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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Ad man, writer and activist Gerson da Cunha passes away

Da Cunha was born in Mumbai in 1929 and grew up in Mazgaon. Graduating in science, he first worked as a journalist at PTI Reuters and then moved to advertising, where he remained for 25 years. He was CEO of ad agency Lintas from 1955 to 1980.

Written by Benita Fernando | Mumbai |
Updated: January 8, 2022 12:13:21 pm
Gerson da Cunha (Express Archive)

Noted theatre artist, writer and activist Gerson da Cunha passed away on Friday noon following a cardiac arrest. Da Cunha was 92 years old. Through his work spanning decades, first as an adman and later as an activist, he came to be closely connected with Mumbai’s cultural landscape and civic issues.

Friends and associates remember da Cunha as a stalwart from a generation that was integral to the cosmopolitan life of post-Independent Bombay, keen on ensuring a flourishing of literature, fine art and theatre. His nephew, adman and playwright Rahul da Cunha said, “He was like a second father… A massive tree has fallen in the life of Bombay. And they don’t make that kind of tree anymore.”

Da Cunha was born in Mumbai in 1929 and grew up in Mazgaon. In an essay, he recalls a childhood among rambling gardens and easily navigable roads, hearing the lions roar during dinnertime at the Byculla Zoo, and visiting proud department stores, confectioners and hairdressers.

Graduating in science, da Cunha first worked as a journalist at PTI Reuters and then moved to advertising, where he remained for 25 years. He was the CEO of ad agency Lintas from 1955 to 1980. Among his notable advertisements was one for Tata Steel after riots broke out in Jamshedpur in 1979. He gave the tagline, “We Also Make Steel”, highlighting the other contributions that the Tata company had made to Jamshedpur.

His advertising years coincided with his great passion for theatre. A stage actor, he was part of Theatre Group, Bombay. His theatre circle included his younger brother Sylvester da Cunha, Alyque Padamsee, Pearl Padamsee and Zareen Wadia. He is particularly remembered as Othello in the play directed by Zul Velani in 1956.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor tweeted, “In my childhood, I watched him on stage in many plays: his Othello was unforgettable. Till the last, his presence, voice & aura remained formidable.” Da Cunha also acted in movies such as Electric Moon (1992), Cotton Mary (1999), Asoka (2001) and Water (2005).

Theatre director Quasar Padamsee said da Cunha was truly a colossus of the Indian stage and was often referred to as India’s finest Shakespearean actor. He said, “No matter how banal the text, in his mouth it sounded like high art. He had an assured presence. It felt like he belonged on the boards, even when he was doing the ridiculous like sitting astride a cannon in Begum Sumroo, or playing the hilarious teacher in the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, or the lover Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. But more than anything, he will be missed because of his genuine love for the arts. As present as he was on stage, he was also in the audience at every performance. He watched greedily, laughed joyously and applauded generously. The auditoriums of this city are less bright tonight.”

Da Cunha was among the first writers for The Earth Times, a not-for-profit conference newspaper started for the 1992 Earth Summit – formally known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – and which ran till 2003. Da Cunha’s daily columns for The Earth Summit were titled View from the South, at times highlighting the importance of legislations turning into on-ground realities.

He also worked with the Unicef in Latin America, where he devised social marketing programmes such as inoculation for children in Brazil’s informal settlements and healthy motherhood in Central America. He also served at Unicef’s headquarters in New York. In 2018, he was honoured by the Government of Brazil with a model of Order of Rio Branco for his services to the country while with Unicef.

Writer Vivek Menezes, who was his colleague at The Earth Times and whose parents knew da Cunha well from the 1960s, said, “He was for the socially responsible and morally responsible position at all times, and sentimentally so. I thought of him as a role model.” Menezes added that he represented an old Bombay that was a great global city in the first half of the 20th century. “Gerson was completely absent of malice. He represents the best of what the generation looked up to. He was effortlessly cosmopolitan and super comfortable across milieus,” Menezes said.

This interest in social responsibility was felt deeply in da Cunha’s later years when he was committed to civic and environmental issues plaguing Mumbai and the country at large. He was part of the citizen-led Jaago Mumbaikar campaign and the co-founder of Action for Good Governance and Networking in India (AGNI). Former chief secretary of Maharashtra and former Mumbai municipal commissioner D M Sukthankar, who served as chairperson at AGNI, said da Cunha was interested in getting the BMC or the government or concerned bodies to remedy problems such as solid waste management, potholes, housing and commuting infrastructure and road-widening. Ruben Mascarenhas, AAP Mumbai working president, who has worked with da Cunha since 2007, described him as “the Bhishma Pitamaha of civic activism in Mumbai” on Twitter.

Architect Rahul Mehrotra told The Indian Express that da Cunha infused the debate about the role of civil society in city-making by bringing to bear the dimension of governance. His work through AGNI and many other NGOS brought this crucial dimension to discussion. But more importantly, he was a great moderating voice often brilliantly orchestrating and synthesizing seemingly conflicting views to productively operate to make the city of Mumbai a better place to live.

Da Cunha once described Mumbai as “an island shaped like a hand extended in greeting”. He gained reputation as the “Bombay Wallah” after a poem he wrote by the same name in his collection, So Far. In it, he wrote: “Nowhere is ever home/but this may be the town/of least effort for me.”

Da Cunha is survived by his wife, Uma.

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