Manipuri Shumang Lila: Best social folk medium

By: Neken Singh Seram

Shumang Lila is a popular folk medium of Manipur Valley and Hills. The government and people have to work for preservation of this medium for utilising it in disseminating news and views to people.

THE ORIGIN of Shumang Lila may be traced from as early as 400 BC or 2400 years back from today, as it is originated from the Laiharaoba festival, in which the tradition of ‘Tangkhul Nurabi Loutaba’ is performed on the night of the last day of the festival as an importantpart of ritual. In spite of the absence of concrete historical evidences, this is a generally agreed notion among scholars. This dramatic episode has all the elements of a Shumang Lila performance – humour, pantomimic elements with simple and meaningful dialogues from the rites, traditional proverbs, riddles, singing and dancing.

Shumang Lila is a touring theatre performed by a group of around twelve or thirteen artistes, who are invited by an individual, or a group who pays them ‘dakshina’. These troupes may be either exclusively female (Nupi Shumang Lila) or exclusively male (Nupa Shumang Lila). In this theatre form, there is social sanction for transvestism. In Nupi Shumang Lila, the female artistes dress themselves up as males depending upon the characters. Photo by Siddhrath Haobijam . Click to see more photos of Nupi Shumang Lila Art form

During the reign of Chandrakirti Maharaj (1850-1886), a genre called Phagee Lila came up. In this, the comedians of the time such as Abujamba Saiton and Kharibam Laishuba were summoned to the palace and made to perform to entertain the courtiers particularly the royal women. Later on, comedians like Laithangba, Uritmahum, Heiningmaru etc. became popular artistes. Phagee Lila was also performed during the Durga Puja festival also. Phagee Lila was out and out comedy, cooking up of absurd stories on the spot to entertain the audience.

During the reign of Churachand Maharaj (1891-1941), Moirang Parva, Mandav Lila and Phagi lila such as Phadibi Pala and Kabuli Pala were popular. Present contemporary Shumang Lila may be perceived as a combination born out of Mandav Lila and Phagi Lila as all elements present in them are present in Shumang Lila. Kongpal Moirang Parva and Keishampat Moirang Parva were also popular plays. These were without any written script and derived from oral folk tales and songs. Among the early Shumang Lila performances, mention may be made of Harishchandra (1918), Sabitri Seitaban, Meiraba Charan, Thok Lila etc. During the reign of King Churachand (1891-1941), a gifted artist called Chungkham Ibohal and his troupe performed a satirical play against the water tax levied on people using Imphal River. On hearing this, the King arrested him and made to perform the play in front of the King.Shumang Lila had been known as “Jatra” or “Jatrawali” in the beginning, may be because of the fact that those performers were always leading personalities of the locality and these plays were performed for important occasions. ‘Jatra’ literally means ‘Lead’. Puya Meithaba was the first scripted play and it was followed by BA Mapa Lamboiba around 1945-46. In the 1970s, Shumang Lila female troupes (Nupi Shumang Lila) were born. ‘Epom’ was also born by 1970. In 1971, All Manipur Jatra Association was formed and the Manipur State Kala Academy changed the name of the performance to “Shumang Lila” by organizing the Shumang Lila Festival from 1973 onwards. Prior to this, Shumang Lila competitions were conducted by Theatre Centre and later by Publicity Department of Manipur Government.

Best Traditional Social Media

In olden days, elders of the family used to enlighten the children with the folk-tales almost on regular basis. One beautiful aspect of it is the intellect and knowledge imbibed in the children of the yore. This useful oral medium served as a means to communicate the thoughts and perception of the elders to the younger generation directly. Now, this convention is hardly seen in the society. Today’s children have less time to devote to such things, as they have to do a list of home tasks, a series of private tuitions and video games. Generation gap becomes wider day-by-day in modern society.Not all the traditions of olden times are good to follow, but there are certain values that are essential in maintaining a social identity of the people. Today, we witness the widening generation gap where youths do not pay attention to the words of the elders. At the same time, young people are negatively influenced by the alien cultural invasion through various new media like satellite channels, bollywood commercial films, advertisements portraying sex for sales, internet blitzkrieg and mobile telephony. These media onslaught on the immature tender minds create delinquent behaviour, easy lifestyles, careless habits, blind aping of the western costumes and dresses, neglect of the past and consequent identity crisis degrading the moral values in society.In such emergent crises, Shumang Lila as a unique traditional media may be the best tool to effectively counter the negative influences of the new media on the youths of Manipur. Native people prefer traditional media to other modern channels mainly due to its intelligibility and familiarity of language, gestures, culture and tradition. Messages conveyed by such media are always credible and acceptable to locals. There is ‘effective reach’ as there is high degree of attentiveness among the audience. Quick feedbacks may be collected as senders (actors) and receivers (audience) of the messages are face to face during the performance. Shumang Lila as a traditional media reflects the socio-cultural, religious, moral and emotional needs of the local people.Everyone realizes the effectiveness of traditional media/ folk media in spreading messages to people of all walks and backgrounds. Having been exposed to these art forms for centuries, they have become a part of their ethos. The languages and dialects are their very own, because of which, intelligibility is very high. The familiarity of language, gestures, music and rhythm is what makes this media universally acceptable among rural folks. Unlike in the case of radio and television, where the message comes out of an impersonal electronic box, in the folk media, there is direct and personal contact between the sender of the message and the receiver. It makes the message far more credible and acceptable.Popularity of Shumang Lila as a traditional media in Manipur needs no revision at all. The Iboyaima Shumang Lila Sanglen located at Imphal has become quite insufficient to accommodate the increasing size of the audience as witnessed in the annual event of Ningtham Kummei organised by the All Manipur Shumang Lila Council every year. The growing quantum of viewers year by year stands testimony to the fact that Shumang Lila outclasses all other traditional media in the state in terms of popularity, reach and accessibility. Present day Shumang Lila dwells on varied themes like identity crises and its preservation, police-public relations, insurgency and its ramification, corruption and nepotism, social chaos and ailments.

The wider the gap between ‘the ideal’ and ‘the real’, the more is ‘the Chaos’ in the society. Shumang Lila attempts to portray the ideal character in the social set-up. This has facilitated the viewers to compare between what is ideal and what is real. Moreover, the social actors (people) can surely imitate the ideal character shown on the stage. It is thus an effective tool for social reformation.

Shumang Lila for Awareness Generation

During the Indian freedom struggle, mass opinion was generated by incorporation of themes of British oppression in the folk art forms such as songs, dance and drama throughout India. Particularly in West Bengal and Maharashtra, where struggle for freedom was at its fiercest, the traditional media were utilized to instill patriotic feelings in the people’s mindset. Today, the state governments are using the very same art forms to convey ideas of family welfare, banking, education, health and prohibition.Besides entertaining people and making them forget their day-to-day tensions and worries, Shumang Lila as a traditional media carries a heavy responsibility to educate people on various issues both local and international. It has three important characteristic motives – entertaining, educative and reformative. Various government and non-government agencies are judiciously employing Shumang Lila as effective message carriers to the people.Playwright Rupachandra Gosh’s “Singareina Kenkhrabada” performed by Meitei Leima Jatra cum Drama Association (Cheitei Party) and “Kanagi Maralno” based on Polio Immunization performed by Bir Tikendrajit Artistes Union were successful plays towards generating awareness among the people. The Department of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Government of Manipur also utilize this medium for spreading awareness on sanitation. Mention can be made of playwright Rupachandra Gosh’s “Anouba Mangal” performed by Shining Star Union, “Amambada Meingal” performed by Bir Tikendrajit Artistes Union and “Anouba Lambi” of Kamakhya Sangeet Mandal.The Science and Technology Department also produced play on environment entitled “Anouba Yenning”. Chana Lukhoi’s street play entitled “Senphu Hangba” performed by Compositional Artistes Association was produced for generating awareness on national savings insurance. This play was translated into Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and English, and performed all over India. Manipur Co-artist Association’s Shumang Lila “Makhong Taragi Cheingak” was also produced under the State Veterinary and Animal Husbandry Department, Manipur for awareness generation on animal husbandry services. Manaobi MM’s play “Naitom Satpi” was a successful Shumang Lila based on leprosy disease and performed by the Peacemaker Artistes Association.

Whither Tribal Shumang Lilas:

Tribal Shumang Lila appeared for a short period in the history of Shumang Lila in Manipur.  In the absence of any further encouragement and support, it lost its way.In the year 2002, a few interested people initiated an experiment by introducing Shumang Lila among the selected tribal artistes groups and made them display at villages in hills to spread useful messages for their life. The taste was very good and unexpected. There was active involvement and participation among the artistes – there was hectic enthusiasm among the audience. Interestingly, when the premier show of Tangkhul Shumang Lila “Ajawui Tuishot” was first displayed at Dewlaland sometime in 2002, the 1000-packed audience was enthralled by the artistes of C.R Film Industry based in Phungreithang, Ukhrul. The play was full of comedies. Even Meities who did not know Tangkhul dialect fell made in laughter. Thereafter, these plays were shown in different villages of Ukhrul district on demand by the public. The experiment was successful indeed.Likewise, the Paites also developed their Shumang lila “Khangban Sham Doh Ei” and performed for the first time at Paite Veng Imphal in the same year. The Thadous under the banner of United Rural Youth Artistes Manipur produced and played “Heo Neingadamin” and the All Zeliangrong Art and Cultural Organisation of Kubuis performed “Phaikan Kathan”. The Thadou play was displayed at Tuibong for the first time and Kabui play was shown at Pandon, North AOC. All these plays were the same as the ‘Shumang Lila’ performed by the Meiteis. The only differences were – it was in their own dialects and the females played female roles and males as males. There was no tradition of “Nupi Sabi” among them. A short span after production and display in remote villages of hill districts of the state, the Tribal Shumang Lilas unfortunately discontinued for there was none to encourage and support.Actually, these plays were produced by the Manipur State AIDS Control Society for spreading AIDS awareness in tribal populated areas. The popularity of Shumang Lila among the Meitei community and its being a highly effective messenger for HIV/AIDS prompted the then Project Director of Manipur AIDS Control Society – Dr. Khomdon Singh Lisam. He put extra effort to introduce and experiment the age-old Shumang Lila tradition among the different tribal communities. On 19 and 20 July, 2002, the Manipur State AIDS Control Society organised a workshop for scriptwriters and Directors at Mass Hotel Imphal where around thirty playwright, artistes and Director belonging to tribal communities attended. The project was to organize plays in tribal dialects with a dual-objective – to spread awareness on HIV/AIDS in nook and corner of the states and also to enrich the tradition and culture of the hill people with the addition of Shumang Lila.Those who took active part at the initial stage were renowned playwright Chana Lukhoi, Shumang Lila Personality Narendra Ningomba, Artist Rai Khan Assurance (Tangkhul), writer Lanboi Kabui (All Zeliangrong Art and Cultural Organisation), artist Th. Angam (Thadou community) and so on. Chana Lukhoi and Dr. Khomdon Lisam took the pains in translating the scripts of these Shumang Lilas. The late Shumang Lila Gurus Laikangbam Ibotombi (Mama Ibotombi), Mangsidam Binod (Heingang) and Thokchom Ibema Leima took the responsibility to train the tribal artistes by going from one hill district to another and staying there for a long period. It was a herculean task to teach Shumang Lila to the tribal people as there was a language barrier between the trainers and the trainees. The development of Shumang Lila in tribal dialects was a very difficult mission which became possible due to the enthusiasm of tribal artistes groups coupled with the commitment and quality leadership of the then Project Director of Manipur AIDS Control Society Dr. Khomdon Singh Lisam.

The scripts were their own. The tribal brethrens have their own stories related to HIV and AIDS – which they penned and dramatized. A committee comprising Oja Dr. Nognmaithem Tombi, Meghachandra Kongbam, Chana Lukhoi, Dr. Khomdon Lisam and one other from the concerned community observed the plays and moulded to its presentable shape. This writer had the opportunity to involve in this mission under the valuable guidance of the experts.

In fact, the popularity of Shumang Lila among the tribal people is no less than that of Meiteis. When they saw their own people playing in their own dialect, their enthusiasm grew more and more – as if the tradition is of their own origin. Indeed, sharing of this tradition among the different communities of Manipur will bring a closer tie among the people of the state.

However, it is unfortunate that the tribal Shumang Lilas met an immature end due to lack of nourishment. Neither its creator nor the government department of Art and Culture seem to take its responsibility. In the valley, people used to invite Shumang Lila for festival entertainments thereby sustaining the artistes groups. However, such is not the case with tribal Shumang Lila artistes. Until their play reaches upto the status and standard of Meitei performers, we need to nourish them. Who will take up this Endeavour?

Preserving the tradition:

As a regular spectator and lover of this art form, I can proudly claim that Shumang Lila is the most popular traditional media in Manipur. Although I have not even known the ABC of this art form, I can say the artistic skills and intelligence needed for a Shumang Lila artist have no parallel with the other performing art forms. As we have observed, famous film stars of Manipur act in the Shumang Lila – may be to extract and train themselves with the rich artistic intelligence and values. It is a totally LIVE media, the artist used to perform at the centre of hundreds of spectators sitting around him. There cannot be a cheating in acting and no chance of rewind or recast. What has happened on stage is always the message. Right from the moment the artist comes out on the stage to the moment he leaves it- every movement is the message. The audience is always active and alert in Shumang Lila. It is the only media which maintains a uniform emotion for its heterogeneous audience. The audience in Shumang Lila ranges from the most learned to the most illiterate, the richest to the poorest, and the most foolish to the wisest. It is the performance which can entertain people of all sections, all age-groups and all occupations. Its popularity as a very effective medium lies in its local touch. The story, the language, the artistes – all is ours. The messages given in Shumang Lilas can go deep in our hearts.There is no dearth of scholars, intellectuals, directors, playwrights and artistes who are constantly working hard to preserve this beautiful art form and maintaining its popular character for an immortal service to the society. As an innocent member of the audience, I would personally like to put certain suggestions for better preservation of its unique character among its counterparts.As Plato in ancient times opined in his ‘The Republic’ that ‘music and drama as art forms can be either used or misused’, the costumes of some of the female role artistes need to be checked in time so as to preserve the unique character of Shumang Lila as a popular media among the people irrespective of age, literacy level, profession etc. It is different from other art forms because all members of a family from the youngest to the eldest are its audience. The mature audience feels uncomfortable in the costumes of some of the female-roles. Moreover, there is tendency that young girls may imitate these dresses and styles. So, makers of Shumang Lila need to work for inculcating decent lifestyles and costumes in the minds of young viewers.Secondly, besides the routine annual shows in Imphal, Shumang Lila festivals may also be organised at other district headquarters at least in the valley districts for a few days in a year so as to gain wider popularity in the nook and corner of the state.Thirdly, there is a need to establish and run a school of Shumang lila to study the art form and also to train enthusiastic artistes.

Lastly, if there is any Shumang Lila of the tribal dialects in existence, they may be invited to exhibit in Shumang Lila festivals. There were plays in Tangkhul, Kabui, Thadou, Paite and Hmar dialects created some years back for the purpose of spreading HIV/AIDS awareness in the nook and corner of the state. The state Shumang Lila Council in consultation with the State Kala Academy may take the responsibility to promote these tribal dialect plays in the larger interests of preserving this traditional media.




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