Renowned theater artist, writer and activist Gerson da Cunha died on Friday noon after suffering a heart attack. Da Cunha was 92 years old. Through his work spanning decades, first as an advertisement man and then as an activist, he has come into close contact with Mumbai’s cultural scene and civic issues.
Friends and colleagues remember Da being a champion of a generation that was integral to the cosmopolitan life of post-independence Bombay, keen to ensure the flourishing of literature, fine arts and theatre.
Da Cunha was born in Mumbai in 1929 and raised in Mazgaon. After graduating in science, Da Cunha first worked as a journalist at PTI Reuters and then moved into advertising, staying there for 25 years. He was CEO of advertising agency Lintas from 1955 to 1980.
His advertising years coincided with his great passion for theatre. He was a stage actor and was part of the theater group in Bombay. His theater circle included his younger brother Sylvester da Cunha, Alec Badamsey, Pearl Badamsi and Zarine Wadia. He is especially mentioned as Othello, in the 1956 play directed by Zol Villani.
Da Cunha was among the early writers for The Earth Times, a not-for-profit conference newspaper that began at the Earth Summit in 1992 and ran until 2003, officially known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Da Cuna’s daily Earth Summit columns have been titled A View from the South, and at times highlight the importance of turning legislation into facts on the ground.
He also worked with UNICEF in Latin America, creating social marketing programs such as child vaccination in informal settlements in Brazil and healthy motherhood in Central America. He also worked at UNICEF headquarters in New York. In 2018, he was honored by the Government of Brazil with the Model of the Rio Branco Medal for his services to the country while working with UNICEF.
Writer Vivek Menezes, who was a fellow columnist for The Earth Times and whose parents had known da Cunha well since the 1960s, said, “He was socially responsible and morally responsible at all times, and so was emotional. I thought of him as a role model.”
This concern for social responsibility was deeply felt in Dakonia’s later years, as he was committed to the civic and environmental issues that plagued Mumbai and the country as a whole.
He was part of the citizen-led Jaago Mumbaikar campaign and co-founder of Action for Good Governance and Networking in India (AGNI).
Former General Secretary of Maharashtra and former Mumbai Municipal Commissioner DM Sukthankar, who served as Chairman of AGNI, said Da Kuna was interested in bringing BMC, government or relevant bodies to address issues such as solid waste management, drilling, housing and mobility. Infrastructure, road expansion. Robin Mascarenhas, Head of Action at AAP Mumbai, who has worked with Da Cunha since 2007, described him as “Bhishma Pitamaha of Mumbai’s civic activism” on Twitter.
He survived da being his wife Uma.