Theatre director, Assam

74-pabitra-rabha Small world: Pabitra Rabha and his army of theatre artistes | Salil Bera

IN APRIL, a theatre group from Karnataka, Theatre Samurai, approached Pabitra Rabha to direct a play for them. Rabha was unable to spare the time—a month away from home—so he asked them to come over to his place instead. So the troupe moved to Udalguri, a three-hour drive from Guwahati, and spent a month in Rabha’s bucolic but spartan retreat, getting their act knocked into shape.

And what prevented Rabha from being away from home for so long? It is his theatre group, or rather theatre family, Dapon, meaning mirror in Assamese. Its speciality is its cast of dwarves. Rabha has been working with this group of people since 2008, five years after graduating from Delhi’s National School of Drama. “I felt there was a need to mainstream them. To get them out of the circus joker routine,” says Rabha. So, he sought them out from villages across Assam, offering them training and a livelihood. At Dapon, there is no distinction between the roles that the dwarves and other artistes play. “They can play Abhimanyu or Ashwathama, it depends on their capabilities,” he says.

Rabha has created a theatre commune in his village. They live off the land, cultivating paddy and mustard on the 28 bighas, and having a year-round loan with the local ration shop. There are no individual salaries; Dapon functions like a family unit. The younger ones go to school. Prithviraj, who is in class seven, has been with Rabha for four years, and rarely goes home. One of the dwarves is now headmaster of a middle school in a remote tea estate. Nayan, 44, and Tara, 33, met at Dapon, fell in love, and got married. They run a small provision shop outside the commune. Some live independently, but come when they have to prepare for a performance.

Sometimes, Rabha dabbles in cinema. He had done small roles in Mary Kom, Tango Charlie, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero and the Assamese film, Mission China. Dapon has travelled across the country, performing at theatre festivals. “Sometimes we fly, sometimes we travel by air conditioned trains. We see the country—Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Kerala. Dapon has given us self respect,” says Ganesh Basumatry, 20, who has been with Rabha since he was eight. Their most popular play is Kini kou (What to Say), which is about real life stories of the dwarves. It has had 75 shows already.

When they are not acting or tilling the land, Dapon members conduct theatre workshops across Assam. “People regard us with respect, not ridicule,” says Dilip Kakoti. The schedule for the summer vacations was packed. Rabha was busy giving the final touches to the Karnataka group’s play, before its ticketed show in Guwahati. The play is in Kannada, but the language of theatre, Rabha says, is universal. You do not even need subtitles.