Prabhakar Mundkur
Obituary

Gerson da Cunha: A great pillar of Mumbai

The author pens a beautiful tribute to the adman, stage and film actor, social worker, author and one of the last great men of Bombay.

When I heard of Gerson’s passing a huge wave of emotion flooded by from the time I first met him in 1968. He was judging a music competition for rock groups and was enamoured by the performance of the Savages a band I played with. So impressed was he that he marched us into the HMV studios at Phirozeshah Mehta Road to speak to the A & R Manager Mr VK Dubey at HMV at that time to convince him that they should cut a 45 RPM record with us at that time. We did.

I later would know that he was an advertising man of repute and was General Manager at Lintas at a time when corporate titles were very ungenerous. I suppose if we were to translate that for today it was Chairman and CEO. Nothing less.

I was later to be enthralled by his acting skills when I first went to see the play Tughlaq at the well known Bhulabhai Desai auditorium near the LIC offices at Churchgate. It had Kabir Bedi in a lead role. Little wonder then that Wikipedia calls him an Indian stage and film actor, social worker and author. He acted in movies like Electric Moon, Cotton Mary, Asoka and Water, among others.

Gerson left the world of advertising behind quite early when he took up an assignment with the UNICEF in Latin America and New York City. Born to an aristocratic family, Gerson always spoke Portuguese, ( although his mother family was East Indian) but his time in Brazil helped him to polish up the language.

Unfortunately, when he returned to India, he didn’t have many people to show off his newly acquired skills in the Portuguese language, save with his younger brother Sylvester. Like many of the corporate leaders of yore, Gerson functioned in an honorary capacity in various Union ministries and the National Technology Missions under the Cabinet Secretariat.

In his later life, he was an active social worker. He was a great lover of Bombay as it was and Mumbai now and had transitioned beautifully from being a Bombaywallah to a Mumbaikar. He often mourned the fall of this great city which he called home and loved intensely. In his words;

“Nowhere is ever home.

But this may the town

Of least effort for me”

He grew up in Mazagaon, which he described as posh - the Aga Khan had his palace on Nesbitt Road. In fact, his great grandfather was the family physician for the Aga Khan. His great grandfather is known to have saved one of the Aga Khan’s heirs from typhoid.

As Chief Executive of Bombay First which later morphed into Mumbai First, he believed that Mumbai could be made a better place to live and work in. He also worked for AGNI another NGO that is trying to improve life in Mumbai.

Gerson was a man of many talents. You could speak to him practically about anything on this planet and he would have something to say about it. I admired him for his speaking skills. He had a way with words. He always spoke with great flourish and often extempore he would be able to garner words and phrases most appropriate to the occasion. They would come to him magically almost.

Gerson belonged to another Mumbai in many ways. A city that was so sophisticated, genteel and illustrious that it found its way into the jazz lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s famous song “Come Fly with me”.

Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away

If you can use some exotic booze

There's a bar in far Bombay

Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away

Gerson leaves behind many admirers and I am only one of them. Like they say, they don’t make men like him anymore. The city of Mumbai of course loses one of its biggest supporters. He was passionate about making Mumbai a better place, a rather impossible task given the circumstances. The Mumbai that Gerson grew up in had no slums and the other constraints the city faces today with its very dark underbelly.

But I am sure he will keep looking over his favourite city from the heavens above.

The author is an independent brand strategy advisor.