By Aheibam Koireng
‘Shumang Lila’ literally meaning ‘Courtyard Play’ is a popular native performing art form and potent media for connecting with the masses. It has sustained and flourished for generations since it became institutionalized during the reign of Maharaja Chandrakirti (1850-1886). It is staged at Courtyard, lawns, open air theatres, market or any other public place. In our childhood days, it was played in the ground soil. But, since the last two decades or so, with the increase of thronging spectators, it is played at an arena which is elevated above the ground level for greater visibility. The materials in the performing floor consist usually of a table and only a couple of chair. Microphones and light system are hanged above the head. Spectators surround the stage from all directions, with only an access pathway for going into and out of the stage connecting it to the artist enclosure. Since the artists are all male, male play the roles of female character. It is in fact a kind of proscenium theatre as no curtain is used at the entire length of the performance. Some of the Shumang Lila and the artists performed in it left an indelible impression to the hearts and minds of those who witnessed it and remained nostalgic throughout their life. Among the Shumang Lilas mention can be made of ‘Chengba Fagi’, ‘Yotsabi Fagi’, ‘Satya Charit’, ‘Harischandra’, etc. And among the character and the cast which still remain fresh in the minds of the present generation includes Chaoba, Babu, Tombi – tripod of humour and comedy plays; Daku Jagat Singh (Binod); Cheitei (Yogeshwar); Abir Khan (Shamu); Devdas (Inakhunba); Tondon in the role of Paru; Luwangbi Ibotombi, etc.
Laimayum Ibotombi Sharma, is one such artist who occupied a prime place among the galaxies of artists in the people’s choicest gallery. People of my earlier generations remember him by his stage character either as “Pocket Mar’ or ‘Sekhor Goonda’. After he discontinues stage performance, he remains associated with the Shumang Lila as Director for many of the Shumang Lila troupes. In addition, he keeps himself busy by attending social functions, and performing priestly roles reciting hymns and interpreting Hindu religious texts. He was born as a second child of Laimayum Madhumangol Sharma and Bidhu Devi on Wednesday, May 1, in the year 1937 at Irom Meizrao in Hiyangthang of Imphal West District. In his lifetime, he acted in different 113 plays and gave more than 7,500 performances at different venues. His qualification is only Class VIII, as he was born in a village which traditionally practices agriculture and allied activities as the main livelihood option and also had experienced the ravages of the World War II. He also learns ‘Sanskrit Byakaran’ from the teacher residing at Utlou Heibi Makhong. He had his debut in the theatre as a performing artist at the later part of 1952 playing the character of ‘Tomal’ in a Drama titled, ‘Nungsi Laman’ (Love’s Obligation) staged at Nambol Thiyam. That Drama was scripted by a well known playwright, Late Chongtham Mayurdhaja (popularly known as Ningthemjao). Since then, he started associating with Mayurdhaja as his devout disciple and from him learn the art of ‘Natyashastra’ under his mentorship and guidance. In addition, other notable exponents of ‘Shumang Lila’ from whom he received training includes Meitram Bira, Ayekpam Syamsundar, Eigya Nongmijing, etc.
Ibotombi Sharma started his career as a Shumang Lila Performing Artist in the play, ‘Magah Pandit’ (Magah Priest). After that, he began to perform in a substantive role in a play ‘Leima Yengleingeida Khunu Tuba’, and ‘Gun Parikhya’ of the famed comedian Takhellambam Chaoba and Mayang Imphal Tombi, and ‘Ningthou Semba’, the play which he himself scripted. Subsequently, people started noticing him for his acting prowess in a play, ‘Pocket Mar’ directed and produced by Late Laishram Yaima of Konjeng Leikai in the year 1969. The said play was scripted by a well known playwright, A. Tomchou.
Ibotombi Sharma’s performance as the lead actor played the character role of ‘Ranjit’, who led a discontented life being raised single handedly by a widowed mother, without having any opportunity of pursuing education, and again being abandoned by her mother as she remarried. His eventually becoming a renegade known by the title of the play, ‘Pocket Mar’ to meet the needs of his two younger sister is still relished and appreciated by those who witnessed it. Another notable performance is the character role he played as a ‘Sekhar Goonda’ in a Shumag Lila titled, ‘Punsigi Marup’, produced in the year, 1970 by Meitei Leima Cum Jatra Association, a troupe associated by the famed Late Cheitei (Yogeshwar). It was scripted by a renowned playwright, Ng. Ibohal. one particular scene and the dialogue associated with it is still recollected with nostalgia by those who witnessed it. In that scene, the heroine (played by Rabei), while administering his head injury in a drunken brawl, convinced him the uselessness of getting drunk and asked him whether he would have milk, which he sharply replied that milk is no doubt a healthy food, but doesn’t give courage for fighting and engaging in a duel. For his role in the above mentioned two plays, he respectively won the award of Second Best Actor and Best Actor. In the subsequent year, again in 1971, he bagged the award of Best Actor for his performance in the play ‘Anouba Punsi’ scripted by Ibohal. By the time, he acted as the character role of ‘Bir Singh’ scripted by the same playwright, he’s already established as the top Shumang Lila star whom none of his contemporaries could rival. During the sixties and seventies of the late twentieth century, Hollywood actors popular in Manipur are all Cowboy Heroes – Clint East Wood, Franco Nero, to name popular few. That seemed to have some influence in the acting style of Ibotombi Sharma. The trend of ‘anti-romantic’ and ‘angry young man’ in Bollywood Hindi film epitomized by Amitabh Bachan is a later development. Whereas, in Manipur such trend could be seen quite earlier in the character role of ‘Sekhor’ in the play, ‘Pocket Mar’. About some more diverse roles he played, mention could be made of his role as ‘Iboton’ in Praischit, ‘Maharajkumar Pravinkumar’ in ‘Aronba Che’ (Secret Paper), the fugitive ‘Joybir’ in Oinam Babu’s production, ‘Chagi Khuji’ (Plastic Bangle), and ‘Samarjit’ in ‘Punsi Bandee’.
In addition to his achievements as a performing artist, he also received recognition and accolades for his directorial competence. Upto the year, 1995, he had directed about 25 Shumang Lilas. In the year, 1970, 1972, 1977 and 1975, he won the award of Best Director and the Second Best Director. Again in 1988, he bagged the award of Best Director respectively for the play, ‘Post Mortem’ and ‘Adhikar’, and Second Best Director in 1989 for the play ‘Sahargi Meiree’. In addition to Shumang Lila, he also took part in many of the stage plays performed outside Manipur particularly Allahabad by the Meitei Leima Cum Jatra Association.
In recognition of the contribution he made in the field of ‘Shumang Lila’, the Manipur State Kala Academy awarded him with a fellowship in 1984. And, he was deservingly honoured with a State Award in the year 1999. Even in his twilight years, he kept associating with the promotion and popularisation of theatre. He was instrumental for the establishment of ‘Shining Star Artist Association’ in his own locality. In it, his daughter, Ms. Kanan, and son, Mr. Rajesh was also actively involved as performing artist. After sacrificing and contributing so much for the cause of Shumang Lila, he left this mundane world for his heavenly abode on 16 April 2014.
(With inputs from Gokul Ashem & Iboyaima Khuman, Senior Journalist)