Subtle Eloquence of Manipuri Raas Lila and Boisterousness of Shumang Lila

Dr. Ksh. Imokanta Singh *

 Ras Leela Dance performed at JN Dance Academy , Imphal :: 26th December 2019
Ras Leela Dance performed at JN Dance Academy , Imphal in December 2019 :: Pix - : Lamdamba Oinam

Split personality, not in the true medical sense of having Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). That is me for now. I am writing this piece not as a researcher (when I have invested years for a Ph.D. degree) but as a member of the audience and as a critic of Shumang Lila which, I declare, I love and love it to grow healthily.

I am doing this task also out of compulsion, compulsion not to remain silent, more so after seeing the play 'Mei Iklaba Thamoi' (the fiery heart), based on the Olympic silver medallist Mirabai Chanu, on the 19th September, 2021.

On the other hand, split personality of Manipuri (Meitei) performing art forms– two diametrically diverse presentation styles of subtle eloquence of Manipuri Raas Lila and boisterousness of Shumang Lila. It is unjustified to compare and contrast the two forms since they belong to different genres of performances.

However, it is not blasphemous to maintain an osmotic relationship between the two so as to have a healthy growth and to let them remain ever popular amongst the audience lest they vanish in oblivion and later blame the state and society for lack of patronage. Critiquing is important from both inside and outside but the execution of the critique must come from inside.

Manipuri Raas Lila has always been accepted as gracious rendition of Sri Krishna's divine and eternal love sports with Radha and Gopis of Vrindavan, as explained in the 10th Chapter of Srimad Bhagavata.

The content and rules of presentation are Vaisnavite, mainly derived from the Sanskrit text of Bharata's Natya Shastra. However, the form is the syncretic confluence of traditional dance forms of Laiharaoba and Vaisnavite tradition. (Let the hard-core traditionalists be warned that this is Manipuri Raas Lila, not any other Raas Lila form of other places like that of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh. Hinduism, being a cultural religion, gives the liberty of diversity.

Manipur, being a cradle of creativity, was able to create its own Raas Lila, a classical dance form. Once my lady Bengali Professor happened to tell me that despite their tall claim of cultural hegemony, Bengalis were/are not able to create even one single Classical dance form except something like Rabindra Sangeet.)

Except for the comparatively freer movements and expressions of the character of Sri Krishna, being a male character, the dance movements of the characters of Radha and Gopis are subdued. On the other hand, the facial expressions are very limited/ absent in the case of Radha and Gopi characters which is why faces are covered with very fine white veil. Eyes are also fixed only at the tips of the moving fingers, not on audience.

The performance is augmented by the mellifluous and dextrous movements of the hands. Any emotion of the Characters of Radha and Gopis is expressed through the symbolic gestures of the body and hands. Since the whole dance performance is an obeisance to the Supreme God-head, any attempt to arouse libidinal spurt and indecency is filtered out. This, however, does not discount the intensity of the emotional expression, but expressed through restraint and subdued eloquence.

There is an umbilical connection between the performer (encoder) and the audience (decoder). The whole performance is not limited to the performers and what is presented but an ample space of suspense and imagination is left for the audience so that the latter flows with the former and also beyond. This is the sheer beauty of Raas Lila.

What is interesting here is the stark similarity between Raas Lila and Shumang Lila in terms of symbolic representation. In fact, the whole foundation of Shumang Lila lies in this tool of symbolism and pantomimic rendition which are created without any props or with minimal props.

The play between codification by the performers and de-codification by the audience is the core ingredient of Shumang Lila being a unique Manipuri performing art form. Take this away and this falls into the repository of other art forms like proscenium theatre or Stage Lila. If a Shumang Lila play is cramped with all the expensive and realistic props, costumes, colourful lightings and background music, in the name of creating authenticity then what is the basis to claim it to be a unique art form?

Then, where is the space for suspense and imagination by audience? Give banana to the audience and let them peel it and eat it too. Let them feel the scent of the garden when the performer holds the imaginary bouquet. The performer, here, becomes a dynamic unity of an entire set of signs.

 16th Shumang Leela Ningtham Kumhei 2019 at Iboyaima Shumang Leela Shanglen, Imphal :: 5th January 2020
16th Shumang Leela Ningtham Kumhei 2019 at Iboyaima Shumang Leela Shanglen in January 2020 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

Shumang Lila has always been a vehicle of grotesque presentation with its carnivalesque milieu, where there is the space for subversion of popular system and also the courage to laugh at oneself. There have been elements of 'grossness' and boisterousness since the days of Phagee Lila, Thok Lila etc. which were mostly enjoyed by insiders but questioned either by culturally refined insiders or culturally untrained outsiders. This was probably why Ethel St. Clair Grimwood, the wife of Mr. Grimwood, the Political Agent (1888-91), 'thought best to beat a retreat, as the play was beginning to be rowdy and the dialogue vulgar.'

Shumang Lila being an evolving art form has been adopting various styles in terms of themes, structure, presentation, costumes etc. which are seen most prominently in Eshei Lila when it adopted bollywood style of song and dance repertoire. However, it seems that there is continuation of the melodramatic elements through its growth. If not intervened, this over indulgence in melodrama may become Shumang Lila's Achilles' heel.

When we talk of melodrama, we usually talk in pejorative sense today when the performance becomes excess of everything, for instance, excess in emotional expression both through vocal and non-vocal, including what we call background music. Simply put, it is being bombastic and loud.

Taking a simple example - is it always suggestible to yell aloud while crying or to cry when in sorrow? Should intensity of a scene be shown with equally loud yelling and music? These are what are seen in most of today's Shumang Lila plays. Intensity of a scene is not akin to screaming, crying aloud but is also dependent on the artistry of how the situation is created in subtle way.

To borrow a leaf or two from the Indian Classical theatre tradition, ways of performances may fall within eight rasas (sentiment) – Srngara rasa (erotic sentiment), Hasya rasa (comic sentiment), Karuna rasa (pathetic sentiment), Vira rasa (heroic sentiment), Raudra rasa (furious sentiment), Bhayanaka rasa (terrifying sentiment), Bibhatsa rasa (repulsive sentiment) and Adbhuta rasa (marvelous sentiment).

All these rasas are not exclusive to Sanskrit drama tradition but are present in Shumang Lila also with its indigenous names and feelings. It is not necessary that all these rasas should always be expressed in melodramatic styles. The beauty of theatrical performance is to engage the audience with a nuanced presentation of a character, not to irritate them.

Problem of being loud is when Srangar rasa is expressed through heavy make-up, jewelry and costumes on the lines of Indian Television serials which is also seen in Shumang Lila today. How about creating the eroticism with a make-up-less, word-less facial expression, with just a slight rise of an eyelid, with just a sensuous look, with just a seductive move? One such look from Heramoti would be intense enough for a Romeo to fall for him forgetting his gender.

We have so many acting styles and theories in our disposal - Classical acting (Stanislavski's acting technique); Uta Hagen's realism technique; Meisner technique; Lee Strasberg's technique; Michael Chekhov technique, so on and so forth. Shumang Lila does not need to go that far with so much of money and labour to be invested. Horns of foreign bull are not always longer, to reverse the old Manipuri proverb.

Theories are aplenty in this land of creativity. Just do introspection and we will find them in Raas Lila. Manipur's own Raas Lila presentation style. Shumang Lila needs to borrow a feather of subtlety from the Raas Lila and educate itself with the craft of how intensity of a situation can be created with subdued and controlled elegance.

It is high time the Shumang Lila directors learnt that being loud is not always grand but being little is grand too. Tone down the excessiveness and we will find a refined production appealing to all so-called classes. Here comes the very useful concept of patra, character in Sanskrit drama tradition, which also means a container or vessel. Manipuris also use the word patra for a container.

The container has its own capacity of holding its contents. Quarter-filled, Half-filled and fully-filled etc. There is beauty in half filled glass also. Trouble appears when we pour more than it can hold i.e. when it becomes overflowing. This is exactly why the director should guide Robindro to essay the scene of intense motherly care and love in a subtle way, not to scream-cry. Why waste such an ingenious talent with the burden of excessive melodrama, simply because the director wants him to be so?

There have been very long debates on the value loaded binaries in theatre world - classical and popular; high-brow and low-brow; elite and folk, mostly in academic circle. This means the categorization of popular, low brow and folk is the handy work of the dominant minority elites to be dumped upon the powerless majority.

I have always believed that Shumang Lila is a popular theatre form, not on the lines of classical versus popular but it is simply 'popular' across classes which has been proven time and again. This very reality needs to be carried forward by the persons in helm of Shumang Lila which means they have to keep in mind the tastes of all the members in the audiences which also means they cannot take the audience for granted.

As comedian Sougrakpam Hemanta emphasizes that Shumang Lila people are Kalpana lallonba (dream/imagination merchants), the dreams/imaginations should also be created and sold in such a way that the audience is convinced to buy them and own them also, not the other way around.

If someone is not able to sit through the last scene of a Shumang Lila play (which happened to me lately) then the purpose of the whole production is defeated. Shumang Lila performers should also not let the audience be frustrated waiting for the last refined pun or punch like waiting for the proverbial Babujao gi oina (left hand punch of Babujao). They should also keep in mind that there sits in the audience someone named Imokanta.

* Dr. Ksh. Imokanta Singh wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at imokantasingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on October 06 2021 .

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