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Shumang leela, the Courtyard theatre of Manipur

By Siddharth Haobijam

Crowned as the “Jewel of India” by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Manipur, situated in the lofty mountains of the North East India boasts of many traditional and cultural gems. One of these is the Shumang Leela. Literally translated as Courtyard Theatre, this theatre has been the mainstay of the Meiteis , the Tibeto-Burman group of people who have inhabited the Imphal valley since time immemorial.

There was a time – in those good old, romantic days – when the high ,the mighty ,the King’s men would organize Shumang Leela in their spacious courtyards celebrating maybe a birth, a new higher position in the durbar or maybe anything that merits some grand celebrations. Sometimes, even the more humble folks in a leikai (locality) would book a Shumang Leela troupe for some significant events.Even today, the tradition is kept alive.

Birjit Ningombam , a noted Shumang Leela director listening to a recital by an actor
Iboyaima Khuman, a well known senior Shumang Leela practicing at director Birjit’s place
This traditional theatre is performed on a very simple styled stage stripped to its basics. Heavy props such as curtains, background scenery, visual effects etc are generally avoided with only one table and two chairs kept on one side of the performance space. 
The play itself takes place in an open space with the audience seated close to the artistes on four sides. The audience surrounds it from all sides leaving only one small passage which serves as both entrance and exit connecting the performance space with the “green room”.

A young Transgender  playing the role of a female character. In the Leela tradition, especially in the Nupa Leela theatre, both the female and male roles are played by the male actors.

Shumang Leela is performed by a touring band of 12–13 professional artistes on an invitation basis. These troupes may be exclusively female (Nupi Shumang Leela) or exclusively male (Nupa Shumang Leela). There are nearly ten Nupa Shumang leela troupes with six to seven actors in each group. The Nupi Shumang Leela is not that popular though, only the Nupa Shumang Leela has managed to draw incrowds for their plays.

Oja (teacher) Birjit giving acting tips to an artist just before the play starts .
Another artiste praying for the play’s success
A male singer giving the voice to the character on the stage.
Male singers usually sings in a female voice for the female characters

One reason the Nupa Shumang Leela has taken a hold in the popular imagination is due to the curious roles played by the “Nupi Shabi”. Nupi Shabi are biologically male actors who plays the female roles. There are at least three Nupi Shabi with another student or aspiring Nupi Sabi in each group. Though this is not mandatory, today the Nupi Shabi roles have generally been taken over by the trangenders of Manipur.

Bishesh and Pandum ,two well known Leela artistes.
Female roles are increasingly being played by transgenders or the Nupi Maanbi
Hiramoti – a well known transgender who has played beautiful female roles in various leelas

In its entire history as a popular platform for entertainment,Shumang Leela have dealt with various themes.

Hiramoti playing the role of a female folk lore character

There have been comedy, folk-lore, legends, social commentaries . Plays have also been written and played on international events like bombing of World Trade Centre, atomic bombardment of Hiroshima, etc.

A play in progress in a leela festival.
Annual leela festivals are regularly held in Imphal,Manipur

Today, the magic of the Leela has not been dampened by the passing of the good old days. Even the rise of instant gratification type of entertainments like TV and internet where we don’t need to get out of the comfort of our warm homes and entertainments stream in with a flick of a button have failed to reduce this genre to the foot notes of theatrical history.

A Shumang Leela troupe about to start on its journey .
Shumang leela groups usually travels through long distances to fulfill people’s desire to see new plays
Guna , a popular leela artiste waiting in the troupe’s bus for other artistes to arrive

Indeed even proscenium theatre is exciting for the artistes as well as for the audience – the great drama is played up front, very near to us and there is an instant connect between the artistes and the audience.

One of the actors giving a sterling performance

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