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Shumang Lila - History of development of Manipuri theatre
By KshetriMayum Imokanta Singh
Ph.D. SCHOLAR, J.N.U.
New Delhi
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History of development of Manipuri theatre


Etymologically Shumang lila is the combination of "Shumang" ( courtyard ) and "Lila" ( play or performance ). It is also known as Jatra or jatrawali which is an import from Assam and Bengal as a result of contact with the mainstream Indian culture. It is performed in an area of 13/13 ft in the centre of any open space - courtyard or playground or mandap (pavilion) or bank of a river.

It is performed in a very simple style without any raised stage or any set designing or heavy props such as curtains, background scenary, visual effects etc. but with only one table and two chairs , kept on one side of the performance space. Its claims of being the theatre of the masses can be exemplified by the way it is performed in the middle of an audience which surrounds it from all sides leaving only one passage which serves as both entrance and exit connecting the performance space with the green room.

Shumang lila is performed by a touring band of 12-13 professional artistes on invitation basis. These troupes may be either exclusively female (Nupi Shumang Lila) or exclusively male ( Nupa Shumang lila ). Though the male characters are enacted by the female artistes in the case of the former what is most intriguing is the enactment of the female roles by the male artistes or nupishabis whom I call male actresses, in the case of the latter. They are feminine par excellence in their looks, bodily gestures and facial expressions guised in the masculine souls. Who is not crazy about the hypnotic beauty and demeanor of Sanaton and Arun ? These male actresses are profusely popular and they are the main attraction of any Shumang lila play.

Historically the actual seed of Shumang lila was sown in Phagee lila (farce), performed during the reign of Maharaja Chandrakirti (1850-1886), though the traces of it were already present in the episode of Tangkhul-Nurabi Loutaba of Laiharaoba festival. Then it was succeeded by such plays as Ramlila, Sabha parba, Kabul lila etc. But the real Shumang lila with various rasas (sentiments) was ushered in with the epic play Harishchandra (1918). Then it was followed by others such as Sabitri Satyavan, Meiraba charan,Thok lila etc. One of the most successful plays of this era was Moirang parba (an epic play based on the legendary lovers- Khamba and Thoibi of Moirang ). The big leap came in 1950 when scripts were introduced with the plays like Puranmeithaba and B.A. Mapa Lamboiba. It was a boost for literature loving people of Manipur and also it brought in professionalism in Manipuri theatre. Second major change came in 1970s with the introduction of Eshei lila with its background music and playback singing. Some of them were Krishna bal lila(1975), Thadoi(1976) and Chakthekpi (1977). It was degeneration for some and a refreshing change for many. Today we have only Eshei lila genre with its ever expanding wings. The competitive zeal of the troupes is kept burning by the annual Shumang lila festival which started in 1972.

On the other hand, the world of Phampak lila ( stage drama ) performed in the proscenium theatre is similar, in form, to the Western theatrical model and Indian Natyasastra model though its contents are indigenous. The so called modern theatre descended on Manipuri theatre culture with the performance of Pravas Milan (1902) under the enthusiastic patronage of Sir Churchand Maharaj (1891-1941). It was not a completely alien import as Manipuris were already acquainted with theatre, though it was a new genre. They dissolved themselves into it like sugar in the milk. In fact theatre is such a solvent which never reaches its saturation point no matter how large quantities of ingredients are dissolved into it.

Manipur had its first permanent theatre house in the early years of first decade of 20th century in the form of Manipur Friends Dramatic Union. During this era plays were mainly Manipuri adaptation of Bangali plays. But 1925 saw the beginning of truly Manipuri plays with "Narasingh". The pace of theatrical movement was geared up with the institution of various groups such as Manipur Dramatic Union (MDU) (1930), Arian Theatre (1935), Chitrangada Natya Mandir (1936), Society Theatre (1937), Rupmahal (1942), Cosmopolitan Dramatic Union (1968), The Chorus Repertory Theatre of Ratan Thiyam (1976) etc. These groups started experimenting with various types of plays apart from historical and pauranic ones. As a result theatre started disseminating to other parts of Manipur such as Nambol to encourage people to take active part in developing this art form.

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