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This nightingale will be heard forever


Singer P. Leela, who ruled the roost in the South a few decades ago, passed away recently.


Since her debut in 1949, for two decades and more she was the most sought after `playback singer' in South Indian Cinema. Indeed, until the rise of the other singing icon P. Susheela, she was virtually the queen of playback singing in the South, singing in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and her own lingo Malayalam. She also sang in Sinhala movies. Perhaps the most outstanding feature of her career (with the exception of one of her idols M. L. Vasanthakumari) was that she was the only renowned female playback singer in the South who had rigorous training in Classical Carnatic Music. After relocating to Madras with her father and family, she learnt under stalwarts like Vadakkancheri Rama Bhagavathar, Patthamadai Krishna Iyer, and Maruthuvakudi Rajagopala Iyer. Earlier in Cochin as a young girl , she underwent training under Mani Bhagavathar, the uncle of musician T. V. Gopalakrishnan.

P. Leela passed away after a brief illness, a few days ago. She thrilled listeners with both film songs and devotional music dedicated to Lord Ayyappa and Lord Krishna of Guruvayur. Also she rendered Classical Carnatic music concerts almost until last year.

Porayathu Leela was born in 1934 in Chittoor, near Palakkad. Her father M. M. Kunju Menon was a teacher in Cochin with unfathomable interest in Carnatic Music. Noticing the remarkably melodious and malleable musical voice in his youngest daughter he made it his lifetime mission to mould her as musician and spared no expense or effort in his cherished goals.

Shifting base

When her guru Rama Bhagavathar shifted to Madras to further his musical career, Menon resigned his job as teacher and came down to Madras with his family for the sake of Leela's musical career.

Settled in Madras Leela and her father did not miss a single music concert in the city. Listening to music giants she learnt the nuances of the art.

Leela sang at many music competitions in the city winning prizes and not surprisingly, she was noticed by film music composers such as Ghantashala Venkateswara Rao.

To quote film music and dance critic V. A. K. Ranga Rao, "Ghantashala carried a torch for P. Leela for years!"

She received an opportunity to lend her voice for a Tamil movie in 1948. Her conservative family was reluctant to consider the offer but was persuaded to accept. And Leela took her bow as playback singer in `Kanganam.' The year 1949 proved to be a turning point in Leela's playback singing career in Telugu Cinema when she sang in three movies. Her debut in Telugu was in `Mana Desam' The second film was the super hit, Mirzapuram Raja's `Keelu Gurram' and then came the movie which catapulted her to fame, K. V. Reddi's `Gunasundari Katha,' in which Leela sang all the songs for the heroine Sriranjani Junior in the company of Ghantashala who composed the music and also sang a few of the songs. Most of the songs rendered by Leela in this film and the later Tamil remake (1955) became hits and are remembered to this day. In the 1950s Leela began to sing in all South Indian films.

Evergreen hits

The list of her Tamil hits is very long. But mention must be made of Oridam thaniley... ' (`Velaikari') `Ellam Inba Mayam' (`Manamagal,' duet with MLV) and `Sundari Soundari... .' (`Thookku Thookki'). (This writer had the privilege and pleasure of knowing Leela for nearly three decades. She worked with him in some of his television projects during the 1990s) Another memorable song is a dance duet she sang for Gemini Studios' `Vanji Kotai Valiban.' The song was composed by the Hindi film music wizard, Chitalkar Ramchandra.

The thought of even meeting him made her nervous. The song was recorded in Bombay and singing the song under the CR's direction gave her butterflies in the stomach! But Ramchandra made her sing the song excellently.

The song brilliantly picturised under difficult and trying circumstances by Vasan, with Vyjayanthimala and Padmini, is a classic dance sequence in Indian Cinema. Leela could sing any kind of song with ease. In `Utthama Puthiran' ( 1958)) there was a fast-paced folk song, `Pulli Vaikkiran Podiya Sokkuran... ' T. Prakash Rao, the director, was not sure if Leela with her Carnatic Music background could sing such a song. But her rendering astonished Rao! To this day Leela's devotional disc, `Krishna... Krishna...' is played at dawn in the Guruvayoor temple. Her `bhakti' songs are best sellers in several parts of the world. Not many are aware that Leela composed music for a Telugu film,

`Chinnari Paapalu.'


Leela was humble to the core. In spite of her success, she remained a modest, small town girl from Chittoor. She was married to a lawyer but regretfully it did not turn out to be a happy one. Her world comprised her family deities, her beloved father and of course her music. Even in her later years she was in demand and performed in Kerala, in the Middle East countries and elsewhere.

One of her unforgettable memories was that of a lean, handsome young man who came to meet her, requesting her to recommend him to composers. Little did she realise then that the young man would soon blossom into a maestro and cult figure! The man was K. J. Yesudas!

Leela may have gone but her music will remain immortal...

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