What’s size got to do with this Assamese village?

Partha Pratim Sharma | Updated on November 01, 2019

Small world: Members of the theatre group Dapon rehearse for the play Sound of Smoke ahead of its showing at the Green Summit in IIT Guwahati - Partha Pratim Sharma

About 90km from Guwahati, at Tangla Town, a rural theatre group-cum-NGO has set the stage for creative people with dwarfism

Theatre director Pabitra Rabha had a dream — and a mission. He wanted to set up a village populated by little people and dedicated to theatre. The outcome was Amar Gaon, or Our Village.

This village in Assam, set up in 2012, is thriving and quite a tourist attraction today. The inhabitants perform plays both within the village and at festivals elsewhere.

On Saturday, the group from Amar Gaon will stage a play at the Northeast Green Summit being held at IIT Guwahati. The play, Sound of Smoke — rise and fall of civilisation, deals with urbanisation and pollution.

The idea of a special village and theatre group struck Rabha when he returned home to Assam in 2003 after studying at the National School of Drama in New Delhi. That was when he formed his theatre group-cum-NGO called Dapon — Assamese for mirror — in his home town Tangla in the Udalguri district of rural Assam.

While discussing ideas for his theatre group, Rabha decided to dedicate it to people with dwarfism because he felt they were a hugely marginalised community.

“They are capable of doing any work like anybody else. But because of their short height and different physical appearance they are betrayed by society,” Rabha says.

The village was set up after the government earmarked four bighas of land for the ‘Dapon cultural complex’ in Jalah village, Tangla Town, about 90km from Guwahati.

Amar Gaon has houses, an auditorium, an open stage, a sit-out area, a community kitchen and space for farming. The objective of the village is two-fold: promote theatre, and guarantee people with dwarfism the right to live with dignity.

Little people have for long been celebrated as well as discriminated against — in real life and in fiction. There are references to dwarfism from prehistoric times in Egypt. Gulliver’s Travels introduced the world to the Lilliputians, while Japan hosted a theme park based on this Jonathan Swift work. About 100 dwarfs live in the Kingdom of the Little People, a theme park in China’s Yunnan province.

A medical or genetic condition, dwarfism refers to those whose height is considerably shorter than that of an average-sized person. According to some estimates, it affects about 6.5 lakh people in the world.

It was in a bid to include the community in his theatre that Rabha went from door to door, meeting dwarfs from different parts of Assam, and urging them to join his group. It took him four years to build a team of creative people.

Rabha convinced many of the people he interacted with to take part in a residential training camp. In February 2011, a 45-day summer theatre workshop was organised at a forest rest house in Tangla. After the training, some people stayed back and helped Rabha realise his dream. Many of those who joined him had earlier worked in circuses as clowns.

About 35 people have been associated with the project ever since. Of the village’s 30 artistes currently, 23, including eight women, are dwarfs.

The village shot to fame when it staged its first play, Kinu Kou (What to say?) in Assamese. The play was performed by 35 dwarfs and taken to different parts of the country. It has since been staged more than 70 times.

The residents say theatre has given them dignity and confidence. They no longer hesitate to meet people of average heights, something that used to intimidate them earlier.

Khil-Khilai, another wing of Dapon, deals with theatre in education, involving children from schools and villages. Intensive workshops addressed by scholars are frequently organised for the villagers and the children.

Apart from the plays, the artistes have their own livelihoods. Dapon provides them with vocational training, funds those who want to study and takes care of all their expenses, including medical treatment.

Max (30) runs a village school while Sibirina Daimari (35) works at an Anganwadi centre. Some ply e-rickshaws, others work in shops.

Tora Sona Mahilari, originally from Baksa district, got married in 2013 to her sweetheart in the village and the two run a shop there. Dilip Kakoti (26) belongs to Tamulpur in Kamrup district and has been with Dapon ever since its first workshop.

“We are telling the world that they should introspect and not make fun of people just because they are short. These little men also have the same dreams and aspirations as a person who is taller than them. But we mostly think of them as clowns in a circus,” Rabha says.

“Through Dapon we are showing a mirror to the world and ourselves.”

Published on November 01, 2019

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