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Standing tall

Pabitra Rabha runs a theatre company for dwarves in Assam, offering dignified employment and spreading awareness. Rahul Karmakar reports.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2013 01:53 IST

For vegetable vendor Akshay Kumar Das, anyone over 5 ft tall was a potential bad guy.

All his life, the 56-year-old dwarf had been pointed at, mocked and ridiculed by people of more regular height. Even his family was ashamed of his ‘deformity’.

Then, in mid-2011, Das met 5 ft 7 inch Pabitra Rabha.

The National School of Drama alumnus had created a theatre company for dwarves called Dapon (Mirror) soon after he graduated in 2003 and then spent eight years scouting for talent across his native Assam while supporting himself with stints in theatre and the Hindi film industry.

“I have always been drawn to people with unusually short stature, feeling their pain as they entertained people in circuses or on the street for a living. I always wanted to change the attitudes of those who make fun of them,” says Rabha, 38.

Das is now one of 27 members of the amateur theatre group, which has an average height of 2 ft.

“Life has changed over the past few months,” says the widower and father of two. “People who used to make fun of me back home in Barama [a town in western Assam] now address me as ‘Sir’ because of the fame I have earned on stage.”

Dapon is based in Tangla, a town of 2,000 people in Udalguri district, 95 km north of Assam’s capital of Dispur. Its 27 members are supported by Rabha, and housed in the one-storey headquarters attached to his family home.

A father of one, Rabha is assisted in his mission by his wife, a homemaker, who helps him run the theatre company and tend to the steady stream of dwarves who visit through the year, drawn here by tales of a haven where little people are given a chance to shine.

Creating this haven wasn’t easy. Using all his savings from five years of theatre and film work, Rabha toured Assam and zeroed in on 70 dwarves aged 35 to 60 that he wanted to recruit. He then visited each of the dwarves and talked to their guardians.

“We held workshops in their homes to explain the concept. Many guardians were apprehensive, as society was generally cruel to the diminutive members of their family. I succeeded in convincing 27 people, including six women, brought them here and began training them,” says Rabha. “They were naturals, having had to put on an act whenever they were ridiculed.”

Dapon currently stages one play, usually at theatre festivals or wherever it is invited to perform. Titled Kinu Kou? (What Can I Say?), it is an evocative account of the sufferings, desires, dreams and complexes of dwarves, and the trauma caused by people’s attitudes towards them. The play pits the dwarves against an obese ‘giant’ with a similar tale to tell, stirring audiences with its subtle tragic tones beneath a boisterous comedy.

“We got an overwhelming response to our play at the NSD theatre festival in New Delhi last January,” says Das. “That made me realise that God made me a dwarf for a reason.”

“I still make people laugh for a living, but now I know they’re not laughing at me. The very people who once mocked me, in fact, now say they are proud to see my name and photograph in the newspapers. I am happy that they are beginning to realise we are human too, that we too raise families and chase dreams.

James Daimary, 40, former circus clown and member of Dapon theatre company