Tribute to the Nightingale ..
P.Leela passes away

Satya Kabali

The legendary playbacksinger P.Leela passed away on Oct 31 in Chennai.

She was rendering Carnatic music concerts and singing in light music programs almost until last year. Starting at the age of 13, she has sung about 5000 film songs in all the South Indian languages Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. She also sang in one Bengali film and in Sinhala movies. Her songs are known for their emotional touch and classical discipline. She made a name for herself by singing in her mellifluous voice both for the film industry and in carnatic music She considered it an honour to have sung in the same period as M S Subbulakshmi, M L Vasanthakumari and D K Pattammal - three giants of Carnatic music. She has worked under all great music directors and has sung with all the major singers of the South Indian film industry.

Porayathu Leela was born in 1934, in Chitthur(Palghat) to V.K.Kunjanmenon and Meenakshi. She was the last of the three daughters- Sharadha, Bhanumathi and Leela. V K Kunjanmenon was working as a teacher in Ramavaram Higher Secondary School at Ernakulam V.K.Menon was passionate about music “We were three girls in our family and I was the youngest. My father wanted us to learn Carnatic music and all three of us used to sing well, My father was solely responsible for making me a singer." said Leela.

Leela had a gifted voice.Thiribuvana Manibhagavadhar the uncle of musician T. V. Gopalakrishnan. was her first guru. Later she learnt from Paththamadai Krishna Ayyar and Maruthuvakudi Rajagopala Iyer.Vadakkancheri Ramabhagavadhar was a very close friend of Menon.He settled down in Madras. Whenever he used to visit Ernakulam, he would invite Menon and Leela to come to Madras to learn music. The headmistress of the school in which Leela was studying advised her father to take Leela to Madras for further training in music.

Menon had an ambition of making his youngest daughter a singer.He made it his lifetime mission . Menon resigned his job in Ernakulam and took Leela to Madras in 1944. Both of them stayed with Vadakkancheri Ramabagavathar in Mylapore and the 10 year old Leela started learning in gurukula style. Her father was very particular that Leela should do sadhaka early in the morning. He saw to it that her sole interest was music.

In Madras,Leela had the opportunity of listening to the concerts of legendary singers like Ariyakkudi Ramanujam, S Ramanathan, GNB, Chembai and others. Leela said this 'kelvi gnanam' helped her in a long way in finetuning her music.and moulding her as a singer. Leela sang at many music competitions in the city winning prizes In 1946, Durgabai Deshmukh gave her the first concert in Andra mahila sabha .Leela was giving concerts in various places.

Entry into the Film industry

Columbia Recording Company was looking out for a female voice and the manager Ganabathirama Iyer, recommended Leela. She was appointed as their artiste. This paved the way for her entry into the films.

In Tamil, Nandakumar was the first movie to introduce playback singing.A.V.Meiyappa chettiar came up with the innovative idea of replacing the soundtrack with another voice and the playback system was introduced in Tamil cinema in 1938. It was gradually accepted and many singers entered the movie world. “I was introduced at a time when the actresses were singing for themselves,” reminisces Leela.

When she landed in Madras she did not know Tamil or Telugu. She used to write the keerthanais in Malayalam and practice them to perfection. Once she started her career as playback singer she arranged for tutors and learnt other languages.

She was offered to sing for a Tamil movie in 1948. Her father was initially reluctant but later he was persuaded to accept. Leela made her debut as playback singer in the movie `Kanganam.' She sang her first song, ‘Sree Varalakshmi’, when she was just 13 years old. C.H. Padmanabhasastry was the music director of the film. She sang all the songs for the heroine in that film.

Kanganam was produced by G.B.Narayanan company. It was released on 10-6-1948. Story was by A.T.Krishnasamy. Lyrics by Kambadasan. K.R.Ramasamy,M.R.Saminathan,Menaka and P.R.Mangalam acted in that movie.

In 1948 she sang 'paaduka poonkuyile' for the Malayalam movie Nirmala. Balan made in 1938 was. the first Malayalam "talkie" with sound track. Mr.T.R Sundaram produced this film for Modern theatres, Salem, with S. Nottani as the director. The film starred Mr.K. K. Aroor, Mr. Alleppy Vincent, Smt. M. K. Kamalam. Mr. Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai wrote the screen play. The film ‘Balan’ produced by T. R.Sundaram was a melodrama with more Tamil influence than Malayalam.

In 1948, 'Nirmala was produced by P.J.Cherian and directed by P.V.Krishna Iyer.. ‘Nirmala’ (1948) was the first film to explore the possibility of music and songs in Malayalam cinema. The lyrics penned by the legendary Malayalam poet G.. Shankara Kurup set to Music by P.S.Diwakar became popular. From then on, the songs became an essential ingredient of Malayalam cinema.

Telugu Movies

In 1949 Leela made her debut in Telugu Cinema singing in 3 films Manadesam, Keelu Gurram and Gunasundarikatha.

The legendary singer and music director Ghantasala (with whom Leela has sung the most number of songs) introduced Leela in Manadesam. Manadesam is remembered as Telugu megastar Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao's debut as a police inspector. He was paid 250 rupees as advance for remuneration.

The film was based on Vipradas, a Bengali novel. It was the first film made in Telugu, based on a Bengali novel. The film was produced by MRA films.(named after Meka Rajyalakshmi Anuradha, daughter of the Telugu actress, singer and producer of yester years Mrs.C.Krishnaveni and Mirzapuram Raja). Ghantasala Venkateswararao who was making strides as a singer was introduced to Krishnaveni; she was very much pleased with his voice and saw the potentials in him as a composer. Ghantasala was booked as the Music director for three of their productions – Manadesam, Keelu Gurram and Lakshmamma.

In Manadesam, Krishnaveni wanted to introduce all types of traditional songs of Andhra Pradesh, "Dhampudu paatalu, veedhi naatakaalu, bommalaatalu, jaanapada geethalu, burra kathalu etc", patriotic songs, devotional songs, etc. Ghantasala scored music very well. M.S.Ramarao sang for the hero C.H.Narayanarao.

Keelu Gurram [1949] starring Nageswara Rao Akkineni, Anjali Devi and directed by Raja of Mirzapur was a superhit.

Vauhini pictures Gunasundarikatha was produced by B.N.Reddy and directed by K.V.Reddy.The film was released on 29 Dec 1949. The film was an adaptation of Shakespere’s drama King Lear.Screenplay was by K.V.Reddy and Kamalaakara KameswaraRao. The film starred Sriranjani as Gunasundari, Vallabhajosyula SivaRam as Prince, the comedian Kasturi SivaRao, as cursed Prince, K. Malati and P. Santa Kumari as Gunasundari's wicked sisters. Dialogues and Lyrics by Pingali Nagendra Rao. Leela sang the songs for the heroine Sriranjani.

Songs of the film kalakala aa kOkilEmO, challani doravElE chandamaamaa, Sree tulasi jaya tulasi, ammaa mahalaxmi dayasEyavamma became hits .

The Fifties: Golden Age of Telugu Cinema

In the 1950s Leela was busy singing in all the South Indian languages.Her songs in films like Patala Bhairavi, Missamma, Pelli chesi choodu, Appu chesi pappu kudu, Gundamma katha are the greatest melodies and remembered even today after many decades.

Vijaya productions was one of the major production companies in the 1950’s. Most of their films were bilingual made both in Telugu and Tamil. Some of the films were later made in Hindi. B.Nagireddy was looking after his family business in Madras. His brother B.N.Reddy was a pioneer in Telugu cinema who has directed landmark films like Gruhalakshmi (starring Nagaiah and Kannamba) under Rohini pictures. He started Vauhini pictures and produced Vandemataram with Nagaiah and Kanchanamala, Sumangali (Nagaiah and Kumari), Devata ,Bakta potana ,Yogi vemana, Gunasuntharikatha and so..on. Nagireddy was naturally drawn to the world of movie making. He met Chakrapani, the dialogue writer of Swargaseema. (They also started the Chandamama magazine in 1947 in Telugu and Tamil. Now it comes out in 13 languages). Nagireddy and Chakrapani started the Vijaya banner. Their first production was Shaukaru with N.T.Ramarao, Janaki (later known as Sowcar Janaki) and S.V.Rangarao. Shaukaru did not fare well at the box office. It was a revolutionary social drama touching upon the feudal system of rags and riches. The newcomers NTR and Sowcar Janaki did well. The film had great melodies by Ghantasala and Leela. But the film failed commercialy.

Vijaya banner now decided to do a film for the masses. They chose a mythological subject for their second venture Pathala Bhairavi which was released on March 1951.The film was a huge success celebrating 100 days in 28 centers in Andra Pradesh. It was one of the four films selected from India for the International Film Festival in 1952.The film was directed by K.V.Reddy. Ghantasala composed evergreen melodies for the film. The film was inspired by the Arabian nights. N.T.R as Thota ramu, wants to marry the princess Indumathi (Malathi). S.V.Rangarao gave a sterling performance as Nepali manthiravathi who wants to sacrifice Ramu to the Godess Patala bhairavi. The rest of the film tells the adventures of Ramu. A great mythological film by K.V.Reddy. Savithri appears in one of the dance sequences.

Vijaya productions third venture in 1952 Pelli chesi choodu was the first in the line of their comedy films.The film directed by L.V.Prasad is a satire about dowry and the traditions of the marriage system. The film starred N.T.Ramarao, G.Varalakshmi, Savithri,S.V.Rangarao,Sooryakantham. This was Savithri’s third film. Savithri was the second heroine. Dialogues and Lyrics by Thanjai Ramaiyadas. The film has melodious songs composed by Ghantasala.


Next came the 1955 classic comedy by Vijaya productions Missamma. Screenplay and direction by L.V.Prasad. Prasad adapted this from Jyotish Banerjee's classic Bengali comedy Manmoyee Girls School (1935). Prasad remade his own version in Hindi as Miss Mary (1957) starring Meena Kumari. Ananth Mane did a Marathi version of the story, Jhalki Mooth (1957). Recently the same film was recycled and released as 'Brindavanam' (Rajendra Prasad and Ramya ).Such is the magical power of this comedy!

Manmoyee Girls School was a hit comedy play staged by Star Theatres in 1932. The play deals with the problem of unemployment. Imagine the comic consequences that may arise when a man and a woman, who are all but strangers, pretend to be a married couple. Two young people are looking for employment as teachers in a school. However, the condition for employment is that only married couple will be taken. Desperate to get jobs, both of them decide to pretend to be married and succeed in getting jobs. Fate brings them together. Humorous circumstances inevitably follow as they are compelled to live as husband and wife for the sake of saving their jobs .This stage play is still popular in Calcutta.

This play was made into a film Manmoyee Girls School in 1935 by Jyotish Bannerjee. The film starred Tulsi Chakraborty, Radharani, Jahar Ganguly, Kanan Devi and Jyotsna Gupta. Kanan Devi gave a superb performance in the Bengali original much before Savithri and Meenakumari.

Savithri played the title role of Missiyamma to perfection. This film established her as a great actress and catapulated her to fame and she never looked back. Chakrapani initially selected P.Bhanumathi for the role of Mary. But when Bhanumathi reported late to the shooting ,Chakrapani made a dynamic decision to replace her with Savitri. And the rest is history. " May be it's the God's decision that Savitri should become the most popular star.I lost that film to Savitri" says Bhanumathi.

A.Nageswararao gave a superb performance in the role of the future son-inlaw, the detective Raju(Thangavelu in Tamil and Kishorekumar in Hindi). The film Missamma brought the two greatest stars of Telugu cinema NTR and ANR together early in their careers. Gemini ganesan was as charming as ever in Tamil Missiyamma. The songs by S.Rajeswara rao combined with the legendary voices of A.M.Raja, P.Leela and P.Susheela have become immortal, casting a magical spell over the listeners. The classic comedy Missiyamma never loses its charm .

Maya Bazaar

Vijaya productions sixth film made in the 1957, Maya Bazaar (directed by K.V.Reddy) is a true classic.It still stands the test of time .S.V.Rangarao as Ghatothkaja was lovable. He earned unprecedented name and fame, particularly for the song "kalyana samaiyal satham (vivaha bhojanammu)" in the film.

The story revolves around the characters in The Mahabharata. Balarama promises his sister Subhadra that her son Abhimanyu (son of Arjuna)will be married to his daughter Sasi rekha . This is endorsed by Sri Krishna. Abhimanyu and Sasi rekha are just kids when this promise is made and they eventually grow up separately in Indra prasta and Dwaraka.

Pandavas lose their kingdom in the game of dice and are condemned to a 13 year exile by the Kauravas. Subhadra along with Abhimanyu seeks asylum with her brothers, Balarama and Sri Krishna. As the final conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas draws near, Lord Balarama breaks his vow to marry his daughter to Abhimanyu and instead offers her to Laxmanakumaran, the cowardly son of Duryodhana. Subhadra takes her son to Ghatotkacha, son of Bhima and Hidimbi.

As usual, Krishna is the Supreme Arranger .Gatotkacha with the help of Sri Krishna kidnaps Sasi rekha and transports her to his ashram where she is united with Abhimanyu. Gatotkacha, with his maya disguises himself as Sasirekha and replaces her in Dwaraka after asking his henchmen Chinnamaya to build a welcome palace for the Kauravas who are set to arrive with the wedding procession. Chinnamaya along with Lambu and Jambu designs and builds a welcome palace with his maya and that is the MAYA BAZAAR- The market of Illusion! The various events that take place in the MAYA BAZAAR are remarkable.

Full of special effects, camera tricks by the famous camera man Marcus Bartley, this movie produced 50 years ago is a visual feast!

In one of the interviews Leela recalled that while recording the songs of `Maya Bazar, the composer took 28 takes of a song and they used the fifth take.

She worked as a music director for a film called ‘Chinnari Pappulu’ (Telugu) in 1968. The film was produced exclusively by women.

The Sixties: Lavakusa

This list of Leela’s achievements as singer will not be complete without mentioning the film Lavakusa.

In 1963 Lalitha Sivajothi films (A.Sankarreddy) produced the film Lavakusa in Telugu.The movie created records by running for more than a year. Music was by K.V.Mahadevan and Ghantasala. The film was directed by C.Pulliah and his son C.S.Rao. Pullaiah directed an earlier version of Lavakusa in 1938.

Lava and Kusa are born in the ashram of Valmik Maharishi and are brought up there. Valmiki Maharishi tells them the story of Srirama and Sitha. Lava and Kusa do not know about the true identity of their parents. In the ashram in front of Valmiki , Seetha and other rishis Lava and Kusa start singing the first part of of the Raamakatha, "raamakathanu vinarayya"

Now to spread the message of Rama, Lava and Kusa get Sitha’s blessings and go to Ayodhya and sing the second part in the streets of Ayodhya in front of the people "vinudu vinudu raamaayana gaadha"

A maid who works in Kauslyamatha’s palace takes Lava and Kusa to the palace where they sing the final part of the raamakatha "Sreeraamuni charitamunu telipedammamma". Sri Ramachandramurthy is inside with the golden statue of Sitha (made for the Aswametha yagnjam). Hearing the song Rama comes to the hall . Lava and Kusa complete the song reciting the sanskrit sloka!

Leela will be remembered forever for this immortal song!

Devotional Songs

Srimad Narayaneeyam is an immortal sublime hymn on Lord Guruvayoorappan, composed by Melpathur Narayana Bhattatiri (1560-1666 A.D.) one of the celebrated Sanskrit poets in Kerala Even though the Narayaneeyam was completed as early as 1586 A.D., it appeared in print only after more than 250 years.

Narayaneeyam is the story of Lord Narayana. It is a work consisting of 1036 slokas or verses, divided into 100 dasakams or chapters, each dasakam consisting of approximately 10 slokas. , It is a condensed version of Srimad Bhagavata Mahapuranam, which consists of 18,000 slokas authored by Veda Vyasa. It is said that the work has the blessings of Lord Krishna or Guruvayoorappan, the presiding Deity of Guruvayoor.

Narayaneeyam narrates a series of episodes from the Bhagavata Purana, choosing the most pious of the lot. The incarnations of Vishnu are traced with piety, Bhattathiri transforms the episodes into solemn prayers, pouring out his soul in total supplication before the Lord. The final dasaka, Kesadipaada Varnanam, embodies top-to-toe picture of little Krishna in all grace and glory .

Both as a poem and as a devotional hymn, Narayaneeyam occupies a very high place in Sanskrit literature.

Narayaneeyam is the master piece of Melpathur and is the most widely read of all his works.The poet depicts the image of Lord Guruvayurappan, in exemplary terms - "Sammohanam Mohanal Kantham Kanthinidhanathopi, Madhuram Madhurya Dhuryadapi, Soundaryotharathopi Sundaratharam"

The ‘Parayana' of Narayaneeyam is believed to possess the wonderful power of healing afflictions, both mental and physical, of the devotees. The "Nithyaparayana” of Narayaneeyam will enable the devotees to attain " Ayurarogyasoukhyam”.

When Guruvayoor Dewaswom decided to bring out the album Narayaneeyam, names of several legendary musicians like MS, MLV were considered and finally the Dewaswom approved Leela to sing Narayaneeyam. “I got the chance to sing Guruvayarappan Narayaneeyam which I consider as an honour...”said Leela.

Narayaneeya Sapthaham ( the recitation of Narayaneeyam and explaining the meaning to the public) is conducted in Guruvayur temple by Devaswom on the Narayaneeya Dinam and by others as offerings. It is done for seven consecutive days from early morning till 6.10 pm in the evening. Narayaneeya Sapthaham has started in Guruvayur in the early 50's. It takes about 5 hours to read the slokas and about 45 hours for explaining the slokas.

The day on which Narayaneeyam was completed, 28th Vrichikam, is celebrated by the Devaswom as Narayaneeyam day. Discourses and debates on Narayaneeyam written by Melpathur take place. Special functions are held at Melpathur Illapparambu also.

Awards and recognition

Leela has been conferred many titles like, ‘Ganamani’, ‘Ganakokila’, ‘Kalarathnam’, ‘Ganavarshini’, etc. , She was conferred with the ‘Kalaimamani’ title in 1994 by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa who in her speech said that though the award had come late, she was proud to be the one to bestow it on her. Leela received the first best playback singer award of the Kerala government in 1969.

In 2003, Leela was presented the Janmashtami Puraskaram instituted by Balasamskara Kendram for her efforts in spreading ‘Narayaneeyam’, ‘Jananappana’ and ‘Harinamakeerthanam’ .

Leela got married to a lawyer; but the marriage was not successful.In her later years, Leela was busy rendering classical concerts and light music programs. Leela was staying with her sister’s children in Defence colony, Parangimalai. Her world consisted of her music, her pooja room and memories of her father. V.K.Menon was the man behind the singer Leela. In many of the interviews Leela emotionally recalled “If I am standing in front of you and talking, it is because of my father; he was everything to me. The fame, wealth was all given to me by him. Without him,I am not what I am.”

Leela fulfilled her father’s dreams , enthralling her fans with her mellifluous voice.Her melodies will be remembered and heard forever .