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South India loses its favourite voice

K. Santosh

One of the first woman playback singers in south India, she had classical depth and range Leela was at the peak of her career when South Indian film music was creating an identity of its own, escaping from the firm grip of Carnatic music.

Thrissur: South Indian cinema lost one of its veteran singers, known for her classical depth and range, in the death of P. Leela.

Leela entered the industry at a time when playback singing was in its infancy and technology had not replaced talent. There was no Autotune software then to make playback singers out of bathroom crooners. Singing had to be naturally taintless in that era. Despite the absence of hi-tech corrective processes, singers of Leela's generation won the day with their skills and endurance that were put to test by martinet composers over endless rehearsals.

Leela was at the peak of her career when South Indian film music was creating an identity of its own, escaping from the firm grip of Carnatic music. Linear eastern melodic structures mingled with the western principle of harmony and created magic, with the rise of such composers as Viswanathan-Ramamurthy. Leela's career witnessed this transformation in the industry. Her style of singing, shaped by the classical norms practised in the early days of film music, commanded respect among composers of different generations. She sang her debut song `Sreevaralakshmi' at the age of 13 under the baton of H.R. Padmanabha Sastri for the Tamil film `Kankanam'.

``I was one of the first woman playback singers in south India. I was introduced at a time when the songs in films were sung by the actress themselves,'' Leela had said before.

World of opportunities

She hailed from Chittur in Palakkad, and learnt music from Thribhuvana Mani Bhagavathar, Pathamadai Krishna Iyer and Wadakkanchery Rama Bhagavathar.

Her father, V.K. Kunjan Menon, was a teacher in a Kochi school. The family moved to Chennai in the 1940s. Chennai opened a world of opportunities for the singer. Columbia Recording Company appointed her staff artiste.

She was promoted in Telugu films by such directors as C.R. Subbarayan and Ghantasala. She has scored music for the Telugu film `Chinnari Pappulu' in 1968.

``Ms. Leela was as popular in Andhra Pradesh as she was in Kerala, her home State. Her Telugu songs have inspired a whole generation of singers. I owe some of my success to her. She has recommended me to many composers,'' playback singer S. Janaki told this reporter once in an interview.

Ms. Leela's hits in Tamil include `Neeya Thunai Easwari', `Ennai Aalulm Mary Matha', `Kathiruppan Kamala Kannan', `Neethana Enne Azhaithathu', `Jagam Pukazhum Punya Kadhai', `Kannum Kannum Kalandhu' and `Konchum Salangai Oli Kettu'.

Her voice was indispensable for Tamil dance songs of the 1950s and 1960s.

Malayalam hits

Her Malayalam hits include `Ujjayiniyile Gayika', `Unnikkai Valaru', `Viralonnu Muttiyal', `Thamasa Nadiyude Theerathoru Naal', `Thalikkuruthola', `Thripurasundari', `Devi Sree Devi', `Innente Karalile', `Pankajakshan Kadalvarnan', `Panchamiyo' and `Kanikanum Neram'.

She has sung memorable duets with T.M. Soundararajan (Thazhaiyam Poomudichu, Jokka Jolikkuthappa), A.M. Raja (Odam Eri Senren, Mani Adithathinal), Trichy Loganathan (Nilave Neethan), K.J. Jesudas (Adyathe Kanmani, Sundara Swapname, Pennale, Swarna Chamaram, Swapnangal Swapnangale) and Jayachandran (Mullamalarthenkinnam).

She has to her credit more than 5,000 songs in Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati, Hindi and Bengali films.

Awards and honours

She was a recipient of the Kerala State Award for the Best Playback Singer in 1969, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademy Award in 1983, and the titles `Ganamani', `Ganakokila', `Kalaratnam' and `Ganavarshini'. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa conferred the Kalaimamani title on Leela in 1994.

``She should have been given the honour long ago. Better late than never,'' Ms. Jayalalithaa told the audience then.

Leela's name has been synonymous with Hindu devotional music in Kerala. She is best remembered for her rendition of the Narayaneeyam and the Jnanappana.

`The opportunity to sing the Narayaneeyam has been the greatest blessing in my life,'' she once said.

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