Gerson da Cunha is no more.
A terse announcement on national news on NDTV on the evening of 6 January 2022!
Given the dramatic life he had led, he died suddenly and quietly, in an ambulance that was taking him to the hospital. It was surely an undramatic exit for someone to towered over the world of advertising and theatre at one time; but he had remained active right until the very end, concerned about his beloved Mumbai and the forthcoming civic elections.
Gerson was and integral part of the Bombay scene for decades. He was born in Bombay, went to school and college here, started his career as a journalist before moving into advertising, finally heading Lintas, then India’s leading advertising agency. After Lintas, he joined UNICEF to head their “mothers milk is best” programme in Brazil, where he spent two decades.
On returning to Mumbai in retirement he teamed up with DM Sukhtankar, retired Chief Secretary DM Sukhtankar and Julio Ribeiro, Mumbai’s best-known police commissioner to start AGNI (Action for Good Governance and Net Working in India) a movement to get people from every ward involved in local civic affairs and, hence, get better services from the municipal corporation!
An obituary notice on Gerson’s passing in the newspaper today covers this briefly and yet completely. It says, “Advertising legend, Theatre veteran, Parent to Mumbai city through AGNI—your legacy lives on.”
I first met Gerson in 1957, when I was still in college and he was already a journalist. Later, since I went into marketing and he, into advertising, our paths crossed at regular intervals - at meetings, presentations and seminars. We did not meet often, but when we did, it was a close connection.
There are many others, who are perhaps better qualified to talk about his role in advertising, about his excellence as a stage actor, his impressive personality and the stentorian voice, that was easily recognisable on stage and on radio over the years. For me, Gerson was a contributor to my life because he taught me two important lessons.
The first was - never speak negatively about anyone.
In 2004, this became a chapter I had authored in a book titled Self Development For Sure Success, compiled by Dr P N Singh. I had listed 13 life lessons that I had learnt. The 8th lesson was “looking for the positives in each person”. Here’s what I wrote: I have known Gerson da Cunha for over 40 years. As a well-known advertising professional, he knows hundreds of people. We have never been close friends, but we have met often enough, and discussed ideas, events and people. In all these 40 years, I have never known Gerson to say an unkind word about anybody. There were obvious crooks that we talked about. But Gerson would focus on the good points and choose to ignore the shortcomings. “But you know, Walter, Zee has some unusual strengths…" and he would continue, focusing on the plus points of Zee which very few had known or identified .
Gerson taught me that you can spend a whole lifetime looking for the positives in every human being and purposefully ignore the negatives. I find this very difficult to do with as much flair as Gerson does. But I keep trying with the guiding star principle that none of us are perfect.
The second important lesson was “extend the helping hand.” If I ever asked him, when he was in Lintas, if he could help someone I knew, who was desperately looking for a job, he would never say no. There may be no vacancies in Lintas, but Gerson would take a copies of the biodata and send it to the large number of people (appropriate to the situation) who he knew.
Obviously, he had no time to do a systematic follow-up; but, invariably, somewhere, somehow, there would often be success. It also worked the other way round. He found an advertising manager for me at a company that I worked for at one time. I studied how this system works rather closely and wrote an article titled “Pass them on”. Gerson always did what he could, and when he could not, he did not hesitate to ask for help from those who could. In that sense he was a giver and a taker.
My last close interaction with Gerson was in 2019 in Goa. He was visiting the state with his wife, Uma, who was attending the International Film Festival.
Gerson himself was on a holiday, and coincidentally, so was I. We both took time off to ride through the old quarter of Panjim together, reconstructing the past, based on what we remembered from our visits with our respective parents in our youth. I saw he was enjoying Goa - his and my original native land! It remains a delightful, happy memory for me .
Goodbye Gerson. Yours was a life well lived till 92—getting and giving till the last on 6 January . MANY of us will miss you—but ALL of us will remember you fondly!