Sonada, Darjeeling, 26 August 2020 — It is with great sorrow that I heard about the death of Fr Gaston Roberge SJ of Kolkata. The last time I met with him was on 7 June 2015 at St Xavier’s College Kolkata, with a group of MA students of Mass Communication from Assam Don Bosco University, Guwahati (see pic above). He was delighted to see us and spent time fielding questions from students.
As the last president of Unda/OCIC-India and first president of Signis India (1998 to 2001 and 2001 to 2004), I cannot but remember his contribution to communication and media ministry in the Church and society. He was president of Unda/OCIC-India when I joined the Indian chapter of the World Catholic Communications body for Radio, Television and Cinema in 1983.
Today there are some 300 Christian communicators who deeply mourn the demise of our former president of the association and pay our humble homage to the apostle and pioneer of film appreciation and film studies and Church communications in India.
Jesuit Fr. Gaston Roberge died in Kolkata on 26 August 2020 on 110th birthday of his dear friend Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He was 85.
His death was as dramatic as his life – after receiving Holy Communion and taking breakfast he just passed away peacefully.
The Canadian Jesuit fell in love with India watching Satyajit Ray’s classic debut film Pather Pachali in New York. On arrival in Kolkata in 1961 he made friends with the world-renowned filmmaker and set up Chitrabani in 1970 (light & sound, or audio-visual studio) to train people in film appreciation and also to produce audio visual material for training purposes. He directed the premiere institution for 26 years until 1996.
Chitrabani was the first such Church run institution in Eastern and Northeast India imparting training in photography and film production and film appreciation. A professional audio studio was set up in 1973 and Radio Veritas Asia, Bengali Service was started in 1980 from Chitrabani studios.
Fr Gaston partnered with government and set up EMRC (Educational Multimedia Research Centre) Calcutta, in Chitrabani in 1986, the year when he relinquished his term as president of Unda/OCIC-India Catholic Association for Radio Television and Cinema – forerunner to Signis-India.
Fr. Gaston inspired popular radio broadcaster Dilip Mazumdar (member of Signis Bengal) to use radio for special adult education program in Bengali called ‘Chetana’ (awareness or awakening), which began in 1992 and drew over 200,000 listeners both in West Bengal and Bangladesh.
After directing Chitrabani for some 26 years till 1996, Fr Gaston had a three year stint as Executive Secretary for Social Communication, at the Society of Jesus Curia in Rome. On his return to Kolkata, Fr Gaston was also Head of Department of Communications at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, until 2001.
Author of some 25 books on cinema and communication, Fr Gaston was also faculty member of St. Xavier’s College`s Departments of Mass Communication and Film Studies.
His book Communication, Cinema, Development (1998) received a national award at the 46th National Film Awards of India in 1999.
He also received life time achievement award from Signis World in 2014.
Fr Gaston has summarised his spirituality, philosophy and theology of communication in his millennium book: The Faithful Witness: On Christian Communication (1999).
Another book by him entitled Chitra Bani (1974) is a manual for film appreciation with a forward by Satyajit Ray. The book makes in-depth comparison between Western and Indian appreciation paradigms showcasing his knowledge of Indian masters like Bharata Muni, Anandavardhana, Panini, and Kalidasa.
Gaston’s association with auhtor of THE CITY OF JOY Dominique LaPierre whose controversial film IN THE NAME OF GOD’S POOR (1997) cannot be forgotten. Fr Gaston had premiered the film in Montreal at the Unda/OCIC World Congress in 1998 where I saw it first time. I had proposed the film to be the opening film at the first Mother Teresa International Film Festival (MTIFF) held in 2003 to mark her beatification. There was much pressure to drop the film from the festival list. Thanks to Fr Gaston’s intervention and support, the film survived the controversy and was chosen to be the opening film at MTIFF 2003 held in Kolkata’s popular cine halls (New Empire & Light House).
Fr Gaston, faithful witness and communicator, rest in peace. END