On February 26, 2021, the advertising industry has lost one of its veterans, Shovon Chowdhury. Mohit Hira pens a heartfelt memoir...
I was once asked how I knew Shovon Chowdhury.
My immediate response was that one doesn’t know him. Instead, one experiences Shovon in as many ways as one can.
So, where do I begin?
Do I go back to the mid-80s and the Arts Faculty of Jadavpur University (immortalised as the ‘Lobby’) to which an unkempt Shovon would saunter across from the male-dominated Engineering Faculty – probably to be with the girls here? And one of those girls, Urmila, a petite senior from the English Dept. would marry him – and then be by his side, like a rock, until the very end. There are tales aplenty of how we experienced him in myriad ways during our university years: as a writer in Jabberwocky, our precious magazine; as the quizzer who’d win and then awkwardly blush (yes, he blushed!); as a very competent authority on anything from Groucho to Karl Marx; as an encyclopaedia on cinema, rock music and science fiction… but you get the picture, don’t you? He even wrote for us when a few of us ran a brilliant youth tabloid called ‘Of Age’ right after our graduation exams.
I joined Contract Advertising in Calcutta and Shovon, after completing his MBA from IIM Calcutta, was placed in Lintas Bombay before he returned to Calcutta with that agency until 1990. That was the year we lost three people overnight in Contract to Clarion (which later became Bates) when it was being rebooted by a former Thompson hand. Decimated, I reached out to Shovon and persuaded him to join us. He transformed our Account Management & Strategic Planning function at a time when I was his counterpart in Creative. Among his most memorable work were campaigns for Anandabazar Patrika, Jenson & Nicholson Paints and several pitches where he demonstrated multi-faceted thinking across brand strategy, creative ideation and a sharp business acumen. This increased his demand within the agency and lured him to our Delhi office in late-1993 or early-1994, I think, where Whirlpool became his baby, second only to his adorable little daughter. We continued to work together across cities.
In Contract Calcutta, Shovon was invariably the first to reach office – in fact, he even showered in the toilet there. If we walked into office and saw a shaved Shovon, it meant he had an important client meeting that day. He was also notorious for randomly catching 20 winks and then waking up as sharp as ever: a fact his colleagues his will vouch for – including my wife, Atreyee, who was then heading Media Planning in the agency and had to once nudge him awake while he blissfully snored on a client’s sofa in their reception area!
Should I write about the time he almost ended up in prison in Bihar after a night spent with an Old Monk on a train, and I had to plead with a lawyer on the platform of Patna station to let him off? Actually, that’s a tale best told in person… as is the one about him being grilled by the police at Rome airport because his scruffy appearance made them suspicious.
When he moved to Delhi, I inherited his Maruti 800 in Calcutta. And then, when I relocated to Contract Delhi in 1997, he had just left the agency to try his hand at film production and then to run Bates Delhi. Once again, I got the Maruti 800 he had been driving… our lives remained connected.
In 2001, after having spent a year outside Contract, I moved back to Delhi to take charge of our office here. Urmila insisted that our children study nowhere but the Shri Ram School where she became Vice Principal of its Vasant Vihar campus. Every year, our son would inherit their son’s books as he was just a year older, and then our daughter would devour them the next year before they were passed on to another child. We continued an old Calcutta tradition.
From collegemate, competitor and colleague, I also became Shovon’s client when I was at Open Magazine several years later, and he was running Street Life which he’d started in 2004 as its ‘Primary Culprit’, a sobriquet he gave himself – if you don’t believe me, check out his masterpiece – his LinkedIn profile while it’s still around.
Shovon made you laugh even as he laughed at life, and at himself. He despised being fussed over, but evolved into a wonderful host even as he graduated from rum to single malts. He was not garrulous – not by a long shot – but would hold forth when exhorted and leave you in splits. If science was his forté, his flair was fiction. And science fiction his passion while satire remained his calling.
If you’re reading this and chuckling, remember those impish eyes behind the thick glasses… and do share your experiences about Shovon for the world to smile, too.
But if you haven’t been fortunate enough to have met Shovon, you can still marvel at his mind by reading the books and columns he wrote.
Stay safe. And stay sane.
Mohit Hira is Co-founder, Myriad Partners, and Marketing Strategy Advisor at YourNest Venture Capital… among other things.