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Play on Mirabai Chanu's personal life revives ancient Manipuri art

An incomplete friendship, family disputes: A play delving deep into Olympic medallist Mirabai Chanu's life takes the 'Shumang Leela' art form to a wider audience than ever before.

Play on Mirabai Chanus personal life revives ancient Manipuri art
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Thongram Heramoti plays Mirabai Chanu's role in this play by an all-male cast. (BookToux)

By

Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 2022-08-31T16:56:20+05:30

When Hollywood film 'Titanic' had swept across cinema halls across the world back in 1997, a tiny corner in India - Manipur - had remained untouched. Crowds of thousands had remained unmoved, watching 'Keishamthong Thoibi', a blockbuster Shumang Leela (courtyard play).

The pandemic had sounded a death knell for this traditional art form, but a play on Mirabai Chanu's personal life has brought it back into the spotlight.

"For the first time, a Shumang Leela is being watched and appreciated in far-off places like Bangalore. So far, this had remained restricted to our state," said Akoijam Sunita of BookToux, the Manipuri mobile streaming application that is showing 'Mei Iklaba Thamoi' (Heart glazed by fire).

What is Shumang Leela?

Shumang Leela, an ancient performing art form, has kept rural populations in Manipur entertained for years. In the light of a still-prevailing ban on Bollywood films and a decaying local commercial film industry, these travelling theatre troupes have often been the only such form of entertainment for many villages. 'Imphal Babu', 'Devadas' and 'Hamlet' are some of the most popular Shumang Leelas in history.

But this art form was dealt a death blow by the Covid-19 pandemic. The nature of its performance, where the actors perform on a stage surrounded by spectators, made it an impossibility for almost two years. Artistes, who used to get something between Rs 1000 to Rs 2000 per show, had to take up jobs selling vegetables or helping out in other people's shops.

But when Mirabai Chanu returned home to a thunderous applause from the Tokyo Olympics last year, breaking down at the Imphal airport upon seeing her parents, the idea of a revival was sown.

With the active participation of Mirabai Chanu's family and her childhood coach Anita Chanu, a play was written on the Olympian's life. All the fourteen all-male Shumang Leela troupes of the state came together in an unprecedented show of unity to produce 'Mei Iklaba Thamoi'.

Directed by Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee Sougrakpam Hemanta and written by Ranjit Ningthouja, this play is on the life that Mirabai Chanu had in Nongpok Kakching, her village in Manipur, before being picked for the national weightlifting camp.

It shows her Olympic dream being kindled while lifting firewood on the mountains; her friendship with a villager called Manikchand, a former sportsperson who pushes Mirabai to follow her heart even at the cost of their friendship; and how her alcoholic father had a change of heart on supporting his daughter's ambitions after watching her return home in heartbreak after the 2016 Olympics.

"The fact that the play was seen and appreciated by Mirabai Chanu and her family tells you that the events narrated in the play are not far from reality," said Sunita.

Featuring an all-male cast like traditional Shumang Leela plays, a tradition born out of need because of the scarcity of women actors, 'Mei Iklaba Thamoi' premiered in Imphal's Iboyaima Shumang Leela Shanglen Complex to rave reviews in September 2021, less than two months after Mirabai's return from Tokyo.

But because this play was a special venture, featuring performers from various troupes, a repeat was not possible. Till a Manipuri start-up, BookToux, stepped in. The company had a OTT platform and a mobile application where local films and serials were streamed. On August 13 this year, a recording of 'Mei Iklaba Thamoi' was streamed on their platform, making it an OTT debut for the Shumang Leela art form.

The play can be watched with English subtitles across the world. As such, 'Mei Iklaba Thamoi' is the first piece of courtyard theatre from Manipur to be available to an international audience.

"There has been a huge spike in downloads on our application. That a Shumang Leela has been released online is what is drawing lots of new users to our app," said Sunita.

On Saturday, as the 50th All Manipur Shumang Leela Festival kicked off in Imphal, Chief Minister Biren Singh reiterated his assurance of providing an annual grant of Rs 20-30 lakh for the welfare of Shumang Leela artistes.

"Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the medium played a great role in educating people about the disease and how it can be minimised," he said as he praised the role that the art form has taken in educating masses on social issues.

Mirabai Chanu might have soared into the national spotlight, but away from the media glare, a small group of traditional artistes from Manipur have also found a new lease of life on the back of her achievements.

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