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.
She was appointed as the director of Kalakshetra by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in April 2005. She was subsequently also appointed as the chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in August 2010 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.
She resigned from her position as director of Kalakshetra in 2012. 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.
She made her cinematic acting debut in 2015 through the Tamil film, OK Kanmani directed by Mani Ratnam.
Samson was born on 6 May 1951 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. 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. Leela's paternal aunt Annie was principal of Anjum-e-Islam Muslim school for girls at Mumbai for 31 years.
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. She completed her B.A. from Sophia College for Women in Mumbai and this is where she was inspired to make her career in Bharatnatyam. After completing her B.A., Samson continued to learn Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra.
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.
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. Her notable disciples included Joyce Paul Poursabahian and Justin McCarthy, who now teaches at Sri Ram Bhartiya Kala Kendra. 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, and the annual Milapfest at Manchester.
Samson has received the Padma Shri (1990), the Sanskriti, Nritya Choodamani, Kalaimamani (2005) given by Government of Tamil Nadu, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1999–2000) for contributions to Bharatanatyam.
She was also nominated for the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress-Tamil at the 63rd Filmfare Awards South.
Samson is known for her proximity to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty of the Indian National Congress, as she was the dance tutor of Priyanka Vadra. Samson held six key positions in the 10 years of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime. Many papers including the Indian Express alleged favouritism 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.
Samson's tenures at Kalakshetra, Sangeet Natak Akademi and the censor board were mired with many controversies amid allegations of corruption, illegal appointments and arbitrary awarding of contracts, financial irregularities, and anti-Hindu bias. Samson was criticised 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 allegedly designed to ridicule Hindu religious philosophy and hurt Hindu sentiments. Veteran Bollywood actor and a former chairperson of the censor board Anupam Kher criticised Samson for playing politics by making partisan allegations while tendering her resignation.. This criticism was made highlighting the history of CBFC under her leadership which agreed to make cuts in Entertainment after protests by Muslim groups and also agreed to make cuts in Kamaal Dhamaal Malamaal after protests by Christian groups, personally assuring them that "necessary action had been taken".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.