Porayathu Leela (1934–2005), better known as P. Leela , was a popular Indian playback singer. She was awarded Padma Bhushan posthumously in 2006. Porayathu Leela was born in 1934, in Chittur, Palakkad, Kerala to V.K. Kunjanmenon and Porayath Meenakshi Amma. She was the youngest of the three daughters- Sharadha, Bhanumathi and Leela. V K Kunjanmenon was working as a teacher in Ramavarma 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.
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.
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 She trained under Rama Bhagavathar. Leela was trained in Carnatic music by doyens such as Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and Dakshinamoorthy Swami. 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 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 a 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 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. 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. Vauhini pictures Gunasundarikatha was produced by B.N.Reddy and directed by K.V.Reddy.The film was released on 29 Dec 1949. Leela sang the songs for the heroine Sriranjani. Songs of the film include Kalakala Aa Lokilemo, Challani, Doravele, Chandamama, Sree tulasi Jaya tulasi, Ammaa mahalaxmi dayasEyavamma became hits .
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 Koodu, Gundamma Katha are the greatest melodies and remembered even today after many decades. Vijaya productions' first movie, Shaukaru, did not fare well at the box office. However, the film had great melodies by Ghantasala and Leela. In the film Missamma ( made asMissiyamma in Tamil), the songs by S. Rajeswara rao combined with voices of A.M. Raja, P. Leela and P. Susheela have become immortal, casting a magical spell over the listeners. Vijaya productions sixth film made in the 1957, Maya Bazaar (directed by K.V.Reddy) is a true classic. The song "kalyana samaiyal satham (vivaha bhojanammu)" in the film still stands the test of time. 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.
This list of Leela’s achievements as singer will not be complete without mentioning the film Lava Kusha (1963). 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 Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao. 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 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.
Srimad Narayaneeyam is an immortal sublime hymn on Lord Guruvayoorappan, composed by Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri. When Guruvayoor Dewaswom decided to bring out the album Narayaneeyam, names of several 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. 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’, ‘Jnanappana’ 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. Leela sang at many music competitions in the city winning prizes and was noticed by film music composers such as Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao. P. Leela, since her debut in 1948 in the Tamil movie `Kanganam', for two decades and more she was the most sought after `playback singer' in South Indian Cinema. Among several honours is the Kalaimamani award, conferred upon her by Tamil Nadu State Government in 1992. P. Leela had many relatives. Her cousin Porayathu Vimala, P. Vimala's son P. Ravi Kumar and grandchildren, Roshan Ravi Kumar, Rashmi Ravi Kumar and Rhea Ravi Kumar were the closest among them. P. Leela died on 31 October 2005, Monday,at 3:40 AM at Sri Ramachandra Medical Centre in Chennai.