Sexual Minorities and the Nupi Sabis of Manipur - Part 1 -

Sadokpam Ranjeeta Devi *

Trans-Gender (Nupi Manbi) Community of Manipur at work in Imphal :: March 10 2013
Trans-Gender (Nupi Manbi) Community of Manipur at work in Imphal in March 2013 :: Pix by Deepak Oinam

Gender Studies in India have mostly concentrated on Women's Studies and more recently, on masculinity with the broad framework on masculinity-femininity as the structuring binary corresponding to given sex-based assignments of male and female within a heterosexual context. Increasing interest in same-sex politics has led to various other sexualities, broadly known as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual), to be included in the gender discourse.

This inclusion often does not do away with the identitarianism that an investment in heterosexuality produces nor has there been a serious questioning of the validity of these identities in the multiple and diverse contexts of India. The contestation of sexualities within the self and the idea of a self traversing many sexualities found within one lifetime and one body has not been explored much.

It is among such nuances that I locate my understanding of 'nupi sabis' and the question of homosexuality in Manipur. The term 'homo' which is slang for homosexual (i.e. an attraction and sexual behavior between people of the same sex, or to a sexual orientation) is mostly used as abuse in many parts of the world. However, the term is used quite comfortably by gays in Manipur.

In fact, the nupi sabi use it while introducing themselves. This phenomenon of using the word 'homo,' considered an abusive term, becoming a positive term that asserts their identity is symptomatic of the kind of rewriting that the nupi sabi identity construction involves.

Manipuri 'homos' are not a uniform category and while a certain amount of re-consolidation of internalised heterosexism and apparent homophobia is evident, inevitable in the overtly and strongly patriarchal social set up of the state, the construction of a gay, transsexual and transvestite identity and the way these enter not just ritual performative space but also day-to-day life in Manipur is a phenomenon that demands some examination.

The Ritual and Performative Contexts

Manipur state is inhabited by three major ethnic groups,
(a) the Meiteis and Pangals (Muslims) of the valley,
(b) the Nagas and
(c) the Kuki-Chin tribes of the hills.

The Meiteis are the largest ethnic community in the state. The Meitei social structure is composed of seven clans or 'salais'. Each salai has its own distinct norms of ancestral worship called 'Apokpa Haraoba'. Normally every 'Sagei' (sub category within a Salai or extended family kinship grouping name of the Meitei) performed ancestors worship and associated festivities every year.

With the advent of Vaishnavism in the 17th century, most of the Meiteis became Hindus resulting into an intermingling with earlier beliefs, rituals and practices. The valley inhabited mostly by Meiteis is characterised by an agrarian economy. The patriarchal social structure of the Meiteis has so far enforced strict norm for individual gender role performances. Like any patriarchal social set-up, the sex-based role models expected of individuals are to some extent fixed and assigned with gender specificity.

The pre-Hindu religious institution of the "Maibis and Maibas" has reflected transgender and transsexual activity inside Meitei society from much before these became identities in the present social context. Maibas are the male high priests of pre-Hindu Meitei religion. Maibis are their female counterparts and they more or less function like the Shaman.

For any Meitei, it is common knowledge that a Meitei male can join the female religious institution or fraternity of the Maibis. For this, the individual male who wishes to join the 'Maibis' religious order has to possess certain prescribed qualities and indicate them through exhibition of one's feeling and actions. Most of these male Maibis are generally effeminate in disposition.

A peculiar feature is that they all wear the "phanek" or the lower garment of Meitei women, considered taboo for males to even come in contact with. This affiliation was not based on any avowed sexual orientation, in the identitarian sense we know it today and so we cannot conclude that all male Maibis were homosexual.

In all probability, the institution of Maibi Loishang might have served as a cushion for absorbing the manifestation of sexual preferences and sexualities against the binary gendered order set up by a well-entrenched patriarchy. Such a claim, however, can only be speculative and deserves further study.

Another noticeable tradition in Manipur where one often sees males imitating females is in the institution of courtyard theatre, popularly known as the Shumang Lila. Every Shumang Lila theatrical performance in Manipur has to have all the women characters in the play enacted by male actors. Whether this tradition is influenced by the Bengal tradition of Jatra (theatre) is still to be given serious academic scrutiny.

Shumang Lila performance is carried out by a touring band of usually twelve or thirteen professional artistes on an invitational basis. These troupes are exclusively formed by men. The female roles are enacted by male artists or the nupi sabi (read male actress in the context of performative arts) who are the focus of this study.

Historically, the actual seeds of Shumang Lila was sown in Phagee Lila (theatrical farce), performed during the reign of Maharaj Chandrakirti (1850-86), though traces of it were already present in the pre hindu episode of Tangkhul Nurabi Loutangba of the Lai Haraoba festival.

Despite the Meiteis becoming Hindu, the biggest festival of the Manipur valley is associated with Lai Haraoba which is the pre Hindu ritual festival. But the real Shumang Lila with various rasas (sentiments) was ushered in with the epic play Harichandra (1918). Things have changed from the initial forms of courtyard theatre, from an informal gathering in a particular locality in a community member's courtyard, to a more formal stage performance for a larger audience. Among the artists performing in the Lila are the nupi sabis, an amorphous term which can mean:

1. Cross-dressers or transvestites for the theatrical act only. Their sexual orientation is according to the social norms and they can be termed as heterosexual. Most of them are professional actors and earn their living acting, directing and playwriting. Most of them are married with wives and children.

2. Homosexuals by orientation, who play the roles of the women characters and do not necessarily, only act for a living.

The Shumang Lila also became the final refuge of the latter category of nupi sabis. Secondly, many male homosexuals have joined mobile theatre groups or have formed clubs that act as support groups. When one conducts a study, there is a need to raise diverse range of questions to get a sense of their world view, sense of self, of identity and sexuality.

To be continued ..

** (This article is an extract from one of my papers already published in Eastern Quarterly)

* Sadokpam Ranjeeta Devi write this articlee for to Hueiyen Lanpao
This article was posted on January 20, 2015.

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