Tangla, India - Nothing scares him. Not tigers, lions or even snakes, he says. But he fears people.
On the streets, Mrigen Baruah, 25, is aware of people angling for a glimpse. Strangers stare, turning around, craning their necks. Some call him names behind his back and to his face. Some ask: "Will you ever marry? What did your mother eat to produce you?" says Baruah.
"Our hearts ache when we step out of the house, people don't treat dwarfs as human beings," Baruah says, tears streaming down from his large brown eyes. Often he would walk away, fast. "I act unmoved."
Circus owners came looking for him, coaxing him to be a clown. Television producers offered comic gigs, to jump out of boxes - to be the joke. Those days he wished he were invisible, to move like smoke or disappear into ant holes.
Now he is slowly tucking his scars and fears away. Two years ago, Baruah joined an all-dwarfs theatre group, part of the Theatre and Vocational Training for Dwarfs programme launched by Dapon, The Mirror - a theatre group based in Tangla, about 80 kilometres from the capital of India's northeastern state of Assam, Guwahati.
"We forget our manners when we see [dwarfs], so I wanted to give them a chance to express themselves creatively."
- Pabitra Rabha, actor and director
His days are filled with voice training, drama rehearsal, and theatre workshops. He also farms potatoes and ginger, weaves wicker baskets, and sometimes flies to different cities for shows. Baruah performs in the play Kinu Kou ("What to say?") with 30 other artists, in which they play themselves. The musical has dream sequences and tales of yearning and sorrow based on the daily struggles they face.
Jeers and jokes still exist, and his insides still hurt. But his dreams have shapes and sizes now. "I try to focus on the claps," Baruah says.
Size does not matter
The actors live in a residential training centre in Tangla. The road to the city is dotted with leafless cotton trees, covered with scarlet flowers in full bloom. Cows, goats, ducks and cranes forage on the stubble of recently harvested rice fields, unhurried.
The theatre centre is covered by large green plastic sheets and Dapon's posters tied to bamboo poles. The front yard has a hay canopy arched on the trunk of a tree. Cane baskets, hand fans, masks, paper jewelry and garlands hang from the roof. A headless mannequin covered with a black cotton cloth stands next to other stage props. Freshly washed clothes dangle from strings, water dripping from the ends.
Pabitra Rabha, 38, an actor and director, started Dapon in 2003. After graduating from National School of Drama in New Delhi, he acted in Bollywood films such as Tango Charlie and Mukhbir.
For four years, he searched for dwarfs interested in theatre. "We forget our manners when we see them, so I wanted to give them a chance to express themselves creatively," says Rabha. Word of mouth led him to remote villages in Assam.
"The hardest part was convincing families. They were scared maybe I will sell them to circus or traffic the girls," he says. To persuade them he would dance, act, and read out dialogues. The first workshop of 45 days was held in 2011, with 30 participants.
A new home
At first, Rabha had to convince the dwarfs to come to the first residential training camp. He paid them 200 rupees ($3.67) per day so that their incomes would remain unaffected. After the first camp, the actors were enthusiastic, and were willing to stay with Rabha and perform.
Rabha built the centre with two brick rooms on his ancestral land. A small hut with a mud stove is used as kitchen. The larger room is the rehearsal space where male actors live. Rabha uses the smaller room as an office during the day and at night the seven women actors roll out mattresses, sheets stuffed with hay, and sleep. Their belongings are stored in shiny aluminum trunks on a sturdy wooden rack.
|The site for Rabha's dream village is now used for farming and vocational and theatre workshops [Bijoyeta Das/Al Jazeera]
Rabha lives with his family in a remote village with no electricity. The play has been staged more than two dozen times in different parts of the country, and they often conduct workshops for children and youth.
"At the end of the month, we have unpaid grocery bills but we never think of giving up," he says with a smile.
In Rabha's office is a cardboard model of "Amar Gaon" ("Our Village"), which he plans on building someday. The model of what he calls "a life-long project" boasts small ranch-style houses and paper cut-outs of basketball courts, trees and gardens.
Eventually, Rabha says, the village will serve as a home to the troupe and other theatre lovers, where they can live and learn. Today, a dusty mud road leads to the planned village, which now has rows of vegetables, two sheds and an enclosure with fluorescent green tarpaulin sheet, used for theatre and crafts making workshops.
"The goal is not to isolate them or make an entertainment park, where people will come to watch dwarfs," he says.
A strong bond
At 55, Akshay Kumar Das is the oldest actor and Maria Daimary, 7, is the youngest.
On a recent morning, Das sits on a small stool, weaving a basket and wearing over-sized sunglasses. "The very first time we met, we were all quiet, actually very sad," he says. At night he was fidgety, swallowed by a focused anger that asked, "Why us, why so much pain?"
"Will we be happy, can we act, will this work?" he remembers thinking. Now they are like family; they share a bond that protects them from taunts and mockery. The audience has always cheered and praised the play, motivating the group and attracting new members, he says.
Before joining Dapon, Das had never left his village. He was ecstatic when they travelled to Delhi and Karnataka.
"Of course, people will stare at two dozen wide-eyed dwarfs holding hands and walking, but we were too happy to be bothered," he says.
The rhythmic sounds of hands and stick beating on double-headed drums fills the air. Das gingerly places his basket and walks into the rehearsal room.
He ties a traditional thin cotton towel on his head and starts dancing Bihu, a traditional Assamese folk dance, rapidly moving his hands and shaking his hips, twirling and squatting. As the drum-beating, singing, clapping and sound of footsteps reached a euphonic crescendo, Das' face broke into a joyous smile and he winked.