate fields. I also took a banking job, hence Unmad stopped for an indefinite period. However, I felt a strong urge to continue, left my banking job and thought of continuing it. So I consulted with my friends and they were ok with it.’

The risk he took made his family members uncofortable. ‘Obviously, my mother and elder brother Humayun Ahmed thought the idea was peculiar, leaving my day job and taking up making cartoon professionally was a huge leap of faith,’ he remembered.

Accordingly, Ahsan Habib took up the task of making Unmad a monthly magazine and started to engage agents. The main aim of the satire magazine was to publish monthly issues showcasing various local and international issues via humorous cartoon strips, sarcastic take on movies and TV dramas and other humorous write-ups.

‘When we started the magazine we actually didn’t think of the negative effect the name Unmad will have on the publication. We are running for 40 years but we have not received any kind of advertisements as companies don’t want their name to be associated with a magazine with such a name, which literally means mad,’ said the ace cartoonist.

However, Unmad survived since the readers loved the satires it showcased. Ahsan recalled, ‘We ran, and still do, solely on the basis of our circulation, it is the main reason why we have existed for four decades. The other problem was what to do with the issues that were not sold. That too was solved as our old issues were a hit at the Bangla Academy book fairs. I have even seen a huge interest from the Bangladeshi diaspora living in the United States who wanted to purchase the old issues. So, there was this ray of hope that kept us going.’

Besides, the magazine also earns revenues selling the merchandise which is a kind of novelty for fans. At present, talks of revamping the website and adding past issues to the existing site are also under way.

‘I believe that Unmad has secured a place in the hearts of the readers and the future seems bright. Although, we witnessed the closure of MAD magazine, since, right now, there has been a shift in our way of life and thinking. In the past, the cartoonists and artists were not given due credits. That has changed over the years. Publishers used to be stingy with payment. Although that is still the case, I feel change has already been underway,’ he said.

Unmad had to go through a lot of ordeals, including by falling out of favour with the military regime in the 1980s. They faced a backlash for the political cartoons they published. Ahsan recalled, ‘There were instances where our office was attacked. A judge even slapped me with a defamation case once, but that was resolved as I went to the court and apologised. Actually they didn’t grasp the humuor in it and it was completely opposite of what they thought it was about.’ Ahsan thinks political cartoons hold less value in today’s world, instead comics and graphic novels are the future.

‘We can already see what Japan is doing excellent with Manga. This type of storytelling cartoons are valued in today’s world for what they represent in their storylines,’ he observed.

Apart from Unmad, Ahsan Habib also published a science-fiction magazine and car magazine but that had to be closed down as there were no writers. However, a travel magazine called ‘Travel & Fashion’ and science magazine ‘Biggyan Shamoyiki’ are still being published.                 


Boss’s advice to cartoonists

Ahsan Habib feels, although right now printed publication is facing problems worldwide due to advancement in technology, but the future of cartoonists exist in graphic novels and comics. ‘The situation of magazines has worsened as the world is starting to depend on technology and the virtual sites it has spawned. Storytelling is the only way cartoonists can make this a profession last, he observed.

‘My advice to all budding cartoonists is — focus on comics and graphic novels instead of political cartoons only. When Mehedi opened Dhaka Comics, we were sceptical about it. We were all worried whether people would accept it or not. We saw that it was well received at the Bangla Academy book fair,’ stated Ahsan.

Ahsan also said that several companies and social organisations came to realise the effectiveness of using cartoons in order to send a message across nowadays. Ahsan said, ‘I can see several cartoonists getting offers from the NGOs and corporations for designing their various campaigns and ventures. This is a very positive sign for cartoonists who see themselves as professionals.’

Nowadays, more parents are also interested to send their children to learn how to draw cartoons. ‘Mehedi has opened Akantis and Tanmoy has launched Cartoon People where they give lessons on how to draw cartoons and it is a great income source. At Unmad, we are also intent on teaching how to draw cartoons and wanted to start it for free. Later, however, some people advised us to fix an amount, saying that otherwise people won’t take it seriously. Certainly we have come a long way and people have started to realise the craft’s true potential,’ said Ahsan.

Ahsan Habib believes cartoons are all about techniques and anyone interested can try it out. Among the global stars whose works Ahsan appreciates are —Mexican cartoonist Sergio Aragone, Mariam Miranda from India and Shukumar Roy Chowdhury who is still famous for producing some memorable hybrids.

He also finds inspiration from his own students. ‘Mehedi Haque joined Unmad when he was in class 9 and now he has become such a great cartoonist, that I have many things to learn from him now,’ he said, adding that he was an all-rounder, there is no doubt about it. ‘Tanmoy is also doing a very good job with Cartoon People and Morshed Mishu turned into a household name overnight with his Global Happiness Challenge,’ he added. 

When asked about his future plans, he said, ‘Starting from August 23-25 an exhibition of cartoons where Unmad will be paying tribute to the recently-closed MAD magazine which is going to be held at Drik Gallery. Apart from that, a plan for a 3D animation project is also under way’  . 

Ahsan believes that receiving the love from people and making Unmad survive over the years is his greatest achievement. ‘Whenever I travel to any country or go to any place, I’m addressed with the title “Boss” and it feels good. I believe running Unmad for 40 years now and making it a platform for young cartoonists to hone their skills also give me pleasure.’

Photos by Abdullah Apu

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