50 year old rod puppeteer Nirapada Mondal has come a long way since he first started playing with the broken puppets in his home as an eight year old. He is a third generation puppeteer in his family and the present head of Satya Narayan Putul Natya Sanstha, a puppet group owned by his grandfather, the late Kangal Chandra Mondal nearly 50 years ago.
Though brought up in an environment of puppets and performances, with his grandfather, uncle and father all deeply involved, it was only after he completed his school, that Niranjan took part in his first puppet show as a female voice. Thus was in 1983 and it was the beginning of a lifelong passion. He started paying greater attention to the art and was soon brimming with ideas to modernise and develop both performance styles and craftsmanship. His father however wished him to continue with his education. Following an altercation with his father, Nirapada left home and wanderered around for 5 years, working with other puppetry groups. It was at this time that he received encouragement from several government officials at the district levels and gained confidence in his abilities as a puppeteer and script writer. He eventually returned home and took over the reins from his father. By this time, the popularity of the form had severely eroded. Nirapada immediately began implementing new ideas into the traditional Dang-er Putul, in order to win back some of the popularity that had been lost to modern forms of entertainment that had begun to overwhelm rural Bengal since the 1980s.
To gain more skills, Nirapada broadened his exposure to contemporary puppetry by attending puppetry workshops. Side by side with his traditional puppetry, he worked for almost twenty years under the guidance of Padmashree Suresh Dutta, Director of Calcutta Puppet Theatre to further develop his puppetry skills and technical expertise. He also experimented with papier mache and began to use this lighter puppet instead of the heavier traditional wooden puppet. Nirapada was awarded a National Scholarship in 1997 from the Government of India.
Nirapada`s successful productions include Raja Harish Chandra, Mukti Chai, Natun Jivan, Siraj-Ud-Doula and Raj Laxmi. He has participated in numerous programmes in India and has also performed at Nepal, Pakistan, Laos, Indonesia and Myanmar.
Nirapada has also been teaching the younger generation. Other than his eleven year old daughter, Rajasree, there is a band of faithful and enthusiastic young students that Nirapada trains. Nirapada began with teaching them acting skills and for the last three years or so, has been teaching them puppetry as well.
Though there is no doubt that Nirapada has helped rod puppetry regain some of its popularity, aided by newer ideas and technology, there is no overlooking the fact that there are only about 12 rod puppet groups today in West Bengal, most of them struggling to survive.
Nirapada has a website : http://www.putulnaach.com/