Subtle eloquence of Manipuri Raas Lila and boisterousness of Shumang Lila

Dr Ksh Imokanta Singh
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, the 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 a 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 Lai Haraoba 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 a very fine white veil. Eyes are also fixed only at the tips of the moving fingers, not on the audience. The performance is augmented by the mellifluous and dexterous 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 the audience? Give a 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.
Shumang Lila has always been a vehicle of grotesque presentation with its carnivalesque milieu, where there is the space for subversion of popular systems 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. To be contd