Advertising, writer and activist Gerson da Cunha dies

Renowned theater artist, writer and activist Gerson da Cunha died of heart failure on Friday afternoon. Da Cunha was 92 years old. Through his decades of work, first as an advertiser and then as an activist, he has become intimately connected with the cultural landscape and civic issues of Mumbai.

Friends and associates remember da Cunha as a pillar of a generation that was an integral part of cosmopolitan life in post-independent Bombay, keen to ensure the flourishing of literature, the fine arts and the theater. . His nephew, publicist and playwright Rahul da Cunha said: “He was like a second father… A massive tree fell in Bombay life. And they don’t make that kind of tree anymore.

Da Cunha was born in Mumbai in 1929 and raised in Mazgaon. In one essay, he recalls a childhood amid rambling gardens and easily navigable roads, hearing lions roar during dinner time at Byculla Zoo, and visiting proud department stores, confectioners, and hairdressers.

A science graduate, da Cunha first worked as a journalist at PTI Reuters, then moved to advertising, where he remained for 25 years. He was CEO of Lintas Advertising Agency from 1955 to 1980. Among his notable advertisements was one for Tata Steel after riots broke out in Jamshedpur in 1979. Company had done in Jamshedpur.

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

Congressman Shashi Tharoor tweeted: “As a child I watched him live in many plays: his Othello was unforgettable. Until the end, her presence, her voice and her aura remained formidable. Da Cunha has also starred in films such as Electric Moon (1992), Cotton Mary (1999), Asoka (2001) and Water (2005).

Theater director Quasar Padamsee said that da Cunha was truly a colossus of the Indian scene and was often considered India’s best Shakespearean actor. He said, “No matter how banal the text, in his mouth it looked like great art. He had an assured presence. It felt like he belonged to the boards, even when he played the ridiculous like sitting astride a cannon in Begum Sumroo, or playing the hilarious professor in 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 true love for the arts. As present as he was on stage, he was also in the audience at each performance. He watched eagerly, laughed happily and applauded generously. The auditoriums in this city are less bright tonight.

Da Cunha was among the original editors of The Earth Times, a nonprofit conference journal established for the 1992 Earth Summit – officially known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – and which lasted until 2003. Da Cunha’s daily chronicles for The Earth Summit was titled Vue du Sud, sometimes emphasizing the importance of transforming legislation into realities on the ground.

He has also worked with Unicef ​​in Latin America, where he designed social marketing programs such as immunizations for children in informal settlements in Brazil and healthy motherhood in Central America. He also served at Unicef ​​headquarters in New York. In 2018, he was honored by the government of Brazil with a model of the Order of Rio Branco for his services to the country during his time at Unicef.

Writer Vivek Menezes, who was his colleague at The Earth Times and whose parents had known da Cunha well since the 1960s, said: “He was for the position of social responsibility and morally responsible at all times, and sentimentally. I saw him as a model. Menezes added that he represented an old Bombay which was a major global city in the first half of the 20th century. “Gerson was completely absent from the meanness. He represents the best of what the generation admired. He was effortless cosmopolitan and super comfortable in all walks of life, ”Menezes said.

This interest in social responsibility was deeply felt in da Cunha’s later years, when he became involved in the civic and environmental issues that plague Mumbai and the country as a whole. He was part of the Jaago Mumbaikar citizen campaign and co-founder of Action for Good Governance and Networking in India (AGNI). Former Maharashtra chief secretary and former Mumbai municipal commissioner DM Sukthankar, who served as AGNI chairman, said da Cunha wanted the BMC or the government or agencies involved to address issues such as management solid waste, potholes, housing and transportation infrastructure. and the widening of the road. Ruben Mascarenhas, president of AAP Mumbai, who has worked with da Cunha since 2007, described him on Twitter as “the Bhishma Pitamaha of civic activism in Mumbai”.

Architect Rahul Mehrotra told The Indian Express that da Cunha has inspired the debate on the role of civil society in city building by bringing into play the dimension of governance. His work through AGNI and many other NGOs brought this crucial dimension to the discussion. But more importantly, he was a great voice of moderation, often brilliantly orchestrating and synthesizing seemingly conflicting viewpoints to operate productively and 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 the reputation of “Bombay Wallah” from a poem he wrote of the same name in his collection, So Far. In it he wrote: “Nowhere is home / but maybe this is the city / the least effort for me.”

Da Cunha is survived by his wife, Uma.

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