A table and two chairs on a stage and an audience sitting out in the open on all four sides. This sparse setting is all that is needed for a typical Sumang Kumhei performance — a minimalist Manipuri theatre form with a social message for the masses. Literally meaning ‘lawn entertainment’, Sumang Kumhei employs the barest minimum of props. Aided only by background music and the imagination of the viewer to drive a narrative, it allows the proponents of the art form to pull off performances on topics that would normally be bound by the constraints of the stage.
Iboyaima Khuman, a renowned and celebrated Sumang Kumhei artiste-cum-director says, “We did a play on the September 11 attacks. We did not need to create a building. And so at a very low budget our purpose is fulfilled.”
Another element of the art form is that the troupes are exclusively male. The female roles are essayed by men known as Nupi Saba, who — in their looks, bodily gestures, attire and facial expressions — embody the female form. “To imitate this is not possible for the others. We are gifted. We have always been a glamorous lure to the audience,” says Sana Yaima, a Nupi Saba artiste who has been performing for nearly 25 years. Sumang Kumhei can adapt national and international issues to the local context. Popular plays like ‘Lidicegee Gulab’ bring the theme of anti-fascism to the masses. The play ‘Ee Mari’ of the Sana Leibak Nachom Artistes’ Association depicts the importance of the endangered brow antlered deer locally known as ‘Sangai’.
“Sumang Kumhei is a message giving medium. It has social and political content. It is spreading news to the common people about what is happening locally, nationally and internationally,” says Sana Yaima. According to Santosh Athokpam, a popular Sumang Kumhei artiste who has been performing for 13 years, the form is popular because it attracts audience cutting across class barriers who sit together and enjoy.
“The real taste of being a Sumang Kumhei artiste is in the immediate response we get from the audiences. I feel the popularity of this genre lies in the fact that we feel closely connected to the audience. We know what the audience wants and this makes us work hard and perform better every time,” he says.
Sumang Kumhei in its present form is the result of various stages of flux starting from the mid 19th century. “It evolved in the form of ‘Fagi Kumhei’ (farce) during the reign of Ningthou Chandrakirti in the 1850s while the performances we see today clearly evolved in the 1950s with the introduction of scripts,” says Iboyaima.
According to Santosh, what makes this art form tick is the disciplined adherence to customs and rituals that have remained unchanged over the years. “For instance making an entrance to the stage can only be from the north west or south west. Also, prior to the performance, the goddess ‘Khangjeng Lairembi’ has to be worshipped. The discipline one maintains has an immense effect on once’s acting.”
“Though we are able to attract the audience with contemporary trends like modern costumes and music, the traditional art form is not jeopardized. The format is not changed,” he said.