Leela Omcherry

Interview with Ms Leela Omcherry on Sopana Sangeetham

Interview with Ms Leela Omcherry on Sopana Sangeetham

Leela Omchery

Born in 1929 in Thiruvattar in the princely state of Travancore, now a part of Tamil Nadu, Smt. Leela Omchery gained exposure to the arts of her land initially in her social and familial environment. Later, she chose as a responsibility, the practice and preservation of traditional music, studying various forms of southern Kerala under masters of repute at Thiruvattar, Tripparappu, Parasala, and Suchindram.

Academically, she has pursued the study of Carnatic music, taking her Ph.D. at the University of Delhi. She also holds a

Bachelor’s degree in Hindustani music. In the field of traditional music, Smt. Omchery has focused on the ancient Sopana sangeetham of Kerala, devotional Thevaram songs, Ashtapadis, as well as songs for traditional dance and drama such as Krishnattam and Kathakali. She has also studied several popular genres of southern Kerala such as songs of Onam and other festivals. Through her practice and her writings on folk and traditional music, she has been able to open up a part of Kerala’s heritage before the world outside Kerala.

She is a bilingual author in English and Malayalam, and has published books including Abhinaya Sangeetham, Padavum Paadavum, Keralathile Lasya Rachanakal, etc. Leela Omchery has also served the University of Delhi in its Faculty of Music and Fine Arts, and headed the Faculty’s Carnatic music section and retired in 1994. She has guided a number of students both in practical music and its academic study. She is also the Founder Director of Trikalaa Gurukal, Delhi. The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi has honoured Smt. Leela with its Fellowship (1991)  and  also  received  the  Sangeet  Natak  Akademi Award.  For her contribution to the traditional and folk music of Kerala, She was honoured with Padmashri in the year 2009.








In conversation with Guru Padmashri Dr. Leela Omchery
Q.1.      Mam, Being a well-trained Carnatic Musician, why you shifted your interest and research towards Sopana music?

LO : Yeah, even though I am a Carnatic Vocalist, I had been hearing and I am exposed to this Sopana Sangeetham from my very childhood as I spent my whole childhood near Thiruvattar Adi Keshava Perumal Temple, Kanyakumari, where legendary musicians in Sopana Sangeetham used to perform in temple festivities and used to visit our home and sing. I found during my academic studies that all are focusing on Carnatic Music in South India, and a very vast peculiar indigenous music system of my Mother Land left unnoticed by anyone. So being a Keralite, I felt that it is a high time to revive and revitalize this extraordinary music of my land.



Q.2.          How much being born in a music family helped you evolve yourself as a musician?

It’s all my family background that helped myself to evolve not only as a vocalist but to dwell deep into this music system and to know the repertoire more. My mother Lakshmikutty Amma was a crantic vocalist and she taught me many basic lessons in music, but it’s my Maternal Grandmother Gowrikutty Pillai had a vast knowledge of many Sopana tradition compositions and Kshetra Sangeetham. She dosen’t taught me deliberately but used to sing a lot as Vaimozhi, which knowingly or unknowingly got registered in me and eventually led to my deep interest in this area.

My brother Shri. Kamukara Purushottaman, was a renowned Carmatic Vocalist as well as Malayalam Playback Singer, but I always had an instinct that my destiny is to work for Sopana Music



Q.3.          Women Scholars in this field?

There are seldom any women scholars in this field as Sopana Sangeetham was almost a male dominated. You see the temple musicians are all male artists only, that too of some particular caste only, like Marars and Poduvals. Apart from Kunji Kutty Thankachi. Daughter of Irayimman Thampi, we don’t see any women scholars in Sopana music. Women were exposed to other art forms like Mohiniattam, Thiruvathira kali and Kaikottikali. It is noteworthy that even at ancient time also Nangiars, women of Nagiar Family of Kerala were involved in art forms like Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu.



  • Sopana Sangeetham
Q.4.      What are the challenges in this field?

There are many challenges in this field because academically, there is no scope as there is no particular BA, MA degrees in Sopana Sangeetham in any University/ Colleges. So what students do is they pursue BA, MA in Carnatic Music and they do research in Sopana Music. It is always that there is a Carnatic boom in South India, so much focus is on that only. Sopana Musicians have to work tediously to have their space in such a competitive music fraternity.

Q.5.          How you feel being an Author, Scholar, Lyricist and a teacher at the same time all rolled into one?

It is a tedious job which I enjoy the most. I feel I have done a little things only there are more to be done. I always feel that one life is not enough. (Laughs). What I love the most is to teach. Students come to my residence and we have our institution ‘Trikalaa Gurukulam’ for Music, Dance and Allied Art forms where with the able support of my daughter Dr. Deepti Omchery Bhalla, many youngsters are doing well both in Music and Dance

Q.6.           How much did this Sopana Sangeetham influenced other art forms of Kerala?

Actually, Sopana Music is all that formed the foundation for all major art forms in Kerala. You take Mohiniattam, Kathakali, Ottam Thullal, Thiruvathirakali, all have the musical basis of Sopana Sangeetham. But there is a slight mark of distinction between Kshetra Sangeetham (Temple music) and Arangu Sangeetham (Stage Music). But the irony is that over the years Kshetra Sangeetham, and its practice diminished whereas Arangu Sangeetham boomed as these art forms got revived and became popular.

Q.7.          How the Carnatic music influenced Sopana Sangeetham?

As I already said, there was a great popularity of Carnatic Music in whole South India due to its systemization by Purandara Dasa by which it had its own easiness in learning and assimilating unlike Sopana Sangeetham which was passed on to the next generation by Vaimozhi only. So, we can’t deny the influence of Carnatic Music in Sopana Sangeetham that we hear these days, but we had legends like Thrikkamburam Krishnankutty Marar, who had a great knowledge of the traditional Kshetra Sangeetham with least influence of Carnatic Music.

Many doyens of Carnatic Music revitalized the compositions of stalwarts like Swati Tirunal in a Carnatic Pattern which is now very prevalent among Musicians now, which indicates the Carnatic influence in Sopana Sangeetham.

Q.8.           Is Sopana Sangeetham getting the appreciation and popularity it deserves?

Never. Actually, it’s not anyone’s fault; actually people doesn’t know what it is actually and

how worthy it is to dwell into the rare talas and ragas in our own indigenous music system.


It is just considered as a temple music and restricted there only. But to my surprise, I found althrough my research many unknown compositions of Swati Tirunal and also vathilthura pattu (Malayalam Javalis). I feel it is the high time that people, artists, students, scholars should understand its relevance and importance and preserve and document the compositions from the existing resources and artists, otherwise there would be a time when the Sopana Sangeetham would be no longer known to anyone.

Q.9.           What is the new future prospectives of Sopana Sangeetham?

New perspectives can be many. As Kerala is rich in its performing Arts, more such compositions can be used in dance forms like Mohiniattam. And also understanding the Music system would benefit the Kathakali Composers, Mohiniattam Dancers, Ottam Thullal artists to compose and choreograph new productions in the Sopana system itself rather than going for Carnatic system by which we would be able to bring a real music essence of our own land in our own Art forms.



Q.10.        What advice you would give to the youngsters in this field?

Young Artists are quite talented and hard working. They have such a caliber and can do much better than us but they are in a run for fame, money, medals and competitions only. But they should see to themselves what they are contributing to the any art form they have chosen. Am I doing justice to the repertoire and should understand there is something more than money and fame making in Art Fraternity and to reach a thinking level of Art more important than artist.