Ruma Guha Thakurta had a career that was multi-layered with films, music and the Calcutta Youth Choir, which she had founded way back in 1958. She was the first wife of Kishore Kumar but later migrated to Kolkata and married Arup Guha Thakurta, the scion of a well-known, aristocratic Brahmo family. Ruma and Kishore Kumar had one son, Amit Kumar who is a noted playback singer and vocalist himself, defining the third generation of members steeped in music. Her marriage with Arup has two children, Ayan and Sromona who is also a vocalist.
Thakurta was born on November 3rd, 1934 into a family of talented vocalists beginning with her mother, Sati Ghosh. When she was very little, her mother took her to meet Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan and she had very faint memories of the same. “I was told that he found my eyes very expressive and beautiful and named me Kamalika. But no one ever called me by this name and my name became Ruma, which I later learnt was the name of Sugreeva’s sister,” she had said in an interview
Her first memories of her public performance were of Uday Shankar’s shadow play of Ramleela in which she was cast in a small part. Intererestingly, Ruma began her career as a dancer. . She started her career as a dancer and trained under Uday Shankar at his Almora centre. Singing came naturally to her because though her mother ran a music school of her own, she never learnt music formally from her mother who waa the cousin of Satyajit Ray and older sister of his wife Bijoya, also a gifted singer. “My entire family was into singing and music including my father’s sisters so it kind of ran in the genes. I learnt mainly by the ear when I listened to my mother coaching her students. The whole day she would teach music not only in her own music school which my father had christened Swarabithan but also in different music schools across the city,” she said.
During World War II, her mother Sati Devi was invited to perform in Lahore and Ruma went along with her mother to Lahore where she performed at Eden Gardens over there. Hearing her sing, Haren Ghosh, a famous impresario of those times, sent her an urgent summons to report to Almora immediately because she was to sing at Uday Shanker’s wedding. “I still remember the song she sang on the occasion – it was “Tomaye Amaaye Milon Hobe Bole.” Ruma reminisced.
The family then migrated to Bombay and Ruma’s career in films began with Jwar Bhata (1944) in which Dilip Kumar also made his debut, followed by Mashal (1950), also shot in a Bengali version called Samar (1950) in which she acted alongside Ashok Kumar and Sumitra Devi. This was the celluloid adaptation of Bankim Chandra’s classic novel Rajani in which she plays a blind girl who suddenly happens to inherit wealth and the villain wishes suddenly to marry her. Afsar (1950) and Raag Rang followed and that marked the end of her short stint in Hindi cinema at the time. She was billed as Ruma Devi in her Hindi films.
Thakurta married Kishore Kumar in 1951 and their son, Amit Kumar, was born the following year. But the marriage did not last long and the couple had an amicable divorce in 1958 and by then, she had migrated to Kolkata. She did a very significant role in Rajen Tarafdar’s Ganga (1960), which marked a new beginning for her in Bengali films all of which were critically acclaimed and were directed by big names at the time. For Tapan Sinha, she performed in Khaniker Atithi, (1959) Nirjon Saikate (1963) and Wheel Chair (1994). Under the directorial baton of Tarun Majumdar, she did an excellent role in Palatak (1963), Balika Bodhu (1967) and Dadar Kirti (1980) while in her maternal uncle Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre, she performed in Abhijan (1962) and Ganashatru (1989). She sang the beautiful Tagore number Baaje Koruno Shure in the middle story Monihara in Teen Kanya (1961) and she was at that time, the only actor who sang her own songs and also sometimes did playback for some. Another significant role of her career was in Athony Firingee (1967) in which she had to perform the only female rival of Anthony in his kobigaan contests. She played in two brilliant comedies opposite Bhanu Bandopadhyay namely, in Ashitey Ashiona and Personal Assistant (1959) both of which were thumping box office hits and have archival value. She also acted in an off-beat film, Kinu Gowalar Goli (1964). In mainstream Bengali films she was usually cast as the betrayed widow or the syrupy, soft and sweet wife and mother which did not do justice to her talent.
Her second husband, Arup Guha Thakurta, produced and directed a film Benarasi (1962) in which she played the title role. It won the Best Feature Film Award from the BFJA but did not do well commercially. Her last acting role was in Meera Nair’s The Namesake (2006). One of her most memorable film songs was a duet she sang with Kishore Kumar and filmed on him and Anita Guha in the film Lukochuri (1958), Ei To Hethai Kunjo Chhayay, that is very popular among music buffs till today.
Before leaving Bombay, she was the joint secretary of the Bombay Youth Choir along with lyricist Shailendra. When she quit the choir to come to Calcutta, Shailendraji was very sad “not necessarily because I was leaving but because the days of the choir in Bombay were over,” said Ruma. “Actually, neither of us had enough time to devote to the running and the development of the BYC because we were both very busy. But when I came to Kolkata, it was Salilda who encouraged and inspired me to found the Calcutta Youth Choir with his students because at that time, I did not know where from to get people to sing my my choir. Manik Mama (Satyajit Ray) became the President of the Calcutta Youth Choir and we began the organization in 1958.”
“The unique quality of choir music is that it is qualified with harmonisation in music and singing which means that the group is divided into three or four smaller groups and each one sings at definite points in a different scale retaining its distinction with the others. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they retain their separate entities but this is what forms the basic foundation of any choir. This is an extremely pain-staking process that needs hard practice for many hours and impeccable discipline in terms of time, attendance at rehearsals and practice,” explained Ruma. The other quality that distinguishes the choir from other schools of music is that the lyrics, composition and even rendering is drawn from sources across the world in different languages which are then translated into Bengali or Hindi and sometimes, even English. Ruma set a tradition in gana sangeet (mass songs for the masses) founded by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) to spread awareness about our imprisoned state during India’s struggle for Independence. The Calcutta Youth Choir is the only living organization that has survived the popularity of film music and created its own niche for itself through discipline, dedication and hard work. And its heart and soul was a gutsy and spirit woman called Ruma Guha Thakurta.
Thakurta passed away in her Kolkata residence in Ballygunge on June 3rd, 2019 due to old age.