THE BLOG
03/17/2014 04:56 pm ET Updated May 17, 2014

India's Gerson da Cunha: Renaissance Man

The name of Gerson da Cunha of Mumbai means a lot to men and women of a certain generation, including mine. Simply put, he is sui generis. He's India's Renaissance Man.

He possesses a towering intellect, a warm and giving personality, a voice that has been projected across film and drama theaters in many countries, a mind that has graced the diverse worlds of advertising, strategic communications and social marketing, a brain that developed modern India's mix of telecommunications of sustainable economic development -- particularly in rural areas -- and a heart that has worked relentless in the cause of women's education and empowerment, for children's rights and for trying to restore urban sanity in teeming metropolises such as Mumbai.

I thought of these things just the other evening at a dinner hosted by Gerson and his wife Uma, a noted film critic, publisher of a highly regarded film quarterly, and organizer of film festivals. The guests included the film composer and lyricist Vanraj Bhatia, the marketing guru Shashi Kathpalia and his wife, Nayna, the social activist, Madhulika Dash of Orissa, a noted food writer, and the acclaimed photographers Suzanne Lee of Malaysia and Sanjit Das of Kolkata.

I was reminded of what President John F. Kennedy said at a White House dinner in April 1962 honoring Nobel laureates of the Western hemisphere: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

I write about Gerson because he's 83 years old, and is still going strong. A mild stroke hasn't slowed him, nor has the fact that today's generation of public intellectuals seldom acknowledge -- at least not fulsomely -- his stellar contributions. Gerson's door remains open to all, and notwithstanding ingrates he continues to be generous with his counsel and contacts.

Gerson da Cunha belongs to a generation of Indians who set about creating and strengthening institutions in advertising and other fields in post-Independence India. At a very young age, he became chief executive of Lintas, a fabled company whose business he grew. Unicef recruited him for South America, where he helped conceive and implement social marketing programs such inoculation for children in Brazil's slums, and healthy motherhood in Central America.

After a long Unicef stint -- which included serving at the agency's headquarters in New York -- Gerson returned home and helped his friend, the entrepreneur Sam Pitroda, to implement then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's ambition to streamline India's telecommunications. He wrote newspaper columns, and spoke widely about the importance of primary health care and women's education in India's ambitious development plans.

Gerson then turned his attention to urban management. While a large majority of India's 1.3 billion people live in rural areas, the country's rapidly expanding cities suffered from poor management and planning. Gerson formed a nongovernmental organization in Mumbai called Agni -- fire -- that kept after political governors to devote more time and resources for the wellbeing of city dwellers.

And all the while, Gerson continued acting in plays and movies, and he continued his column writing.

I had the privilege of persuading Gerson to join me in starting a conference newspaper, The Earth Times, for the 1992 Earth Summit. The summit was more formally known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. That parlay -- which was attended by 110 heads of state and government, and more than 65,000 civil-society participants -- took Gerson back to his old territory, Rio de Janeiro.

His daily columns for The Earth Times appeared under the title, View from the South. They spanned the spectrum of environmental and developmental issues, and they fetched Gerson a new cohort of fans. Indeed, his perspectives helped shape the political dialogue at the summit.

We continued publishing The Earth Times until 2003. That's when I shuttered the not-for-profit newspaper, which appeared daily at UN conferences in a dozen cities ranging from Bonn to Cairo to Beijing. It would be no hyperbole to say that Gerson's columns were the most sought-after feature of the newspaper.

Now he's back home in Mumbai, still pressing the cause of livable cities and healthy environments for city dwellers. His home serves as a salon for everyone from the high and mighty to everyday citizens. Gerson clearly relishes good company. But I venture to suggest that his visitors get far more out of him and Uma than the couple do.

That clearly doesn't bother Gerson da Cunha. After all, he says, his extraordinary and special life experiences are there for him to share and not to hoard. His art-and-artifact-filled living room is enhanced by the company he keeps, says Gerson. His mantra: Everyone's welcome.

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