Leela Samson

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Leela Samson
Born 1951 (age 63–64)[1]
Coonoor, Tamil Nadu
Occupation Chairperson: Central Board of Film Certification (2011–2015)
Director: Kalakshetra (2005–2013)
Chairperson: Sangeet Natak Akademi (2010-2014)
Actor: OK Kanmani (2015)
Religion Half-Jewish and Half-Catholic Christian
Current group Spanda (1995–present)
Dances Bharatanatyam

Leela Samson (born 6 May 1951) is a Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer, instructor and writer from India. As a soloist she is known for her technical virtuosity and has taught Bharatanatyam at Shriram Bhartiya Kala Kendra in Delhi for many years.[2][3]

She was appointed as the director of Kalakshetra by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in April 2005.[4][5] She was subsequently also appointed as the chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in August 2010[1][1][6] and as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (an autonomous body that censors and certifies films in India, including Bollywood movies) in April 2011.[7][8]

She resigned from her position as director of Kalakshetra in 2012.[9][10] She resigned from her position as chairperson of the censor board after the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal overturned her attempt to ban the movie MSG: The Messenger of God featuring Dera Sacha Sauda founder Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a lead role and gave it clearance.[11]

She made her cinematic acting debut in 2015 through the Tamil film, OK Kanmani directed by Mani Ratnam.

Early life and training[edit]

Samson was born on 6 May 1951[12] in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, daughter of Vice-Admiral (Retd.) Benjamin Abraham Samson and Laila Samson. Her father belonged to the Jewish Bene-Israelite community from Pune, and her mother belonged to the Roman Catholic community from Ahmedabad.[12][13] Her father joined the Royal Indian Navy as a lieutenant in 1939 and was commandant of the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla between 1959 and 1962.[14] Leela's paternal aunt Annie was principal of Anjum-e-Islam Muslim school for girls at Mumbai for 31 years.[14]

When Samson was nine years of age, her father sent her to Kalakshetra to learn Indian classical dance and music under the founder, Rukmini Devi Arundale.[14] After completing her B.A., Samson continued to learn Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra.[15][16] Samson then taught Bharatnatyam to Congress president Sonia Gandhi's daughter Priyanka Vadra.[7]


Starting her career as a Bharatanatyam soloist, Samson taught at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Delhi, and Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Delhi. Over the years she has performed across India and abroad including Europe, Africa and the Americas.[15]

In 1995, Samson formed Spanda, a dance group to review the traditional vocabulary of Bharatanatyam. Two documentary films – Sanchari and The Flowering Tree – have been made on her works.[17] Her notable disciples included Joyce Paul Poursabahian and Justin McCarthy, who now teaches at Sri Ram Bhartiya Kala Kendra.[3] She has taught and mentored performers including the late Kamaljit Bhasin Maalik (Meeto), Jin Shan Shan (Eesha), Navtej Singh Johar and Anusha Subramanyam.

She authored a biography of Rukmini Devi Arundale. She has taught Bharatanatyam across the world, including at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London,[15] and the annual Milapfest at Manchester.


Samson has received the Padma Shri (1990),[18] the Sanskriti, Nritya Choodamani, Kalaimamani (2005) given by Government of Tamil Nadu,[19] and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1999–2000) for contributions to Bharatanatyam.[20]


Samson is known for her proximity to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty of the Indian National Congress,[21][22] as she was the dance tutor of Priyanka Vadra.[22][7] Samson held six key positions in the 10 years of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime. Many papers including the Indian Express alleged favoritism regarding her appointment as the chairperson of the censor board by UPA govt in 2011:

Leela Samson's appointment as chairperson of the Censor Board has raised the question as to whether the well-known Bharatanatyam dancer will have time to devote to her new assignment. Last year, Samson was appointed chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, another prestigious position. The academy is the apex body for the performing arts. Samson is also ex-officio head of the south zone cultural centre. Apart from these commitments, she has a full-time job as director of Kalakshetra in Chennai. Samson, who was once Priyanka Gandhi's dance teacher, has no particular connection with the world of cinema. After her appointment, Samson candidly admitted that she seldom watches films.[22]

Samson's tenures at Kalakshetra, Sangeet Natak Akademi and the censor board were mired with many controversies amid allegations of corruption,[23] illegal appointments and arbitrary awarding of contracts,[24] financial irregularities,[25] and anti-Hindu bias.[26] It is alleged that corruption flourished in the censor board under her chairpersonship,[24] and the CEO of the CBFC himself was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation when board officials were caught red-handed accepting bribes on his behalf to clear a film for release.[27][28] Also, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India indicted her for the widespread corruption and rampant financial irregularities at Kalakshetra under her watch.[23][25][29][30] Subsequently, Samson had to apologize to the Madras High Court when pulled up for contempt of court due to an illegal construction activity at the Kalakshetra campus situated on prime property in Chennai.[31] Her stint at the censor board was equally controversial, with allegations that she deliberately passed movies designed to hurt Hindu sentiments, while demanding cuts or blocking the release of movies that affected Muslim or Christian audiences.[26][32][33][34][35]

Samson was criticized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad when she passed the 2014 Aamir Khan-starrer movie PK without any cuts, even after two board members resigned after it was granted certification, due to content designed to ridicule Hindu religious philosophy and hurt Hindu sentiments. She was later accused of double standards and selective anti-Hindu bias, because only a few weeks later, she refused to clear another movie MSG: The Messenger of God made by Dera Sacha Sauda founder Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and attempted to ban it instead.[36][37][38] This controversy ultimately forced her resignation just before her term was about to expire. Veteran Bollywood actor and a former chairperson of the censor board Anupam Kher criticized Samson for playing politics by making partisan allegations while tendering her resignation.[35][39]


  • Samson, Leela (1987). Rhythm in Joy: Classical Indian Dance Traditions. New Delhi: Lustre Press.
  • Samson, Leela (2010). Rukmini Devi: A Life, Delhi: Penguin Books, India, ISBN 0-670-08264-3.[40]


  1. ^ a b c "Press Release" (PDF). Sangeet Natak Academi. 10 August 2010. 
  2. ^ How Many?
  3. ^ a b "Borders no Bar". Indian Express. 13 June 2009. 
  4. ^ "Leela Samson takes over as Kalakshetra director". Chennai, India: The Hindu. 18 April 2005. 
  5. ^ Leela Samson Profile artindia.net.
  6. ^ "Leela Samson to be Sangeet Natak Academy chairperson". The Times of India. 1 July 2010. 
  7. ^ a b c "A silent rebel against extremism". The New Indian Express. 5 September 2010. 
  8. ^ "New censor board chief Leela Samson promises balanced approach". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 2 April 2011. 
  9. ^ "I'll try through my dance to find myself again". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 30 April 2012. 
  10. ^ "Leela Samson to quit as Kalakshetra director". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 28 April 2012. 
  11. ^ "Censor Board chief Leela Samson quits over MSG nod, govt denies interference". Hindustan Times (New Delhi, India). 16 January 2015. 
  12. ^ a b Sruti, Issues 160-171, Publisher P.N. Sundaresan, 1998
  13. ^ http://thiraseela.com/artist/profile.php?perfmrid=297
  14. ^ a b c http://www.rediff.com/news/2003/sep/11spec.htm
  15. ^ a b c Artiste's Profile: Leela Samson, Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT), Government of India.
  16. ^ Noted students of Kalakshetra
  17. ^ www.penguinbooksindia.com
  18. ^ "Padma Awards". Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. 
  19. ^ Kalaimamani Awards for 123 persons announced The Hindu, 15 February 2006.
  20. ^ "SNA: List of Akademi Awardees". Sangeet Natak Akademi Official website. 
  21. ^ "Samson is Sonia's choice". Sunday Guardian. 
  22. ^ a b c "Dancing to her tune". Indian Express. 3 April 2011. 
  23. ^ a b "The Dance of Controversy". India Today. 4 May 2012. 
  24. ^ a b "Leela's Kala as Kalakshetra Director Questioned". Daily Pioneer. 14 July 2013. 
  25. ^ a b "The Dirt beneath the Charm". The Hindu. 1 May 2012. 
  26. ^ a b "Leela Samson allows free pass to PK to abuse Hindu Gods". India Facts. 1 January 2015. 
  27. ^ "CBFC CEO Rakesh Kumar arrested for second case of bribery". Bollywood Hungama. 9 August 2014. 
  28. ^ "Censor Board chief Leela Samson: CEO responsible for corruption". India Today. 20 August 2014. 
  29. ^ "Scam whiff at Kalakshetra". The Telegraph. 5 March 2008. 
  30. ^ "What the CAG report said about Leela Samson". India Facts. 17 January 2015. 
  31. ^ http://judis.nic.in/judis_chennai/qrydisp.aspx?filename=32217
  32. ^ "Censor board chops 4 minutes of Shivam". The Times of India. 29 December 2014. 
  33. ^ "A movie that's been stalled by Censor Board for two years for hurting Christian sentiments". The News Minute. 7 January 2015. 
  34. ^ "Censors slam down on Johnny Lever's character in Entertainment". Bollywood Hungama. 6 August 2014. 
  35. ^ a b "If PK was cleared, why not MSG? VHP accuses Leela Samson of 'playing politics'". Firstpost. 20 January 2015. 
  36. ^ "VHP Accuses Leela Samson of Playing Politics". Outlook. 19 January 2015. Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  37. ^ "VHP accuses ex-Censor Board chief Leela Samson of playing politics". Firstpost. Jan 19, 2015. Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  38. ^ "VHP accuses ex-Censor Board chief Leela Samson". NewsR. 19 January 2015. Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  39. ^ "Anupam Kher criticizes Censor Board chairman Leela Samson for resigning from her post". IBNLive. 19 January 2015. 
  40. ^ www.outlookindia.com "First Light: Embodies the spirit of Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam in content, style and visual appeal"

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