Female characters in Shumang Lila are still enacted by men, which gives its distinctive identity and taste, along with the Phagi-puba. Phagi-puba or clown is an essential element in this play. The latter has changed his role, since in the scripted plays beginning from 1950. He was assimilated within the narrative and situational and character interactions were given prominence, instead of having an independent presence for the sake of humour alone. Although the dramatists tried hard to retain the same elements of fun and laughter, there was a gradual decline in the art of the traditional clown.
In Imphal there are some twenty professional troupes that receive invitations to tour villages or towns. There are three to four shows can be arranged in a day. The season begins in early February. These are ritually associated in the traditional calendar with the start of the agricultural cycle. Directors and scriptwriters are able to live comfortably. The Nupi-shabi i.e. female impersonator charges extremely high fees. He is coveted by various groups and bought over as in football transfers. A troupe normally consists often to twelve members, and when it travels, it carries music and sound equipment since the song sequences call for sophistication. Playback singing takes an important part. The singer and musicians sit on one side, while the heroine lip-syncs on stage.
The Manipur State Kala Akademi organizes annual festivals with prizes for the top three plays judged by scholars and literati. Huge pavilions are constructed in fields, with a raised square stage in the middle, and viewing arrangements all round. Some fifteen all-male troupes and six or seven amateur all-women ones compete in different categories. Large audiences follow the fate of popular groups, and sometimes the enclosing fences are broken by enthusiastic youths. The prize-winning male groups have solid runs of their plays for a year or two. New scripts are written and fresh productions mounted the next season. The female groups comprise mostly market women, who cross-dress for male roles. Their subjects are essentially folk legends and semi-historical drama. They get some invitation shows, but poverty and lack of motivation haunt these enterprises.
Shumang Lila has perhaps the longest history in Manipuri theatre. It is believed to have started as comic skits by the jesters of feudal royalty in the nineteenth century. Ancient Manipur utilized slavery as a mode of production, and each noble's household had one or two slaves termed phunganai. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the phunganai did lots of acrobatics. Later, princesses and court ladies had female retinues who almost became conscience-keepers. Their roles in folk theatre were extremely popular and drew sympathy. The feudal system often needed subversion and creative reproduction. The energy of sexual urges recharging it through fun and humour. The clown provided this original function of social revitalization through destruction and renewal.
Elders often narrate stories of how Maharaja Chandrakirti possessed excellent wits. The famous ones can be named as Oina Bijando and Thengbai Mera. Other jesters like Abujamba Shaiton and Khari Laisuba were reported to have invented the comic skits. One day they improvised the discovery of large footmarks in the palace verandah, which they suspected to be those of an elephant. They mimed the digging of pits for its capture, watched by the king and court, including a noble, Thokchao, who possessed an extra-large heel. The clowns discovered that the footmarks belonged to none other than him. The incident had everyone laughing uproariously, except Thokchao who vigorously objected to the personal insult. The Maharaja affected a compromise and ordered the start of Phagi Lila. The offended noble also dined the punsters and requested them not to play jokes against him again.
The vibrancy, vitality, and continuance of this itinerant form were in fact conditioned by the resilience of peasant society and its general attitude to life. Crosstalk, which was an Asian theatrical possession of rapid exchange of phrases and wit, was called chin-kangjei or "word-hockey" in native parlance. Manipuri clowns were adept at this art. By the end of the nineteenth century, personal competition in antiphonal repartee, fluency of diction, innovation in rhythm and declamation, and richness of vocabulary and thematic content all became part of the developing stylistics of performance. Enactment of imaginary bouts and confrontations, and temporary destruction of equilibrium became cornerstones of humour.
The clowns in the early twentieth century gradually got rid of painted faces. At that time more down-to-earth crosstalk, distortion of limbs and facial muscles, utilization of nonsense syllables, and narration of humorous tales came into currency. The plays were short, but in between were plenty of impromptu performances, and digs at the nobility, social oppression, human foibles, and sexual peccadilloes. Strings of brief narratives linked together made one full presentation. Normally six to seven actors toured the countryside, and the most attractive members were the Nupi-shabi and Phagi-puba, who became the troupe leaders. The plays came to be named after the clown: thus, Yotshubi Phagi, Amuthoi Phagi, Chengba Phagi, etc.
The advent of these clowns transformed annual religious celebrations. The Durga Puja at the palace was a great event. In Durga Puja many enactments, operas, dances, and Phagis were held on each day of the ten-day festival. Various performing groups came from the villages, stayed at adjacent noblemen's houses. They were fed and taken care of by court ladies and generous families, and watched by large audiences. Extended households and other adjacent populations also called them to present their shows after community feasts. Such invitations became so overcrowded that competitiveness, quarrels, and fights ensued. The court was often pressed to issue notices to regulate such shows, and aristocratic circles lobbied furiously in the 1930s to suppress rival groups.
By 1918, the nature of performances was embellished by regular stories in a proper dramatic structure from texts outside the Indian state of Manipur. Raja Harishchandra was the first Hindu mythological play done in the itinerant manner. The plot of a pious king's suffering and the Brahman's oppressive presence were symbolic of the social context of that period. Later, the discrete coexistence of long narratives with improvised skits was compromised by clown episodes presented between the two halves of a play. Some Phagis remained more famous than the drama that sandwiched them. Such proliferation of performance reached unprecedented dimensions with the creation of many forms of Pala or opera and the ethnic theatre of Moirang Parva.
The first half of the twentieth century could be regarded as the golden period of Shumang Lila. However, the loss of Manipur's freedom in 1891 and the cultural transformation that took place under colonial aegis led to a change in its nomenclature, as being derived from the Jatra of West Bengal. Itinerant groups came to be known as Jatrawalis and, when the Theatre Centre organized their first festival in 1967, they named it the All Manipur Jatra Festival.
Shumang Lila now presents an entirely changed syndrome of survival in the midst of changing laws of the market. It became the purveyor of popular drama, with directors controlling the texture, sequence, and structure of scripted narratives. Now a day clowns do not spontaneously decorate on the vivacity of their improvisatory tradition. Cosmopolitan theatre added choreographic organization in movement and scenic unfolding. Enactment of contemporary violence, clashes between the police and insurgents, stories of manipulation, intrigue, and revenge turned into major themes. More sophistication of skills and techniques in presenting physical violence and bloodshed was demanded, due to competition from television in villages. The intrusion of an overwhelmingly dominant filmic culture effected transformations in behaviour, spectacle, and acting methods. The art of crosstalk vanished and also replaced by large-scale melodramatic rhetoric. Social disquiet during the counter-insurgency operations resulted in loss of young audiences as well.
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