Shumang leela's Nupi Shabi - A unique transgender artiste

Rajmani Ayekpam *

A collage of transgender artiste

Shumang leela, today, as become the most popular art form of the state and it is beginning to gain popularity even among the non-native audiences of other states. If it continues to grow at the same pace, it will definitely become the most sought after art form of the state at international level that Shumang leela may no more be identified with the state alone. And this progress, those courtyard and village field's performances to the international level is because of its unique quality.

Literally, Shumang leela means courtyard and leela means the play. So, shumang leela means play of the courtyard. Shumang leela, generally, performed any open space of one's courtyard or any locality or any open space of village field. People of this state enjoy this kind of performance very much than other performing arts. So, it's popularity reached at zenith.

Most scholars agree that shumang leela is a folk art form. But strangely enough, so far, no scholars have come up with any theory explaining how shumang leela came into existence amidst proscenium theatre and other traditional art forms of this state e.g. Shan Senba, Udukhol, Gouraleela, Diba Ras, Nityaras, Khubak-eshei, Jhulan Jatra and the like. So, in such a place replete with so many art forms, it is impossible for a form to come into existence out of nowhere, without some great cause or reason.

One generally accepted fact among scholars is that, shumang leela has evolved from the Phagee leelas (comic plays), once popular during the reign of Chandrakirti Maharaj (1856-1886) in the 19th century and Churachand Maharaj (1891 1941) who reigned upto the end of the first half of the 20th century. But, this explanation is not enough to satisfy our inquisitiveness with major reasons. However, some scholars opined that our traditional theatre or Shumang leela descended from Lai-haraoba (ritual ceremony of pleasing the God). In the Tangkhul-Nurabi thokpa part of Lai-haraoba, there is drama and acting part so this part will be the beginning of Manipuri theatre.

We can discuss the hypothesis that emergence of shumang leela as a result of the quest for a secular space i.e. an informal expressive art form. Mention may be made that the Gonvindaji temple, local community halls and the local deity grounds are bed of creative art forms. But, the harbingers of theatre; Shan Senba, Udukhol, Gouraleela failed to venture out of royal temples. They remained trapped amidst the myriad web of religious and cultural dictates.

Moreover, theses art forms remained associated only with the rich and elite sections of the society. But, the sudden birth of proscenium theatre in the state, in 1902, art began to enjoy a more independent and secular place. This escape from the confines of the royal temples to a more secular space, art began to take a more egalitarian character instead of being a pet for the elite class. The earlier restrictions and formalities, imposed on art, began to relax. But that too could not quench people's want, for theatre requires a permanent time, place, which cannot fulfill the mass appeal.

It is worth remembering that all human beings want freedom in all aspects of live. And a desire to enjoy an art form without such hassle, expenditure and at any available place, and that too the whole locality can enjoy together, became so powerful. This resulted into the emergence of an art form which has both the characteristics of a proscenium theatre and the ability to include any materials felt necessary. And that art form is shuamgn leela.

Another view is that the Jatrawali of Bengal folk theatre is very much near to breed Shumang leela. In earlier days, shumang leela was popularly known as jatrawali. Some parties of the shumang leela in olden days attached with name of jatrawali and coining of shumang leela comes after very lately. This observation is not agreed with new researchers and scholars of the state.

Shumang leela didn't come by itself but it is brought about by the compulsions of time in a culturally rich state. This "ability to maintain its independence" became the cause of its becoming the most popular art form. Literally, it is a huge vessel in which anything beautiful and appropriate can be put into; in short there is almost nothing that cannot be blended into shumang Leela.

Now, leaving aside the origin of shumang Leela, what I would like to concentrate on is the woes and hardships of those Nupi shabis (male artists playing women's role) who have been contributing that particular taste and characteristic of this art form.

According to scholars, shmang leela emerged from the comic plays, usually enacted during Durga Pujas during the reign of Chandrakirti Maharaj and the present and complete form of it was heralded by 'Harichandra' leela. Initially, in both play Harichandra and Meiraba Charan, (which came shortly after Harichandra) the female characters were played by female artistes. But shortly after, male artistes began to play the female characters due to the inconveniences faced during performances at far away places at odd hours.

We need to study this fact further, because considering the fact that the female artiste must have faced many inconveniences during those days of socio-religiously conservative times. Even though shuamgn leela was a popular form of entertainment, the female artistes must have faced many restrictions, even from their families, leaving aside the social stigma. On other hand finding of female artistes must also have been a real problem and it could have been the reason for the beginning of the trend of male artistes playing female roles. The scarcity of female artistes was so enormous even in the proscenium theatre which was patronized by the king and other well off people, that even Jannaneta Hijam Irabot is said to have played a female character in a play called "Narsingh".

One interesting thing is, both proscenium theatre and shumang leela had a tradition of playing female role by male artistes at the beginning. However, female dancers of Bhaiwali and Marbak Jagoi, once very popular from twenties to fifties of the last century, replaced male artistes in female role in the proscenium theatre. However, this tradition of playing female role by male artistes continued in shumang leela. Then, this unique characteristic became trade mark of shumang leela.

On the other hand, we have also heard about the tales of joy and sorrow of senior female artistes while performing Ram Leela and Gouraleela (considered being higher art form) at remote places. Well ! it must have been this inconvenience faced by the female artistes while giving performances at far away places, at late hours that led to the emergence of the trend of male artistes playing female character.

But, in Moirang Parba, another entertaining art form which came almost at the same time with shumang leela, women continues to play female role unlike shumang leela. It is also another art form which requires a lot of traveling to the nook and corner of the state. Some scholars considered moirang parba as a part of shumang leela. On the other hand, some opined that morang parba watered the soil for the germination of shumang leela.

Whatever the cause may be, the conclusion that the inconveniences faced by the female artistes' traveling led to the emergence of male artistes taking up female roles is not a feasible one. Because there are stories about female Bhashak and Khubak Eshei singers performing at very far places. On the other hand, there are many instances of Marbak female dancers even going to the tea estates of Assam for performances. From this instance what we can conclude is that, the tradition of male actors performing females roles in shumang leelas is a unique character of it. It is this uniqueness which has given shumang leela its originality and different taste.

This unique tradition of male actors playing female roles is also visible in the famous Chinese Operas. In these operas, female characters are usually played by male actors simply as a tradition and not because of any non-availability of female artistes. Thus, if female characters are not played by male artistes, that play does not look a shumang leela at all. But, some different between the initial nupi shabis and their present counterparts can be seen.

In earlier days, any male actor who loves this art form plays the female roles. It was only during the performances that they deliver feminine dialogue and behave effeminately but they behave their usual self off the theatre. Well ! they were not without some feminine characters. But, the present trend is that, those effeminate males who already behave like women even in their normal lives play the female roles. Some came to this field out of love of art, but that is not without some who has homosexual tendencies. In short, there are also some men who are not actually nupi shabis but who lead an effeminate life. But, this article does not indulge on that topic. It aims to study and understand the shortcoming and hardships faced by the nupi shabis of shumang leela.

What was prevalent in earlier times is that the director of a leela company actually searches for beautiful young boys. Once a suitable boy is found the parents are approached for permission to literally train for the role. After getting the permission, the boy is initiated into the field on an auspicious day at the teacher's residence. First, before the actually acting lessons are given, the boy is made to acquaint with the household chores usually done by women-folks. Then, the real acting, way of delivering dialogue and the grace of feminine movement are taught. After such long and arduous grooming, they are allowed to perform boy leaves the director for another company, the director is devastated that he feels as if his own daughter has left him and eloped with a man not approved by him.

Now-a-days the argument whether male actors should play female role or not is, not discussed at all but what has become a serious topic is that, these nupi shabi are becoming an important factor in making a shumang leela hit. There have been incidents where people would not watch a leela after seeing the nupi shabi in the green room because the nupi shabi was not beautiful. And while watching shumang leela they forget that these are not actually women, instead, they began to choose. Another significant chacteristics of shumang leela is the important and special place, it gives to these nupi shabis. Unlike shumang leela, no other art form gives so much important to this section of people.

Though these nupi shabis are able to carve out a niche for themselves on the stages of shumang leelas, their real lives are tales of woes and tragedies. They face a battle at every walk of their live, starting from their own families to the society. What little respect they get is among the shumang leela circle. The very moment, they came out of the stage; they are ridiculed as a second class citizen, and treated as sex objects. The ability to emulate feminine character is a big art, mere training can' perfect this. On the other hand, scientists opine that it is inherent genetic disorder that makes a man behave like a woman. And a person can' change it. But this disorder has turned into an advantageous gift of nature by shumang leela.

A very popular nupi Shabi once told that "even my own family looks at me different. I am forbidden to cross path while children are going to examination for they considered me inauspicious". He has to face the ridicule and teasing wherever he goes. But such ridicules has lessened once he has become a popular artistes. Another nupi shabi of yesteryear said, in an interview that he was ridiculed by his own people saying that he can never marry, so such so that he married quite early just to show that he can do it. Another interesting fact is that there are some nupi shabis who are actually courted by men believing them to be real women. But the dilemma of the society is how to categorise the gender of this section of society.

Every effeminate can't become a nupi shabi. It needs a lot of training to be a successful artiste. One needs to undergo training under a teacher (Director) on how to deliver dialogue and how to master the feminine gait and it is only when these qualities are mastered, one can become a complete and successful nupi shabi. The notion that anyone with a feminine character can become an artiste is not correct. As everybody can't become a good artiste, every beautiful men without artistic talent can't become nupi shabis in shape and fit. A successful nupi shabi needs to have all those qualities required by a talented artiste.

But if we delve into the life of a nupi shabi, it is filled more with sorrows and woes than happiness. They have to be there in every shows in any circumstances because any male artist can replace another in case of illness but in their case, nobody can take their place. And again, even though they are paid more than one lakh in a year for a season while they are young and beautiful, as they begin to grow old and their physical condition deteriorates the leela parties are reluctant to employ them anymore. But, performing 3 to 4 shows every day even at odd hours puts them at a disadvantage to maintain their body. So, the earning period of these artistes is not long. It is usually short while the male artistes can continues to work for longer periods.

The tale of nupi shabis in their old age is a tragedy. The leela parties start to create excuses not to employ them which ultimately led to problem in their families due to the sharp decline in their earning. They are literally dissociated from the art, for which they have dedicated the prime of their lives, at the same time, they could not change the attitude of the people towards them. This not only forced them out of the social circle, they are financially crippled as a result for which these nupi shabis faced a psychological trauma. Since the government and the Manipur State Shumang Leela Council do not have any welfare scheme for these artistes, the popularity and fame during their hey day ends in tragedy and despair.

As time progresses, the society needs to change its attitude towards these effeminate artistes. And instead of suppressing and ridiculing them we must hold them at a higher pedestal and, it is worth remembering that without these nupi shabis and their effeminacy, shumang leela, the most sought after and popular art form will never a complete whole.

* Rajmani Ayekpam wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
This article was posted on May 24, 2013

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