Ruma Guha Thakurta, actress, singer, activist, organiser and founder of the Calcutta Youth Choir passed away in Kolkata on Monday, June 3. Tributes in the media remember her for her uniquely melodious singing voice that kept listeners mesmerised for hours when she sang though she did not perform all too frequently. But one needs to understand her background in order to be able to understand her rich contribution to the world of music not only in India but across the world.

Ruma Ghosh was born to culturally inclined Brahmo parents and her mother, Sati Ghosh, was a trained vocalist, and elder sister to Bijoya Ray, wife of Satyajit Ray on 21st November, 1934. She began her girlhood as a dancer though her mother and all aunts were exceptionally good vocal artists. She migrated to Bombay after her marriage to Kishore Kumar in 1951 and settled there for some years. Their son, Amit Kumar, an established singer in his own right, was born in 1952. During this phase, she acted in several films such as Jwar Bhata (1944), which was a commercial flop but introduced one of the greatest actors in Indian cinema – Dilip Kumar.

Her next film was Mashaal (1944) in Hindi which had a Bengali version called Samar, adapted from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Rajani. Ruma Ghosh portrayed a blind girl who suddenly finds herself an heir to riches and the world’s perspective towards her changes. Both Jwar Bhata and Mashaal were produced under the Bombay Talkies banner. The former was directed by Amiya Chakravarty and Anil Biswas as music director while Mashaal was directed by Nitin Bose and with S.D. Burman scoring the music.

(Ruma Guha Thakurta)

Other Hindi films she did were Afsar and Raag Rang. She got married to Kishore Kumar in 1951 and their son Amit Kumar was born a year later. But it was her shift to Calcutta that changed the direction of her life and career. After six years of marriage, the couple divorced and Ruma shifted to Calcutta to act in the famous classic, Rajen Tarafdar’s Ganga based on Samaresh Bose’s cult novel of the same name as one of the two parallel leading ladies the other one being Sandhya Roy.

She married Arup Guhathakurta and the couple had two children, Ayan and Sramana who is also a singer. Her film career revived with a very good film she produced herself and which her husband directed called Benarasi in 1962. It was a moving tale of a courtesan who tries to lead a life of dignity and respect when her childhood sweetheart Ratan takes away from her terrible environment. It was a good film but did not do well at the box office. It won the BFJA Award for Best Feature Film the following year.

Other notable films she worked in are – Tarun Majumdar’s Palatak (1963), Balika Bodhu and Dadar Kirti, Tapan Sinha’s Nirjan Saikatey (1963), Khoniker Atithi and Wheelchair, Satyajit Ray’s Abhijaan and Ganashatru and Antony Firingee (1967) directed by Sunil Banerjee. Aashitey Aashio Naa and Personal Assistant (1959) are two rollicking comedies in which she was paired with the great Bhanu Bandopadhay and the films draw a full audience even today if and when they are telecast on any of the channels. She was more of a sweet and syrupy actress moulded into these roles than a dramatic one or rather, directors did not really explore her potential as an actress.

She was not too choosy nor very ambitious to make it big in cinema because her interests lay elsewhere. But some of her songs, she sang herself and gave voice to, remain carved in the history of Bengali cinema. One of them is her recital of the very difficult Tagore number baaje Koruno shure in Ray’s Teen Kanya and the other is a beautiful romantic duet she sang with Kishore Kumar for the hit film Lukochuri that went ei to hethaye kunjo chayaye besides the kobigaan songs she rendered in Antony Firingee and nautanki songs she sang in Palatak and in both films, she played very convincing roles too.

In 1958, she founded the Calcutta Youth Choir along with Salil Choudhury and Satyajit Ray as President. This group changed the history of Bengali music not only in West Bengal and India but across the world. It was an incorporation of the choir school of music into a powerful movement of the people through people’s songs of rebellion and protest. The foundations of gana sangeet or songs of the masses were laid by Salil Choudhury long back. Salil Choudhury created a completely new genre of music and the Calcutta Youth Choir followed it in terms of form, content and performance taking songs of different countries and languages, getting them translated, setting the music to harmonise the same song sung in groups with different scales for the same line or stanza, and delivering the songs in harmonisation.

Salil Choudhury’s friend Raghu Chakrabarty said that the contribution of Salil-da’s songs and music at the time was extra-ordinary as it helped to resurrect and revive the Communist Party from total collapse. It paved the way for indirect supporters of the Communist Party to enter into the fray directly. Ruma Guhathakurta built on the foundation laid down by Salil Choudhury many years ago and extended its canvas which still remained people-centric and mass-centric, created a dedicated group of singers and orchestra that went through rigorous practice everyday before a performance. The songs followed the grammatical rules of a choir -a conventional choir with both male and female with 4 basic voice types or ranges – Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass – commonly known as SATB.

(Salil Choudhury)

The members of the CYC had a uniform – the women in white saris with printed borders and matching, long-sleeved blouses with flower in their hair while the men wore the same colour kurta and pajamas. The lyrics of the songs that defined the content were not necessarily rooted in Bengal but were borrowed from elsewhere.

They performed to a live orchestra and since they had to be in complete harmony in all the four scales, they could not go wrong on a single note. One famous song from their huge repertoire that keeps growing to this day is the famous Ganges song – O Ganga Tumi Boichho Keno which originates in a similar Assamese song written, composed and even sung by the late Bhupen Hazarika. Ruma Guhathakurta was the lead singer and initially, even conducted the performance but later handed over the baton to her chief assistants and collaborators.

This was a completely different school of music and song which sometimes also included dance performances to match with the music. One song went “they do not allow us to sing the song of Life, art-rebel Paul Robeson” while another promises that “if not today, or tomorrow or the day after, the night sun will rise, one day or another day,” which in Bengali goes, “aaj noy kaal noy porshu, bibhabori shurjo uthbe, ekdin n ahoy ekdin.”

Yet another one goes, “tomaar amar thikana, Padma, Meghna, Jamuna, Meghna and Volga jidey, Gangar srot dhorey, peyechhi cholar nishana” which roughly translated means, “we have got the target of our journey along the flow of the Ganges to get to our address which spans the rivers Padma, Meghna, Jamuna. Mekong and Volga” covering the entire global canvas. They are songs that easily transcend borders, and with a recent composition, amra juddho chaina shanti chai, - we do not want war, we want piece – the singes and composers and lyricists have evolved with the times without losing the spirit of rebellion that keeps them alive and going. Another famous number is Bharat borsho surjer ek naam meaning, “Bharat is another name for the sun.”

But CYC does not confine itself to singing choir songs of rebellion and for the masses only. It also renders all kinds of music from different schools of music such as Tagore, Dwijendralal Roy,Rajanikanta Sen, Atul Prosad and so on and keeps expanding its repertory investing these traditional school of music with their distinctive school of choral music.

In July, 1974, the 20-member folk song and dance troupe of Calcutta Youth Choir led by Ruma Guha Thakurta, won the first prize in the Copenhagen Youth Festival. The choir also took part in the 25th anniversary of Independence Day of India in Delhi. Opening song by Calcutta Youth Choir to welcome Nelson Mandela in India in 1990 and to honour Amartya Sen for Nobel in the year 1998, It also performed to celebrate 30 years of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) rule in West Bengal. It has performed more than 5000 shows in India and beyond since its inception in 1974.

Today, the CYC is comprised of around 300 members drawn from across different parts of the city and state involved in singing, dancing, reciting, anchoring, playing musical instruments, composing, writing lyrics and also managing the affairs of the foundation. It now has a building of its own in South Calcutta inaugurated by the then-CM of the State Sri Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Ruma Guhathakurta was present at their performance for the last time on 11th June 2013 when CYC celebrated its 55th birthday after which, she had to stay away for her failing health.

In the early '90s Salil-da conducted a 50-voice choir for Delhi Doordarshan getting his old comrade Yogesh to translate several of his "Mass songs" in Hindi. This programme was highly acclaimed. These mass songs became a part of the independence movement and they are still performed all over Bengal after all these years.

They have become an integral part of Bengal’s musical heritage. Salil-da’s Bengali songs changed the whole course of modern Bengali music. Bengalis were thrilled and amazed to hear his songs with completely new melodies, new lyrics and totally new musical arrangements. The CYC under the able guidance and leadership of Ruma Guhathakurta, is carrying the movement forward and keeping the flag flying high.

(Ruma Guha Thakurta)