Leela Samson is an Indian Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer, writer, and actress. She is the founder of Spanda Dance Company, a dance group which presents choreographies conceived by Leela Samson. She is well known for her expertise in the Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam, and for presenting the same in various diverse compositions.
Leela Samson was born on Sunday, 6 May 1951 (age 71 years; as of 2022) in Coonoor, Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. Her zodiac sign is Taurus. She completed her schooling at Besant Theosophical High School, Varanasi, India. Leela completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Sophia College for Women in Mumbai, Maharashtra.
Childhood picture of Leela Samson
Height (approx.): 5′ 3″
Hair Colour: Salt & Pepper
Eye Colour: Black
Leela Samson belongs to a Jewish-Christian family.
Parents & Siblings
Leela’s father Vice Admiral Benjamin Abraham Samson, was a retired officer, who served as the Flag Officer Commanding Indian Fleet in the Indian Navy from 8 January 1964 to 31 May 1966. Benjamin was the first Naval Officer to serve as the National Defence Academy’s Commandant, who served in Khadakvasla between 1959 and 1962. He died on 18 March 2008 in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Her mother’s name is Laila Samson.
Leela Samson with her parents
Leela’s father was of Jewish origin, and her mother was of Catholic origin. Leela has two brothers and two sisters; one of her sisters died at the age of six.
Leela Samson (extreme right) with her parents and siblings
Husband & Children
Leela Samson is unmarried. In an interview, Leela revealed that she did not marry because she never found the man as per her interests.
Leela’s father was of Jewish origin, and her mother was of Catholic origin. But, Leela Samson follows Hinduism. In an interview, she talked about it and said,
By virtue of being a dancer, I am a Hindu in philosophy. Even my family has acknowledged that. It does not matter what people have to say about me,”
In 1961, Leela, at the age of nine, was sent by her father to Kalakshetra, art and cultural academy, so that could be exposed to Indian classical dance and music, and learn the same. Leela received her training from the founder of Kalakshetra, Rukmini Devi Arundale, who was a renowned Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer. Leela started her career as a Bharatanatyam soloist. Later, she started tutoring the Indian classical dance form at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Delhi, and Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Delhi. Initially, Leela performed solo at various dance events and occasions. Later, she started performing with groups at leading festivals of dance in India and abroad like Europe, Africa, and America.
In 2015, Leela Samson made her debut with the Tamil film O Kadhal Kanmani in which she played the role of Bhavani Ganapathy.
Leela Samson in a still from the Tamil film O Kadhal Kanmani
In 2017, she made her Bollywood debut with the film OK Jaanu in which she played the role of Charu Srivastava.
Leela Samson in a still from the Bollywood film OK Jaanu
Later, she appeared in a few Tamil films like America Mappillai as Vasantha (2018), Sillu Karupatti as Yashoda (2019), and Putham Pudhu Kaalai as Bhairavi (2020). In 2021, Leela made her Malayalam debut with the film Bhramam in which she played the role of Irene Dicotta.
Poster of the Malayalam film Bhramam
In the same year, Leela made her Telugu debut with the film Shyam Singha Roy in which she played the role of a psychologist.
Poster of the Telugu film Shyam Singha Roy
Leela authored the book titled ‘Rhythm in Joy: Classical Indian Dance Traditions,’ which was published in 1987 for Lustre Press, and was based on the classical dance forms of India. In 2010, Leela published a biography on the life of her mentor titled ‘Rukmini Devi,’ which was derived from her letters, which Leela found in the Kalakshetra records.
In August 2010, Leela Samson was appointed as the chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi. However, she served for a period of 4 years, and resigned on 30 September 2014. Leela was appointed as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in April 2011 by the United Progressive Alliance government. She resigned from the post of chairperson on 15 January 2015.
In April 2005, Leela was appointed as the director at the Kalakshetra foundation by the Congress-led UPA government in April 2005. On 30 April 2012, Leela resigned from the post of director, because a petition was filed against her, as she had crossed the age limit for the related post as per the government norms. The petition was filed by former Kalakshetra teacher C.S. Thomas in which he reported that Leela continued to serve as a director even though she had turned 60. In an interview, Leela talked about her resignation from the post and said,
Through a PIL, an ex-Kalakshetra teacher had challenged my continuance as director after I turned 60. If I do not have the support of the ministry, chairman and the board in this matter, I see no reason to stay on,”
Leela Samson founded Spanda in September 1995, which presents compositions choreographed by her, and explores diverse forms of Bharatanatyam. The idea of launching Spanda came up in Leela’s mind after she presented a group dance performance in Delhi.
A composition by Spanda, choreographed by Leela Samson
Favouritism by the Congress-led UPA government
In 1980, Leela Samson taught dance to Priyanka Gandhi in New Delhi. It was rumoured that Leela shared a good relationship with Sonia Gandhi. It was rumoured that Leela has been favoured by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), as she held some key positions including Chairperson of CBFC, Director of Kalakshetra Foundation, and Chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi, etc. In an interview, Leela denied the accusation and said,
I have wondered whether every other tutor of the Gandhi children were similarly rewarded! Priyanka came to a little dance class I took in Delhi when she was six years old. I have taught other children who came from other backgrounds. No concession was granted to her. I am not close to the Gandhi family except that I taught their child and that they were normal parents who wanted her, in spite of all the tragedy of their childhoods, to lead as normal a life as they could give them and for her to be involved in the beauty of our arts. They were gracious and I was happy to know their child. I have always had a special feeling for all my students. She is one among them. I have also had, by the way, children of people who were in the BJP and who remain close to the present government.
Criticized for not worshipping Lord Ganesha
In 1993, during a performance of Leela Samson at Siri fort in New Delhi, she didn’t perform the ritual of worshipping Lord Ganesha before presenting her dance performance. Usually, Bharatanatyam dancers begin their performances with a prayer to Lord Ganesha. Hence, she was criticized, as it is a Hindu tradition to worship Lord Ganesha before the initiation of an occasion or event. In an interview, on being asked about the same, Leela said,
Well I know that it’s a common practice to invoke Ganesha before starting a performance. But it’s optional. It is not codified anywhere that one has to do it.”
Removal of Lord Ganesha’s Idols and Nataraja Murtis from Kalakshetra
In 2008, after being appointed as the Director of Kalakshetra, art and cultural academy in Chennai, Leela got Lord Ganesha’s idols and Nataraja Murtis removed from the campus. People started bashing Leela for being an ‘anti-Hindu.’ In an interview, Leela responded to being remarked as an anti-Hindu and said,
Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life, a philosophy. I live the life of a Hindu. No one can take that away from me. I did not have to convert to be that way. I simply am. It also does not make me less Christian or less Jewish. Just more appreciative.
Resignation from the post of chairman of the Censor Board of Film Certification
Leela Samson resigned from the post of chairperson of the Censor Board of Film Certification on 15 January 2015. Reportedly, the reason for her resignation was the clearance of the film The Messenger of God for release by the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). The film was based on the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. As per sources, Leela was not in favour of the film’s release, and she mentioned that there was interference and intimidation by the organization’s officers appointed by the BJP government. In an interview, talking about her resignation as the Censor Board’s chairperson, Leela said,
I have not watched PK or MSG. A panel of five members from cross sections of the society watch a movie and decide its certification. I do not know why MSG was not allowed to release. Even the revision committee said ‘no’ to the movie and it does not reflect on me. Fact of the matter is, we were just hanging on there and waiting for a new body to be constituted. As it had been a year since my term ended, I decided to resign.”
In September 2012, while serving as a director at CBFC, Leela released the Bollywood film Kamaal Dhamaal Malamaal after removing the offensive scenes, which hurt the religious sentiments of Catholic community. However, during the release of the Bollywood film PK, protests were made to delete objectionable scenes from the movie, which were against the religious sentiments of Hindus. But, Leela passed the film without any cuts. In an interview, Leela explained her reason behind releasing the film PK and said,
Every film may hurt religious sentiments of somebody or the other. We can’t remove scenes unnecessarily because there is something called creative endeavour where people present things in their own way. We have already given certificate to PK and we can’t remove anything now because it’s already out for public viewing.”
During her tenure as the chairperson of the Censor Board of Film Certification, Leela was accused with allegations of being an absentee chairperson. Leela, on being asked about the same revealed that board has not met for over a long period of time as the ministry did not provide adequate funds to organise the meeting of members. In an interview, she denied the allegations made against her and said,
For a job that does not give the chairperson even a sitting fee for a meeting, this is a case of adding insult to injury. I can say with a clear conscience that my board and I served with all the enthusiasm at our disposal.
Corruption case against Leela Samson
In December 2019, the CBI booked Leela Samson, and four other officials, Chief Accounts Officer TS Murthi, Accounts Officer S Ramachandran, Engineering officer V Srinivasan, and Ravi Neelakantan, proprietor of CARD (Centre for Architectural Research and Design), on account of corruption, irregular appointments, unfair granting of contracts, and financial irregularities. It was alleged that unproductive expenditure has been made on the renovation of the Koothambalam auditorium of Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai in 2009. In 2016, the Chief Vigilance Officer of the Culture Ministry conducted an inquiry, and it was alleged that the foundation had spent Rs 62.20 lakh more than the estimated amount on the Rs 7.02-crore project. Being the director of the foundation, Samson was allegedly responsible for the losses incurred by the Foundation on account of not opting for open tendering. Apart from renovation processes, the report showed an irregular appointment of 16 employees at the institution, which were not as per the norms prescribed for the same.
Awards, Nominations, Honours, Achievements
- 1990: Padma Shri award, the fourth highest Indian national honour, in recognition of her contribution to the Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam
- 1997: Nritya Choodamani Award
- 2000: Sangeet Natak Akademi Award
- 2005: Kalaimamani Award by Government of Tamil Nadu
- 2015: Natya Kala Acharya Award from the Music Academy, Chennai
- 2015: Nominated for Best Supporting Actress Award at Filmfare Awards South for the Tamil film O Kadhal Kanmani
- 2015: Best Supporting Actress Award at Norway Tamil Film Festival Awards for the Tamil film O Kadhal Kanmani
- Leela Samson is fondly called Leela Akka by her students.
- Leela Samson’s performed her Arangetram ceremony in 1970 in Bombay. (An Arangetram ceremony is the debut of a classical dancer on stage in front of a public audience)
Leela Samson’s (fourth from left) Arangetram ceremony in 1970
- In May 1985, Leela Samson performed with her guru Rukmini Devi Arundale in China.
Leela Samson with Rukmini Devi Arundale while touring China
- In August 2003, Leela taught Bharatanatyam for a UK show, Past Forward, at the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden, London.
- In an interview, Leela revealed that she wanted to pursue her career in the medical field, and she aspired to become a surgeon, but her teachers encouraged her to take up dancing as a career. In an interview, Leela talked about her career aspirations and said,
I had made up my mind to pursue medicine. It was the sisters here who persuaded me to follow my dream to become a dancer,”
- Two films have been documented on Leela Samson’s life, Sanchari (1991) by Arun Khopkar, and The Flowering Tree by Ein Lall (2020).
- In 2011, after Leela’s appointment as the chairperson of the Censor Board of Film Certification, people criticized her as she had no connection with the film industry, and was not the right choice for the position. People compared Leela with her predecessor, Sharmila Tagore, a former Indian actress, who was more generous and broad-minded. In an interview, Leela reacted to being compared with Sharmila Tagore and said,
What is the fuss about my taking over the censor board? It is not as if I am going to view every film. I am just there to influence policy and give direction so that fewer people have problems getting certification. There is a capable CEO managing the day-to-day affairs. I can sort out any issue sitting here by talking to a producer on the phone or via email. I am not prudish or conservative. It is absolutely misplaced that Sharmila Tagore is broad-minded, and that if Leela Samson comes in the board will become conservative,”
- In April 2020, Leela was announced as the jury chair of the 2020 JCB Prize for Literature, an Indian literary award.