Shumang Leela, or as generally translated in English, the courtyard theatre has been one of the traditional theatres of Manipur. It is one of those rare still practicing theatrical genres where males play the role of the female characters. In this context, the British Elizabethan theatre immediately comes to mind where women were banned by law from acting on stage.
Like the Elizabethans too, the leela’s theatrical props are only basic enough to weave a story around. It usually consist of two chairs and a table on one corner of the stage (usually facing the off-stage orchestra on the opposite side). The stage is enacted in an area of about 13/13 ft in the centre of any open space. Two poles are erected at the centre joined at the upper ends by another pole which is used for dangling microphones and tube lights.
The stage is usually above the ground high enough that all the audience can comfortably see the play while still comfortably sitting on the ground. The audience sits all around the stage with a small passage on one side for the actors to enter and exit the stage connecting it to the green room (dressing room).
A Shumang leela troupe usually comprises of about 16-17 artistes including the non performing ones like the musicians.
There are generally two sub groups of Shumang Leela troupes in the state. One is the Nupa Shumang leela (nupa = male) and the other the nupi Shumang leela (nupi = female) groups. The Nupa Shumang Leela is more popular. And when someone refers to Shumang leela, it is usually the Nupa Shumang Leela the all male leela troupes.
We had a rare opportunity to go behind the scene of a Shumang leela troupe ( Imphal Jatra Cum Drama Association) rehearsing for the premiere of a new play called the “Si Yabara Yeng Ngu!” (i.e. See if this work!). It could probably be the first time that journalists went behind the scene and actually show how leela artistes practice hard for public appreciations.
The play was about a very contemporary issue of how grown up sons and daughters leave their parents after living off their hard earned money and discard them when they are of no use to them. It is the story of two families of a widow and another of a widower. The play was very forward thinking knowing that this is a very a traditional form of expression. The storyline also took a bold twist at towards the end of the story where the tormented parents - the widow and the widower chose to remarry and start their life anew together.