Life's Too Short
From circus clowns to theatre actors: The man who enabled the transition for a group of Assamese dwarfs and what he's got planned for them next.
The monsoon has arrived early, and as my car putters along the bumpy, muddy road, a cow tied to its tether gives me an uninterested glance. Three more bovines sit oblivious on the other side of the road, chewing cud as I pass. I give them about as much thought as they give me.Even the majestic scenery fails to register. I am far too preoccupied. I’m afraid I’ll be late. I’m on my way to meet the actor Akshay Kumar.
When I arrive at our appointment in Tangla, Assam, he greets me, shakes my hand, and before the interview he adjusts himself on a plastic chair, his legs dangling half a foot above the ground. He is about three feet tall, half the height of the Bollywood actor who shares his name.
Our Akshay is 55 years old, with a scruffy beard and threadlike moustache flowing over his lips. If he were that Akshay Kumar, he jokes, “I would not have given you this interview. I would have figured out ways of avoiding you.”
The Assamese dwarf may not be a movie star, but as a theatre actor he has faced his audiences live and at closer quarters than his more famous namesake. In his next performance, three days from now, Akshay’s role won’t be much of a stretch. He will be playing himself.
First staged here in Tangla in 2010, Kinu Kou (What to Say?), is based on the life of Akshay and his fellow actors in the Dapon theatre group, dramatising the trials and struggles that they, as dwarfs, face in their day-to-day lives.
Akshay is a widower with two children, and is the only person in his family with dwarfism, but he says it has never been an issue with them. “The problem came from outside, and it hurts inside,” he says, but “the same people who used to mock me now call me ‘sir’. And it hasn’t been that long.”
Until a year and a half ago, before he joined Dapon and moved to Tangla, a small town in the Udalguri region of Assam, Akshay Kumar’s acting was limited to playing a circus clown in his village, a humiliating vocation to which dwarfs often resort to make ends meet. “Even after coming here,” says Akshay, “the circus owner wanted me back. They tried a lot of tricks, but Rabha sir said ‘No’.”
The man Akshay calls “sir” is Pabitra Rabha, a 36-yearold Tangla native. After graduating from the National School of Drama in Delhi in 2003 and taking on various writing, acting and directing jobs, Rabha founded Dapon (meaning “mirror” in Assamese), an amateur theatre group based back in his native Assam. Five years later Rabha started recruiting little people into Dapon, oftentimes through a network of friends and supporters who would inform him about dwarfs being mistreated. Rabha would then go to the dwarfs’ homes and try to convince themand their families that his acting troupe was a unique opportunity and not some kind of hoax.
“At times, I needed to perform workshops right there, in front of their houses,” Rabha says. “There’s this fear attached to outsiders. Sometimes we see it in their parents’ faces, sometimes in their own. ‘Where does he want to take them? Is he going to sell them off to some circus?’ ”
Rabha held acting workshops for dwarfs from across Assam, and by the end of the multi-day process, he’d chosen 30 to join Dapon. His goal is to empower the dwarfs with real acting skills, and through their plays, he hopes to make society more aware of their plight aslittle people.
“I don’t know how it happened,” Rabha tells me. “Maybe I shared a train compartment with some dwarf and saw him being cornered … But it always simmered inside me. I wanted to do something for them.”
After many Dapon stage productions throughout Assam and one show in Delhi, the troupe has managed to pull the attention of the national media, which hasn’t hurt what Rabha has next in mind: a new village just outside Tangla, which he will populate with 70 dwarfs from across the state, including members of Dapon.
“Here are the houses,” says Rabha, pointing out a cluster of simple, one-storey structures with slanted roofs. An otherwise workman-like expression shifts towards childlike enthusiasm as he explains: “This is the basketball court, the football ground just behind it, schools, hospitals … This is the swimming pool, and most importantly a centre for training and development. I have planned a computer centre, a library also.”
But none of this has been built yet. Rabha’s conceptual village, Amar Gaon, “Our Village”, is still just a crudely fashioned tabletop model in his sparsely lit office of the troupe’s Tangla headquarters; a simple brick structure with a grassy courtyard out front. In reality, only one small structure of bamboo and hay has been erected on the village site, built by the dwarfs, a space for what Rabha calls “reception”.
Rabha tells me he has the land, but not the money, and it will cost an estimated Rs 20 crore to take Amar Gaon from miniature to full-size. So far, there are no real investors, but he plans to approach the state government soon.
He then takes me to the second room in the building where 23 of the dwarfs – ages ranging from six to 70 – live and sleep. A rehearsal stage occupies more than half of the room and the rest is used as living space, with the actors’ clothes, costumes, shoes, set aside and their mattresses piled for the day.
Rabha recalls an eerie silence when the dwarfs first arrived in Tangla and met each other for the first time. “Everyone was looking at each other. For a long time none of us talked. Maybe they didn’t know there were so many of their kind. Maybe they did. I don’t know.”
At many stages of designing the village, Rabha says, he has pondered upon the possibility that a separate community might remove the dwarfs further from society. “But then I am not planning to alienate them. My whole group, even the non-dwarfs, is going to stay there. I will carry out all my theatre activities there, children’s workshops, the rehearsals, everything.”
Rabha has already started involving his dwarf actors in other activities, like assisting drama teachers in the children’s workshops; workshops held on the stage in the room where the dwarf actors sleep. Despite the cramped quarters, Rabha maintains that everyone is asenthusiastic as he is: “It is just a beginning. My people are really excited.”
But Amar Gaon is still far from even basic self sufficiency. For now, the land of the future village is being used to grow food to feed the troupe.
“Sometimes, we go for months without being able to pay for our necessities,” Rabha says. “We are knee-deep in a loan. Thirty-five to forty thousand rupees are to be paid to the shopkeepers. Whatever little the actors earn from the plays” – which Rabha says is roughly Rs 1 000 each per show – “is counted as their pocket money.”
They may be broke, but Rabha recently turned down an offer from a Bengali film director who had come to him asking for dwarf actors. “I agree it would be a lucrative option. They would become more popular, make more money, but that, according to me, would have a short-term impact. In theatre you actually meet people eye to eye. It’s also a part of their psychologicaldevelopment.”
It may seem idealistic, even irresponsible for Rabha to keep the Dapon members from such film earnings, but he has his reasons.
He fears that their acting in films would be “the same old story, the same roles, the same slapstick humour, the self-mockery. I couldn’t have pushed them backwards in time.”
More bluntly, he doesn’t want his dwarf actors to be clowns again. “Clowns are only to be mocked,” he says. “Even the animals in circuses are looked at with awe.”So far, as the troupe has continued to perform Kinu Kou, “there hasn’t been a single incident when my actors have been mocked by the crowd.”
The self-confidence that Akshay Kumar exhibited in our interview didn’t come without work, and Rabha says it took two long years to make his amateur dwarf troupe believe they could succeed, that acting was something they could do well, and finally bring Kinu Kou to the public stage. But as far as Akshay is concerned, he says the dwarf actors trust Rabha’s decision-making, and are happy to no longer face humiliation. They have made new friends through Dapon, people who understand their unique plight. For the inhabitants of an as-yet Amar Gaon, this newfound respect is worth more than money.
This is not to say Dapon has been without financial support. When Rabha first began the project, the Bodoland Territorial Areas District provided some funds. His alma mater, the National School of Drama in Delhi, helped find sponsors for five of Dapon’s performances andinvited them to perform in the capital. And credibility is growing. Earlier this year, Rabha was a recipient of the annual IBN Real Heroes Award, which honours Indian citizens for remarkable contributions to society.
Three days after meeting Rabha and the troupe in Tangla, it’s show night in Rani, a picnic spot about 90 kilometres away. I find Akshay seated with his co-actors in a bus, parked outside the gate of the venue.
“Don’t let outsiders in,” he says, ushering me inside the bus as a bunch of kids stand just below the windows, some excited, some giggling, some awestruck. Standing on the bus’ stairs, I listen to Akshay’s complaints about the event’s poor organising. “It will be morning by the time we reach Tangla,” he fumes. The performance has just been bumped from 8 to 10 pm.
The organisers have also come up short on accommodation, and the actors have had to spend most of their day on the bus, and inside, towels and clothes are slung over the seats. A bedsheet has been tied between two bamboo stakes, a makeshift boudoir behind which the women change their clothes. The men get changed in the open, more carefully, under loosely wrapped towels.
Rabha is busy attending to the final details before the Dapon troupe takes the stage, which is not much more than the ladies’ clothing curtain with two more bamboo supported sides, covered with a tarpaulin.
A stagehand comes to collect Akshay and carry him on his back to the side of the stage; for one, so the actor doesn’t get lost in the crowd, and two, Rabha told me earlier, so Akshay can immediately see the audience from the perspective he will have when he reaches the stage.
The set-up seems pretty rustic to me, but from upon the stagehand’s back, Akshay assures me it’s not so bad.
“See?” he says. “Here, we are the star attraction.”
Author: Debojit Dutta
Published: April 2013
Photographs: Vivek Singh
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