Subtle eloquence of Manipuri Raas Lila and boisterousness of Shumang Lila

    27-Sep-2021
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Dr Ksh Imokanta Singh
Contd from prev issue
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 a 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 the 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 a 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 (marvellous 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, jewellery 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 Romio 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, and 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 bulls 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 the theatre world - classical and popular; high-brow and low-brow; elite and folk, mostly in academic circles. This means the categorization of popular, lowbrow 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 Tolhan emphasizes that Shumang Lila people are Kalpana lallonba (dream/imagination traders), 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 Babujaogioina (left hand punch of Babujao). They should also keep in mind that there sits in the audience someone named Imokanta.