Tribute to Gerson da Cunha (June 1929 – 7 January 2022)

Gerson da Cunha (Alumnus 1945 – 1949): 
“A Colossus of a human being. Whence cometh such another?”

That’s with due apologies to the bard: ‘But let me begin by sharing the stage with a bouquet of mutual friends, all Xavierites.
(I have been well trained by that once pernicious MRTP provisions that governed quite a sizeable  chunk  of  my career!)

Let’s begin with our Marketing Guru

“If there is an excellent example of someone who could be said to come close to the goal of living a ‘full life ‘, based on the principle of “do what you like – like what you do “, it could be Gerson da Cunha – who passed away on 6 Jan 22 at the age of 92! it was indeed a full life!

From the early days, Gerson had an impressive personality- tall and well built; he spoke well with a stentorian voice, and generally had a smile reflecting an ‘easy temperament’. He applied these qualities to a career in the advertising profession; to a hobby in the English theatre, and spot assignments in films; and to social/ community work in the interests of the ‘common good.’

There could not have been a better fit’ ‘to make a more efficient pump’. He used this fit for 70 years, to lead a successful life for himself, and to benefit the community in Bombay, where he was born and where he lived.

It is now often quoted “.  If your work is also your hobby, you never have to work a day in your life “. In many ways, Gerson had merged his hobby and work- and therefore one never saw him stressed, impatient or distracted whenever one met him. Gerson was always ‘all there ‘

Although I have known Gerson for 60 years, we did not meet often. But when we did meet perhaps three times a year, it was as if we were close friends. There was a bond of connections and interests that kept us together. There was much that I learned that I have covered in other pieces that I have written on him.

I am grateful that the good Lord, designed that our paths crossed from 1958, at regular intervals and in different scenarios.  My own life became a richer life, because I knew Gerson through these many years. He left behind a precious legacy of Values. May his soul RIP!!”

Walter Vieira
Alumnus 1954-1958

… and this is what Rahul da Cunha, adman, playwright and nephew, has to say:

“Gerson da Cunha was my uncle… 

… but he was more like a second father.

He donned many hats – advertising man, actor, activist, and Agni convenor. Many of his activities and achievements were ‘large’ – involving his towering personality.

But he was also a quiet man, an intense listener and he was very very curious about the world. 

Which is what made him such a fine poet.

He was one of my mentors – along with Alyque Padamsee and Kersey Katrak – perhaps the greatest thing he taught me was the fact that one should be many-faceted, multi professioned. And best of all, live in the moment. Create in the moment. He was one of a kind. And a very kind man. RIP uncle.” 

Rahul da Cunha
Alumnus 1979-1984

Next, we have the well-known activist and Trustee, Nagar:

“I have known Gerson since the mid-sixties…

We began working together from 1995 in activities that attempted to influence policies for the betterment of Mumbai to make it a more liveable city for all its citizens. Gerson had an unshakable belief that if citizens banded together in this task, we could make it work. It did to a large extent. He enthused many people across Mumbai which led to the formation, in the late 1990s, of two NGOs, NAGAR and AGNI, of which he was a Trustee. He brought to these a clarity of vision, deep passion and commitment which was exemplary. In his multifarious endeavours he always gave more than he took. Gerson leaves a void not easily filled.” 

Nayana Kathpalia
Alumna 1962-1964

And now, the very affable Dodo, not just a friend and neighbour, but one who  was by his side “performing CPR, pumping his chest to keep his heart beating and trying to get him to breathe; which I think and feel was his last …” 

“All the world was literally his stage…

… and it was his favourite speech from Shakespeare’s ‘As you like it’. From Bombay to New York to Brazil to London he played many parts, cast his spell, and fought the good fight. I feel grateful and lucky to have been a small part of his life as a neighbour, friend, and co-actor. Ever diplomatic, full of wit and wisdom, a helping hand and full of good counsel, our building society and of course society at large will miss our larger-than-life Gerson.

Faredoon (Dodo) Bhujwala
Alumnus 1978 – 1979

Next we have the indefatigable Shirin who spearheaded the cleaning up and maintaining of  the Oval, Horniman Circle, the founding of the Kala Ghoda Festival etc., etc. 

“Gerson, a neighbour and…

… warm-hearted friend of many years, was a larger-than-life personality.  The many hats he wore over his lifetime are witness to that.   But the most meaningful one to me was his concern for Bombay, the city he loved…championing its many causes, addressing its multitude of problems, personally and through NGOs to make it a better place for all.  His approach was not idealistically impractical, but rather pragmatic and practical so that viable solutions could be found.  His voice and stature made a difference.

Gerson’s was a life well lived”.

Shirin K. Bharucha
Alumna 1955–1959

One of the pioneers of the SAVE POWAI LAKE CAMPAIGN, Gordon Rodricks, recalls how Gerson helped the movement gain momentum:

“Roger, I saw something in Gerson Da Cunha,

“Dr Abdul Kalam, and Dr Jaydev Yogendra (international Yoga personality) that struck me before exchanging a single word.

I saw an AURA in all three; an explicable pull to gaze in wonder, not even knowing why.

This magnetic HALO emanated from Spirituality, Intellectualism, Knowledge Vision, Perception, and Humanitarianism. 

I felt like I had the answers, even before they spoke.

Gerson humbly attended a Press conference at Maharashtra State Angling Association Powai nearly two decades ago with me as the spearhead of the SAVE POWAI LAKE CAMPAIGN.

He took aside the celebrated Naushad Ali our President, Rajiv Mohite High Court Judge, Majeed Memon eminent Lawyer and me who were representing this cause, to the Central Govt. He gave us a refreshing perspective on the Environment, Social, Political and Economic influence we needed to negotiate and steer through as the implications were manifold, with unseen setbacks likely from Commercial and Political Interests.

We gained much in our strategy from his wider perspective.

Powai Lake was included in the National Lake Conservation Programme.”

Gordon Rodricks
Alumnus  1955–1959

Although he moved to Washington with the World Bank and IFC, Promodh Malhotra stayed connected:

“I shall remember Gerson da Cunha…

…as a large and friendly human presence in my life, who took his considerable talents for granted, and maintained warm relationship with all those privileged to know him.  I saw him first on stage in “All My Sons”, when I was a kid fresh from the Punjab after Partition.  His kind words on my being introduced after the performance, foreshadowed the warmth with which he treated me in all our personal and professional interactions. We had close connections, through our alma mater St. Xavier’s College, his brother Sylvie, theatre, and advertising colleagues like Alyque Padamsee, Bubbles Padamsee and Kersy Katrak. My wife Maya, her father Prakash Tandon of HLL, brought us closer still and his wife Uma also augmented our relationship. He was the epitome of the new India and exhibited the qualities that made Bombay “Urbs Prima in Indis”.

RIP my dear Gerson, you brought out the best in all of us.”

Promodh Malhotra
Alumnus 1954–1958

And to my last guest: a Theatre-holic, founding member of Thespo, a nationwide vibrant youth theatre community: 

“Gerson da Cunha was a doyen of the Indian stage and the conscience keeper Bombay city. 

Fittingly, he was often referred to as India’s finest Shakespearean actor. No matter how banal the text, in his mouth it always sounded like high art. His early days in theatre came from the dusty corridors of Xavier’s, and he never forgot it. But these hallowed walls also seemed to inculcate in him a commitment to the greater good. He chose to give up lucrative opportunities to dedicate his life to making things better for everyone in society. There was rarely a cause he didn’t champion, and he did this all with a quiet dignity and grace that disarmed even the harshest opponents. Gerson da Cunha may no longer be with us, but he has left behind a blueprint for how one should conduct ourselves in this world.”

Quasar Thakore Padamsee
Alumnus 1996-1999

… and finally, my take on this gentleman who not only lived life king size but also desired that everyone he knew, and our city too, do likewise! (Incidentally, we were both on the Advisory Board of the College when we put our minds and hearts together to celebrate 140 years of our Alma Mater!)

“I first met Gerson in 1952. I was 12, and he 22. But he exuded the confidence and personality of someone twice his age! I was acting in a talent contest.  And he was one of the judges. Instantly, I adopted him as my role model.  He had the presence, the personality, the voice, and the wisdom of exactly what I aspired to be! I was a great fan of his. And watched every play he acted in.  Almost! Then on August 1, 1957, the venerable and admirable Adi Marzban invited me to take part in a radio play at AIR on Lokmanya Tilak. And surprise, surprise: there was Gerson too!  I was in my second year at Xavier’s. 

And then in 1961, the same Adi decided to direct “The Man who came to Dinner”.  This was the first time I was on stage with Gerson. What an honour for a 20-year-old! I informed him that I had just landed a job with JWT. He was delighted. He was at Lintas then.  But nevertheless, advised me to call should I ever need to “have a chat over chai!”  I still remember at one show, he suddenly forgot his lines. He walked nonchalantly to the prompter, grabbed the script, glanced at it, handed it back with aplomb and carried on like there was no slip. And of course, the audience noticed it and loved him even more! They clapped. And clapped.  That was so characteristic of Gerson! He could literally get away with anything!  He always had the presence of mind and the personality to carry it off!

I guess his meteoric success in advertising is what prompted me to follow suit. It was in 1964 that I decided to take part in a global competition to write a thesis on a successful international advertising campaign.  I decided to use the Lux film star campaign as a Case Study.  Gerson readily agreed to help. He spent hours briefing me.  Mind you, I was from a competing agency.  That didn’t deter him.  In fact, it was his knowledge that helped me win my first International Advertising Award! And when I went to thank him, he insisted that what he gave me was the bare bones and that it was the “flesh” that won me the Award! 

In mid-1965, I got a call from Premnarayan Indernarayan (also a Xavierite and who I had got to know as an Inter-School elocution champion and President of the Khar Gymkhana. He introduced himself as the Vice President of the Advertising Agencies Association of India. He told me that he was putting me on to Razmi Ahmed, the President, who also happened to be the Chief of  Lintas at the time. Before I could say: No thank you, I am quite happy at Shilpi, there was Razmi on the phone: “Roger, our country is at war.  I have just spoken to our Information & Broadcasting Minister (Mrs Indira Gandhi) and have volunteered a delegation of 3 of you to help in the war effort. The Defence Ministry has already cleared your name and those of Jit Kantawala and DasGupta. How soon can you leave for Delhi?”  I stopped for a couple of moments: “I don’t even know Mr Ahmed from Adam! I’ve never even met him! Ah yes! It must have been Gerson who proposed my name and Premnarayan who seconded it. Or the other way around!

Then again in 1978, his global CEO was down.  Reijn Reijnkens. Reijn was also the global Chairman of the International Advertising Association.  He was keen that we start an India Chapter.  Obviously, he thought Gerson should do that.  Gerson thought otherwise and passed the baton on to me. The rest as they say is history! When initiating the Advertising Standards Council of India, Gerson was, unfortunately in Brazil. Brahm Vasudeva and I would often reminisce: “it would have been a lot smoother had Gerson been around. We really could do with one more like minded person namely, Gerson!   I could go on and on about Gerson the true blue mountain of a human being!.  A colossus! I’ll miss you Gerson. Mumbai will miss you. God bless you!”

Roger C.B. Pereira
Alumnus 1955-1959

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