A dedicated student, disciplined teacher and an accomplished choreographer, Kalamandalam  Leelamma’s contribution for enriching the repertoire of Mohiniyattam has been monumental.

When Mohiniyattam exponent Kalamandalam Leelamma passed way five years ago, she left a vacuum in the ‘Kalamandalam style’ of Mohiniyattam that remains unfilled. During her stint as a teacher serving her alma mater for 32 years, she has left a legion of disciples who never forget to assemble in Kalamandalam to pay homage to their guru on her death anniversary. And this year too, it was not different.

Why this extra affinity to their Guru? Apart from her immortal contributions, her motherly concern and care for each and every one of them until her death, was laudable. For the institution also, she was so indispensible that she was appointed the Dean of the Dance Faculty immediately after her retirement in 2007, the year in which the institution became a Deemed University. Further, the institution chose to honour its prestigious artiste with the  Kalamandalam Award the same year.

Passionate dancer and choreographer

Leelamma’s tryst with Kalamandalam began in 1968 when she was advised by a well-wisher to seek admission in the institution of premier arts of Kerala. For, she was a child endowed with exceptional zeal for dance. Kerala Natanam was the form of dance she was trained in since the contemporary dance of those days evolved by Guru Gopinath was much popular in the southern parts of Kerala. And she belonged to Mattakkara near Kottayam and had graduated into a much sought-after child artiste for whom stages were plenty. “But it was with my entire body shivering that I appeared for interview before Guru Gopinath and Guru Bhaskara Rao in Kalamandalam”, Leelamma had mentioned in an interview long back. Anyhow, her admission marked the beginning of the moulding of a dancer who was later to become an asset to the institution.

Kalamandalam Leelamma

Those were the halcyon days of Kalamandalam especially for Mohiniyattam. Not only there was a long array of maestros in the dance department, the period witnessed assiduous efforts by the institution to give shape to the much hyped ‘Kalamandalam sylee’ (style) of Mohiniyattam under the leadership of the chief spokesperson of this genre namely Kalamandalam Sathyabhama. The stalwarts included Bhaskara Rao, Sathyabhama, Chandrika, Leelamani, Ramaswamy, Vasudeva Panicker and Sukumari Narendra Menon.  Admittedly, all the productions of those days were classics and they included the famous varnam ‘Danisamajendra’ in Todi, ‘Chandalabikshuki’, ‘Kannaki’, ‘Nagila’, the  Dhanyasi varnam and many padams. 

Incidentally, these pioneer productions were video documented for Kalamandalam archives during her stint as the Dean. As Leelamma was the sole dancer among the present staff to be involved in all such productions, the documentation was carried out under the joint supervision of herself and her mentor and guru Kalamandalam Sathyabhama.  Also, a good many of the solo choreographies among them were performed by her for documentation.

Carrying forward the legacy

The guru-sishya relationship between Sathyabhama and Leelamma has been very unique right from the days when the latter enrolled as a student in Kalamandalam. “She had absolute confidence in me and therefore would take me also for any seminar or workshop. She anchored on me for demonstrations and this has been a very rewarding experience”, Leelamma used to feel proud of her Guru’s choice.

When danseuses of her age had almost retired from the stage and chosen to be gurus (non-performers), Leelamma still continued to be an avid performer. Few are the national dance festivals in which she has not performed.  

Leelamma with her students in Kalamandalam

 As a choreographer, Leelamma’s contribution for enriching the repertoire of Mohiniyattam has been monumental. Among them Chollukettu: Ragmalika, talamalika, Jatiswaram: Sankarabharanam,Varnam: Charukesi, (many others), Padams: Behag, Sankarabharanam, Tillana: Pahadi, Kirtnam: ‘Kamalambam bhaje’: Navavaranam, Kalyani, Dikshitar have been specially noteworthy.

Perhaps she was the pioneer of group choreographies in Mohiniyattam.  Dasavatharam, Magdalana Mariam, Kachadevayani, Rugmangadacharitam and Kalyanasougandhikam deserve special mention. ONV’s Ujjayani and Vallathol’s ‘Sishyanum Makanum’ and ‘Achanum Makalum’, are proof enough of her penchant for choreographing classic poems. Interestingly, a good number of the above have been included in the Kalamandalam syllabus, especially for the post-graduate course.

She also choreographed many compositions of Kuttikunjuthankachi like Bandurangi (Husseni), Balike pokaruthengedo (Sankarabharanam), Indal valarunnithayyo  (Bilahari), Haara mananayi (Kamboji), and Kulasekhara maharaja (Darbar).

Leelamma was keen on enriching the nritta of Mohiniyattam for which more than sixty adavus were coined in six groups based on tala variants and eight sets of theerumanam.

Small wonder, that she was the Sanskrit university’s choice to head the department of Mohiniyattam in 1995 when the course was introduced there.

Leelamma has been  honoured by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi and several other national cultural outfits for her immortal contributions.


GS Paul is an eminent art columnist and critic. He has been writing for national dailies such as The Hindu for more than three decades. Currently, he is the Editorial Advisor of India Art Review.

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