The Drama Review - MIT Press - June 2004

Sumang LeelaI When I direct a Sumang Leela play I address it to four specific persons in the audience—an innocent child... a guru... a deaf person... and a blind person...
—Birjit Ngangomba, director, World Trade Centre

Five weeks after 9/11, the Sana Macha Nachom Artistes Group of Imphal premiered a two-hour-long sumang leela performance called World Trade Centre (2001). The sumang leela, as Manipur’s courtyard theatre is called, drew upon the extensive media coverage and local emotional reaction to the death of Jupiter Yambem, a banquet manager at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Centre’s North Tower. He was one of four people from Manipur, myself included, who were living in New York at the time of the attack. Still immensely popular in repertory, the play has been one of the big hits of Manipuri theatre in recent years.

Manipur is on the Myanmar border, accessible only by treacherous roads plagued by landslides and extortionist hold-ups by insurgent secessionist forces. It’s safer to take an Indian Airlines flight. You lift off, leaving behind the clogging Calcutta heat, and wing eastward over the vast cracked-mirror plains of Bangladesh. An hour or so later, the jet crosses the border again, and you are once more back in Indian territory, in the Uplands of the country’s forbidden and restless northeastern region. Its blue-green mountains watershed South Asia from Southeast Asia as they cascade down to the Bay of Bengal.

Most people, even many in India, aren’t aware of this part of the world. Cartographers at the New York Times unfailingly lop it off in the paper’s coverage of the subcontinent, impatient perhaps that it does not conform readily to the triangle that comes to mind when one thinks of India. The Indian government does not help matters much. The Upland states of this northeast region have been pretty much closed off to foreign nationals ever since it became a part of the newly independent country in 1947. And none is more inaccessible than tiny, embattled Manipur, a mountain state, not much larger than Long Island, which was strong-armed into the Indian Union in 1949. It is but one of eight northeastern states rife with armed ethnic separatist and secessionist movements in India’s secret 40-year war in the hills.

In the central valley of Imphal, about the size of Rhode Island, and home to the state’s one million plus Manipuris, Indian soldiers driving around would have stuck out even without the bristling guns mounted on their armored trucks. The people under their surveillance look different and are obviously of Tibetan, Burmese, Chin, Thai, and Khmer ancestry. The actors of the Sana Macha Nachom Artistes Group, like everyone in the valley, are regularly patted down, interrogated, and detained at Indian Army checkpoints as they crisscross the valley with their play.

I saw their World Trade Centre in April 2002 at a performance in Tentha village, about an hour south of Imphal, the capital of Manipur. We got there late, walking in on the evening’s preamble: a bout of buttock-baring mukna, wrestling Manipuri style, lithe combatants locked, immobile, like stag beetles. So we missed the usual scenes of the audience gathering for a sumang leela performance in Manipur: men and women, young and old, converging slowly in the evening, after dinner, some with lanterns, some carrying rush mats and cushions; Manipuri girls, colorful as an exotic aviary in their sarongs of saffron, peacock, emerald, gold, walking in small flocks; young swains covertly flirting with them, while avoiding sharp-eyed older folk. There is little room to misbehave in the leikai, or neighborhood, setting of a courtyard play; there are few strangers here in any leikai and haven’t been for 2,000 years.

We would have also seen the actors arrive on their bicycles, with only their costumes and makeup kits tied up in cloth bundles. It would be one of three, or even four, performances a troupe presents on average in one day. The crowds would converge upon the house of the local rich man. They would wait around the family’s earthen courtyard, careful to leave an unadorned and empty space about 20 feet square. Strains of Indian film music or Manipuri pop, punctuated frequently by people slapping at mosquitoes, would be heard above the general hubbub. Excited, runny-nosed children would be shooed away from peeking behind a curtain into the makeshift “green room.” The master and mistress of the house would take their place on their front porch. They have paid for the sumang leela performance for everyone in the community—to celebrate spring, a birthday, or simply because some neighbors have asked them to bring the play everyone has been talking about in other leikais.

About half-a dozen actors, all men, led by a drummer, would enter the courtyard, picking their way through the squatting crowds. The gathered men, women, and children, maybe 80, maybe even over 100, would quiet down. The actors, in makeup but some still in street clothes, would sing a song of invocation to the gods, as they circled the perimeter of the empty space, marking and staking out the bare open area upon which they would present their play. Another sumang leela performance would be underway.

When I saw World Trade Centre at Tentha Village, it was staged in a large open green surrounded by paddy fields and the susurration of bamboo groves rather than in the usual courtyard that gives the form its name: sumang, courtyard; leela, play. A raised, white-canopied stage that was about 20 feet square was lit with fluorescent lights and hung with microphones. The audience sat on all four sides of the stage. Sumang leela is always performed in the round, but at about a 1,000 strong, this was a much larger throng than one might see at usual courtyard performance. For the traditional opening patriotic song, a child warbled an old 1940s Manipuri chestnut about hammers and sickles, an interesting reminder that the local branch of the Communist Party had paid for the show that evening.

Scene One opened with masked terrorists, clad in ominous black, preparing to receive the Mastermind of the 9/11 attack. Their movements were choreographed Hong Kong–movie style martial arts maneuvers. The sudden futta-futta-futta of helicopters startled me into looking up into the night sky above, a reflex perhaps forgiven in war-torn Manipur. I realized it was coming live from the four music and sound effects people seated to one side of the performance space. With synthesizer, harmonium, and drums, their fanfare and music took me back to the early Man from UNCLE soundtracks; the terrorists’ get-up reminded me of Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy series from my ill-spent youth. The Mastermind ostentatiously studied a two-foot-high model of the Twin Towers.

I found World Trade Centre, a two-hour melodrama, surprisingly cinematic. It cut back and forth, at times using split-screen techniques, from New York City to Afghanistan, from drama to political tract, from tragedy to broad comedy, from song-and-dance interludes to battle sequences. There was Steven, an American manager at Windows on the World, supposedly Jupiter Yambem’s deputy, of course. He was trapped in his 107th floor office in Tower One, his tearful Afghan wife, Reshma, on the cell-phone with him as the Towers fell. Played by the young and ravishing Sanaton, one of sumang leela’s celebrated nupisabi (nupi, woman; sabi, performer) , Reshma feared for her and her child’s safety after the attack by people based in her homeland. Steven’s strapping younger brother, Albert, an officer in the U.S. Army, gave the Pentagon’s point of view of the catastrophe and its impact on peace, stability, and democracy. Their father voiced the grief of the American people over the loss of innocent lives.

In Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden himself appeared in his lair, orating upon his grievances and motivations—and in the process offering to the uneducated Manipuri viewer an informed précis of the Middle East conflict and the rise of the single Superpower. He vehemently rejected the label of terrorist, claiming his people’s right to self-defense. Osama and his cell-phone-toting Taliban henchmen were deaf to a simple Afghan couple’s plea to take their war elsewhere so that they could go back to a peaceful life. In the last scene, Reshma, shot by the Taliban and dying in Albert’s arms, with gasps only a healthy male larynx can produce, begged him to raise her infant in a world where religion puts up no barriers and all live in peace. World Trade Centre had no heroes, only victims.

World Trade Centre was written by Ranjit Ningthouja, a 30-year-old playwright of sumang leela, and directed by Birjit Ngangomba, a well-known sumang leela director and practitioner of traditional martial arts from Imphal. Characteristically, the play uses minimal props and is performed by an all-male troupe of about a dozen actors and musicians. The Sana Macha Nachom Artistes Group is one of about 200 sumang leela troupes in Manipur. The group, like all sumang leela troupes, is a self-sufficient traveling unit that provides its own live music and sound effects. World Trade Centre would be known locally as an isei leela, a more recent subgenre of sumang leela that emerged to compete with Indian film musicals, and includes songs lip-synched to background singing. Like their onstage counterparts, the offstage singers are all men, singing both male and the female parts.

The play’s alternation between broad comedy and melodrama revealed sumang leela’s origins in comedic improvisational Manipuri folk theatre genres such as phagee leela and thok leela. Formally, as well as in its use of commentary on contemporary events, it resembled other Asian open-air traveling theatre forms, such as the jatra in Bengal and li-ke in Thailand. About a year after World Trade Centre premiered, at least two other plays on the catastrophe were mounted in India, one in neighboring Assam, the other in Calcutta. Possibly inspired by the Manipuri play, which toured different parts of India, or quite simply following the populist underpinnings of the style, the Calcutta jatra play on 9/11 pandered to the Communists in the audience, complete with Osama as epic good-guy and murderous American GIs strangling Afghan babies (PBS 2003).

In contrast, the Manipur World Trade Centre stands out as a politically informed play, sophisticated in its craftsmanship and humanistic in its message. This should come as no surprise: Manipur has its own place in world theatre. Theatre aficionados recognized the Manipuri segment in Peter Brook’s production of The Mahabharata (1985). Many have seen Ratan Thiyam’s Chorus Repertory Theatre at the 1995 Festival d’Avignon and in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in 2000, or Arambam Lokendra’s 1997 floating Macbeth staged on the Thames. These Manipuri directors are part of an astonishing theatre scene that includes about 40 modern theatre companies and over 200 sumang leela troupes. Birjit Ngangomba, the director of World Trade Centre, is himself locally celebrated for his arch turn every year as the Narada, the saint of dire prophecies, in Manipur Dramatic Union’s popular Hindu passion-play performed every Kisna-Jarama, the Manipuri festival marking the birth of Lord Krishna.

Birjit—Manipuris use first names in common reference—is an intelligent and innovative sumang leela artist. He has developed his own theories of his traditional craft, such as dividing the sumang leela performance space into 16 segments, matching action to actors’ placements in “weak” and “strong” segments (Das Sharma 1996:158). He also has used pure mime. He is a director in demand among sumang leela companies, even though, traditionally, the senior-most artist is also the play’s director and teaches the actors orally without the aid of a written script. Today, it is not uncommon for a troupe to commission a well-known Manipuri writer like the late G.C. Tongbra or a director such as Birjit, and then take the finished production, owned outright by the troupe, on the road.

I did not stay long enough in Manipur to find answers to the many questions that I now ask, sitting here in Brooklyn. It was obvious that the play rode the groundswell of the extensive media coverage of the death of a native son, Jupiter Yambem. Sumang leela is a business after all, with the actors splitting the performance fee, after incidental minimal expenses. Its performers do not have day-jobs; they are just about the only professional actors in Manipur.

But how did the young playwright from Manipur’s rural provinces get the idea for his romantic leads to meet under the Washington Square Arch in New York’s Greenwich Village? Or for using cell phones as a dramatic device in a state where cell phones are banned by the Indian Army? Where did he learn about the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey?

Upon my return to New York, I edited a half-hour videotape from my footage of the two-hour performance. Although I had compiled the excerpts to possibly interest potential theatre presenters in bringing the troupe to perform the play in the U.S., I screened the videotape at the 2002 Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival at the American Museum of Natural History, and, in February 2003, at New York University at a forum organized by its Centre for Culture, Media, and History, and the Department of Performance Studies.

New Yorkers who were at the screenings were very surprised to learn that World Trade Centre comes from a place that has had virtually no direct contact with America: no Nike factories, no McDonalds, no tourists, no word for “white man.” Few places are as removed from international events, from global involvement, as the isolated and forbidden northeast of India: you could probably count on your fingers the number of Americans who have visited Manipur. It is probably safe to venture that none of the actors portraying Americans have actually ever met an American, as Manipur is closed off to foreign nationals. The America the Manipuris imagined and their vision of 9/11 are almost entirely mediated—through print, radio, movies, television, and lately, to a lesser extent, the internet. At the performance I attended, as Osama bin Laden made his entrance, I overheard a young fellow next to me as he nudged his friend: “There! There’s the guy from the newspapers!” With uneducated and nonliterate Manipuri folk, the play even serves as a newspaper, as observed by performance studies scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (2002), giving them a brief on the Middle East problem, the rule of the Taliban, and the role of America in global politics.

The picture of America that emerges in World Trade Centre is surprisingly more benign than one has come to expect from the Other’s assessment of America. The play’s perspective is informed and goes beyond the usual commentary on local politics or the recontextualization of current events that one finds in folk theatre and rituals the world over. (The earlier mentioned jatra from Calcutta, Osama bin Laden [2002], is a case in point.) Perhaps because of Manipur’s isolation and its protection from the expansion of global markets, the play’s apologists for the U.S. presented it simply as a country that brings democracy and freedom to the world.

One may conclude that this is just one more demonstration of the American face put forward by U.S. corporate media in its quest for larger global markets, though I doubt they had Manipur in mind. In some ways it was also a collective thank-you note from Manipur to America. As one character in “white-face” touchingly put it, “America welcomed and gave a good job to one of Manipur’s own sons.” But ultimately it was no more than one side of an even-handed strategy and in that each character represented a distinct political and emotional perspective, good stagecraft to better serve the ends of the melodrama; the playwright also gives Osama bin Laden the stage to deliver some ringing lines in a scathing indictment of American foreign policy.

But it was not the pro- or anti-American position or the ability of people everywhere to reconstruct global events for themselves today that I found most thought-provoking, but rather that the play saw fit to say: this is one side of the conflict as we see it, and here is the other, and this is what we think of it. It made me wonder if Manipur’s innate sense of being a distinct culture, not just another region of India, empowers its artists to comment upon the world at large. One actor told me after the show that his greatest desire was to perform World Trade Centre in New York, to an American audience.

This outlook has partly to do with the fact that an independent existence as a kingdom is still within living memory in Manipur. Without an enlightened and coherent approach to the northeast, New Delhi has failed to arrive at a mutually acceptable relationship with the eight states in the region, one that might supplant older expressions of cultural identity. Manipur’s hunger to relate as an independent entity to the outside world is no doubt sharpened by its enforced political isolation, but it would be simplistic to think of it merely as an anti-Indian stance. For the Manipuri, “India” is often part of that outside world. (At the last National Games in India, newspapers in this state of a couple million people who pride themselves on their athleticism ran a daily tally of medals: Manipur vs. India.)

Because Manipur has not had to directly endure the detrimental aspects of the U.S. global reach, World Trade Centre is able to offer a perspective on the West that is atypical of the love-hate relationship that intellectuals in many countries have with America. Perhaps this has left Manipuris a touch naïve; ironically enough, it is an unintended consequence of being sheltered by Indian security policies. But it is also perhaps a classic case of another clear-eyed perspective from the fringe, of being too far-removed to feel the pressures of intellectual fashion and trends. After all, there is such a thing as American democracy, freedom, and liberty and a Manipuri playwright can feel confident to take on these Big Concepts without so much as a prefacing “yes, but...”

So what do Manipuri audiences make of the play, of 9/11? The political situation in Manipur, which has for more than 40 years simmered just short of a full-blown war between insurgent groups and the Indian Army, provides Manipuri audiences with a subtext that escapes the Western viewer. The Hindu-Muslim struggles for the Indian soul do not take place in Manipur. How then does the denunciation of religious intolerance play here to Manipuri audiences? When Reshma, the Afghan widow, pleads with Albert, her GI brother-in-law, to put down his arms because his battlefield is her homeland, the parallel with the occupation by the Indian Army must be inescapable. By the same measure, it struck me that the play’s critique of the Taliban would have resonance in light of some separatist edicts, such as the one that recently tried to forbid Manipuri women from wearing Indian attire.

The response of American professional theatre presenters who received my half-hour videotape of World Trade Centre has been just as fascinating. The play poses some unusual and daunting problems for potential American presenters, in addition to the expected problems of funding and logistics. I was convinced of World Trade Centre’s theatrical merit and excellence when I saw the play. Richard Schechner thought what he saw of the play from the videotape was “unique, entertaining, meaningful, and moving” (2003). So when the director of a prominent festival in New York wrote to me saying he found the play fascinating but was unable to see how he might provide a context for his audience, I began thinking about the challenges of trying to present World Trade Centre to American audiences.

The basic problem is a familiar one in the U.S. and in the rest of the West, compounded by the extremely limited knowledge of Manipur by the outside world. South Asian immigrants, or ABCDs (America Born Confused Desis, as South Asians born in the U.S. humorously call themselves), avidly consume popular Asian and fusion expressions in film and music—Bollywood or Bollywood-inflected films, or Indi-pop and Bhangra music from London clubs. But to purveyors of high culture in the U.S., “Asian” culture has usually meant only the traditional, not the modern or the postmodern. Traditional as well as modern Asian works presented in the West are also, more often than not, high-culture art forms supported by the corresponding Asian culture’s own elite and experts. In contrast, in Manipur, sumang leela as a form is generally looked down upon as déclassé. It is traditional, but as a popular, living, morphing form, not one that has been recognized and classified as high-cultural achievement with academies devoted to its appreciation and survival.

World Trade Centre is of academic and anthropological interest but, as a political play written by a playwright with something to say, it reverses the direction of the entitled gaze, which has usually had the powerful West looking at, portraying, and interpreting the Other. With its use of lip-synching “white-face” drag and comedy sequences in its interpretation of a catastrophic global political event, it is an unlikely place to find a political perspective to balance Americans’ emotional response to 9/11. Coming from a place that is not invested in the Middle Eastern conflict and the global impact of the U.S., World Trade Centre works as an informed, political play, a well-crafted and humanitarian plea for religious tolerance and peace among all cultures. That little is known about Manipur is perhaps irrelevant: the play is, simply put, a view of 9/11 from Over There.

Yet, by taking on 9/11 as its subject, the Manipuri play has wandered into contested arenas: ownership of the memory of the catastrophe, grief and bereavement, the where-were-you-on-9/11 conversations that still pop up at now and then at dinner parties around town. The tragedy is still an exposed wound. Despite all our head-shaking at the American people’s ready compliance with State propaganda interpreting 9/11 as an attack on U.S. values, ignoring the history and nature of American involvement abroad, we understand we all need to cope as well we can.

I was saddened when a New York presenter confided that her colleagues thought she might lose her job at a prestigious arts institution if she went ahead with an invitation to World Trade Centre. ButI felt I knew where she was coming from. Are Americans ready to see onstage a loving husband being killed on 9/11; an Osama bin Laden giving his point of view? I am not sure.

I am originally from Manipur. I am a New Yorker. Seeing World Trade Centre at Tentha Village was like seeing my own dim reflection, as in the windowpane, as I gazed on through upon a distant, darkling world. And I saw that it was looking right back at me.

L. Somi Roy is a media arts curator in Brooklyn, New York.