Saturday, 25 January 2014

Shumang Leela

I have been planning to do a short series on "crossdressing in Indian performing arts" for a long time now. But the more I did research on the matter the more was I disappointed, the internet is terribly ignorant of the subject. Also based on the little I gathered from the world wide web and the little I know on my own, that is from stories I have heard, I came to the conclusion that the subject is too intricate and elaborate to write on, without in-depth and exhaustive study. So I decided to compile a list of all the art forms(that I know of) admitting crossdressing and writing short pieces on them. The motive being initiating the reader on these brilliant, beautiful and often sexy forms of arts in which gender bending Indians come to their elements. Needless to say that the pieces will not be merely pedagogical or informational, my own thoughts will come in. The lens through which the performances will be viewed will be the lens of a person indomitably attracted to gender-benders. 

Shumang Leela

Let us start with the North-East. A pristine part of the country, with picturesque locations and varied and ancient cultures. A part of India not enough promoted to international tourists, a part of which most don't know much. It is in the North-Eastern state of Manipur that we will focus our attention today.

A beautiful Shumang artist
'Shumang Leela' is a form of theatre that owes its origin to the Indian state of Manipur. It is indeed a unique form of theatre which portrays the moral-ethical concerns, preferences and frailties of society and politics. In essence it is no different than other forms of courtyard folk theatre or 'jatra'-s performed all across rural India. 'Shumang' means 'courtyard' and 'Leela' can be loosely translated to 'play' or 'act'. 

Where Shumang Leela stands out, is that it is performed exclusively by members of any one gender playing characters of both sexes. Plays with all male casts are termed 'Nupa Shumang Leela', and with all women casts are known as 'Nupi Shumang Leela'. The former is much more prevalent and popular. While the women find  it difficult to impersonate men, the Manipuri men, albeit the ones who train for this, being Asian in nature almost effortlessly passes off as beautiful dames. From docile homemakers to matriarchs from mythical characters to sexy bombshells the Nupa Shumang artist pulls it all nonchalantly. (I apologise for the low quality pictures, as some of them are screenshots of low res videos, and good pictures are hard to find.)


Manipur's first same sex marriage

These female impersonators called 'Nupi Shabi', are feminine par excellence in their looks, facial expressions and bodily gestures, a fact which I believe is evident from the photos. The picture on the right is that of a same sex marriage in Manipur, the story(a sad one - indicative of the social degeneracies of not only India but of the present world as a whole)  which you can find here. I include it here to portray the feminine beauty of a Manipuri transvestite.

RK Sonaton a famous Shumang female impersonator
performing a traditional Indian dance 

The male actresses gained entry into the foray of Shumang Leela due to social constraints on women's mingling freely with their male counterparts. Shumang Leela's adoption of realistic presentation throws open private life into public space, the artists are free  to enact intimate scenes between a husband and wife or lovers. This is something which the patriarchal and archaic Meitei society of Manipur will not tolerate.

The structure of Shumang Leela is difficult. The performance is presented in a courtyard like space with audience on all sides. Thus the actor is constantly observed from all angles and cannot hide anything. He has to be in command of every part of his body, his movements and his persona. With the lights almost always on, scene changes are also aided by the actions of the actors. Thus the illusion associated with a gender reversal has to be perfect and the actor has to embody the other sex in themselves. The clothes worn by the artists are seldom revealing, but most of the times sexy and provocative, in a classy way. Thus the challenges taken up by the performers are immense. We should remember that the artists are bodily and most of the times in their minds, male. Examples of the performance can be found below, following the links provided. Acting is superb, albeit loud and melodramatic as is the nature of folk theatre.

A Nupi Shabi taking part in a fashion show
What the Shumang 'Nupi Shabi'-s can achieve given their low resources - cheap make-ups and wigs and clothes, is remarkable. One wonders what they could have done with access to state of the art accessories, tools and clothes to remodel their bodies into a feminine form. Although it is not in appearance that these performers are most feminine, it is in their movements, their attitude, the air they carry around themselves. It is the woman inside all of us who possess these men when they get up on stage. The Shumang performers are at par- if not sometimes better than Kathoey performers(do factor in the discrepancy in resources). 

K. Shomarjit a beautiful actor performing in
the play - 'Urirei Madhabi'
It is indeed a pity that the Government does so little to promote ancient folk art forms like these. The intertwining of the male and the female soul, the melting of genders - the embodiment of the other gender in oneself are ideas and philosophies which are deep rooted in Indian tradition. The Nupi Shabis are not drag queens. The femininity of these performers do not come from artificial and external agencies. It is just not the make up, not the voice modulation, not the fake breasts nor the wigs. The feminine gaits and expressions are not only due to some sort of practice, but more importantly the femininity of these performers arise from some sort of inner realisation, some sort of embracing of the other side - it's not playing the part of a woman, it's becoming one, while on stage. Many of these men do not identify as being transgendered or homosexual, but they do give way to their inner goddess, and for that they and every Manipuri - every Indian who is a part of this either directly or indirectly, on stage or off stage or in the audience, deserves our respect and admiration, and a heartfelt token of gratitude, for presenting us with something so pristine, so pure.

P.S. - I made this my first entry of the series, because I remember when I was much younger, when I first came along this art form on youtube, I was drawn to it like crazy. I really wanted to run away to them. Whether it was to be with them, or to be one of them I no longer remember.

Also I guess it is fitting that this post happens to be on the Republic Day of our country. The day that celebrates India as a Federal Republic. On this auspicious day it is my humble tribute to one of the most beautiful states of this semi-federal country - Manipur. Let us all hope that the indigenous heritages of all our states remain intact and are nurtured. Let the different cultures of this diverse and colourful republic intertwine into a beautiful little rainbow.  Let our ancient origins be a beacon for the difficult present and future. 

P.P.S. - This beautiful Nupi Shabi is called K. Shomarjit. I have seen numerous Shumang Leela-s and I can say that he is one of the most beautiful and talented actors if not the most beautiful of all of them. Here he is seen performing in 'Urirei Madhabi'.
I searched the internet a lot about him, to no avail. If anyone reading this post can give me any information/resource on this person I'll be greatly indebted and happy. Thank you.

Example Videos -

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