Amop of curls on his head and easy-going expression, there’s something about Papon that just gives him look of an artist. Put a guitar in his hand, or any one of the many instruments he can play, and it’s obvious that he was born to be a musician. Pulling from an eclectic mix of genres, he is often considered to be the trailblazer for bringing folk to the contemporary music scene. Like his hair, uncontrollable and wild, Papon thinks of his music in a similar way.
In one word I would describe my music as free, with no restriction to any cultural boundaries or genres.
Papon, or Angaraag Mahanta as he’s more formally known, is an Indian composer and singer from Assam. Located in the northeastern region of India, Assam is one of the Seven Sister States of India that are connected to India only by a narrow corridor in West Bengal called the “Chicken’s Neck”. Famous for its tea gardens and beautiful wildlife, as well its location just south of the eastern Himalayas, Assam has played a large role in Papon’s life and music.
“I was travelling- I travel a lot. Pahadon mein ghoom ta hoon, Himalayas main bohut ghoom ta hoon, toh wahan pe kuch gaane bante the, waddiyon koh dekhte the, mere gaano mein aksar nature sounds, nature ki baatein, metaphors hote hain”
“I was travelling- I travel a lot. I roam around the hills, I go around the Himalayas a lot, and there, while going through the valleys I would write some songs. My music often has nature sounds, speaks about nature, or has nature-inspired metaphors.”
It is the sounds of this unique location- surrounded by an unmatched natural beauty- that we can hear in his music. Along with the nature though, Papon brings in the folk elements he was taught and exposed to from a very young age. His parents, both great legends of Assamese folk music, put music into his life from the very beginning. He, in turn, internalized their teachings, and now brings those timeless folk tunes of Assam the modern listener all over India and the world.
P apon’s journey towards a career in music began much later that others may think. Though he’d been learning music since childhood, it was much later that he realized that it was something he could pursue and didn’t release his first album until 2005, at age 29. Even with music surrounding him from every angle, his first performance was as momentous as his first album.
A memorable moment in his childhood when he sung a famous ghazal by Jagjit Singh: “Hothon Se Choolon Tum” from the movie Prem Geet at school.
“School mein, main gaata nahin tha itna, aur, seekta tha ghar mein, lekin school mein, main thoda sharmata tha tab shahid, aisa kuch bola jata hai ab, kyun ki parents bhi bohot bade musicians hai toh shahid mai, mujhe thoda, logon ka you know expectations zaada hota tha, shahid pressure zaada thi, mere upar. Toh maine ek bar yeh “Hothon Se Choolon Tum” gaaya, school mein, Jagjit Singh ka. Toh Jha sir the, Hindi ke, who rone lage… aur woh Jha sir aake mujhe, Gitanjali hai, Rabnidranath Tagore ka? Unko Hindi version mujha dia, ki. Announce kiya, ke isko main dil se dene chata hoon, ke isno jo gaaya hain… ghaza gaaya, itna chota bachche ne accha gaaya, Hindi bhi theek, toh I think that was like a great moment for me: a real encouraging moment.”
“In school, I never used to sing- I was learning music at home, but at school, I was too shy to sing, or at least that’s what they tell me now. I think it was probably because my parents were very big musicians, so maybe I felt the expectations for me were too much and that there was too much pressure. But there was one time when I sang Jagjit Singh’s “Hothon se Choolon Tum” at school and my Hindi teacher, Jha sir, started crying… He came up to me and announced to everyone that he was gifting me a Hindi version of Tagore’s “Gitanjali” because he thought I had sung such a mature song so beautifully despite my age… I think that was like a great moment for me: a real encouraging moment.”
The encouragement may have come young, but there were still many more years to go before Papon began writing his own songs, and then a few more before he confident enough to sing them to his friends. He was hardly stagnant during those years though. He was busy soaking up the ghazals of Mehdi Hassan and Hindustani classical music of Ustaad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saab, along with the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore and Gulzar. Heavily grounded in the classical and folk world of Indian music, it seems unlikely that such a musician would become known for his fusion, and yet for Papon this was just a natural course of action as a result of the exposure he had to so many different artists and genres.
H is first album, Jonaki Raati, was simply a compilation of his songs sent to a distribution company on a whim, without consulting anyone, and without a word to his parents. The introspective nature of his songs mesmerized the critics while his subtle fusion of Assamese folk and new-age electronica caught the attention of the masses. Within the next few years, his fame grew exponentially, spurred by his performances at local shows and collaborations with other folk artists from the North-East.
Like other independent artists, Papon began with doing shows- a practice he still continues with fervor. Given that he started with songs in Assamese, his most popular concerts were at Bihu festivals, where he presented new and old folk tunes with a contemporary flair.
Bihu commonly refers to the set of three festivals as well as Bihu dance and music, all of which go hand in hand. Of the three festivals, occurring in April, October, and January, Ronagali Bihu in the mid-April is the most festive as it is, in part, a celebration of the Assamese New Year. Since Assam is an agricultural state, Bihu is associated to farming, however it also carries many other connotations.
Papon singing a bihu song from his longer arrangement “Bihu Naam” with a brief explanation of Bihu at the end.
A Bihu song from the Assamese movie Jun Torali featuring traditional music and dance of Assam
An excerpt of Papon at a Bihu 2013 Festival singing his last song, “Bihu Naam” which is a combination of several Bihu songs
In 2007, Papon formed his folk-fusion band “Papon and The East India Company” which comprised of Papon (Vocals & Guitar), Deepu (Bass), Jeenti (Guitar), Tanmay (Drums), Brin (Live Electronica), Kirti (World Percussion), Birinchi (Keys). With all of them sharing the love Papon has for Assam and folk music, the band is very popular at live performances in colleges, shows, and music festivals all over India.
B orn to Khagen and Archana Mahanta, two legends of folk music in Assam, the Mahanta family is often considered the most influential family in Assam right now. However, that’s not to say that Papon didn’t create a niche for himself. Subtly releasing his first album, it was his talent that got him as far as he is today, as well as his utter love for where he comes from and for music in all its forms.
“Kuch bhi music karo, honest music karo, no mathematics in music… lai, taal, sab mathematics hai, lekin honesty hain music tabhi hoga, bakhi tum kuch bhi karo.
“Whatever kind of music it may be, it should be honest music: no mathematics in music… rhythm, form- all the mathematics are there- but if there’s honesty, that’s when there’ll be music- nothing else matters.”
Papon released his first album in quiet fear of his father’s reaction, but when the success of it did eventually get around to his father, he didn’t get any of the rejection or reprimanding he’d expected. In it’s place, he got the unspoken pride of his family and some wise words that he embodies to this day. From an illustrious musical family, Papon emerged through the the pressures and expectations to create a unique name for himself all over India.
It’s a pet name, ghar pe bulate the, bachpan se. It started with “pon”, “pon” means “pran”, promise and mere nani ko laga bohot chota naam hai, “pa” lagaya saamne, aur bilkul meaningless kardiya.
It’s a pet name, what everyone called me at home since I was a child. It started with “pon” which means “pran” or “promise”, but my grandmother though it was too short and added “pa” to the beginning of it, making it completely meaningless.
N ames are an interesting thing in India. Most people, especially in Northern India, are given a “good name” or formal name, as well as a nickname. For most it becomes a second identity- a way of separating their work or school life from their home life. With Papon, he too began by performing under his real name, Angaraag, a very poetic and poignant name. However, as his friend circle grew and intermingled with the people he worked with, he was known as Papon far beyond his family and close friends. That was when he knew he had to choose one.
Jab main bahar kuch karne lag gaya, toh mujhe laga tha ke do insaan hai, aur usko ek karna zaroori tha. Toh bohot dimaak lagaya… ke Gulzar Saab mile they ek bari… poochoon na poochoon kar ke ki, who to poet hain, one of my favourite poets ever, bola ke kya hai, kya karoon, Angaraag—Mujhe pata hai, main soch bhi raha tha ke shahid Angaraag hi bolengein, because it’s poetic, maine aise hi poocha, ke Angaraag hain mera naam, toh Papon… bhi hain. Toh mera career aisa waisa hain, kya karoon, kaun sa naam suit karega, aap kya bolte hain? Aur unho ne bola “Tu kuch bhi karle, tu Papon hi dikte ha, Papon hi rahe ga, Papon hi hai tu. Kuch bhi, yeh Angarrag wangaraag zaada complicate mat kar.
As I started to work outside (of the North-East), I thought that there were two people, and they needed to become one. I thought a lot about it, and at that time, I got to meet Gulzar Saab. I wasn’t sure if I should ask him or not, him being such a great poet, one of my favorite poets ever, but I did manage to ask him. I had figured that he would probably say Angaraag, because its poetic, so I told him: ‘My name is Angaarag, but it’s also Papon. This is what my career is like right now, so what do you think? Which one would suit better?’ And he said: ‘Whatever you do, you look like a Papon, you’ll stay a Papon, you are Papon. Don’t complicate it with Angaraag or anything.’”
His name, simple and sweet, is a great reflection of his music. From his more traditional Assamese Bihu songs to his more wild explorations in the third season of Coke Studio @MTV , they all retain that peaceful soul that characterizes not only his music but him as well.
F rom his early beginnings with simple compositions, he continued to explore new and different genres, constantly seeking to incorporate all the sounds he heard into his own compositions with pieces encompassing genres like Afro-Jazz, Rock, Punjabi Folk, and Rajhastani Folk traditions.
“I always try to do something new which excites me, so as to keep everything new, and less monotonous. I’m always looking around to hear new sounds –– what’s happening around me, trying out new sounds and various ways of recording something. I very consciously try to make an effort to keep it interesting for myself.”
Coke Studio @MTV India Season 3 was a platform made for artists just like Papon. A stage for national and international artists to collaborate and create musical excellence, Season 3 invited a composer to arrange a full set for the episode they were on. Alongside artists like the world renown composer A.R. Rahman and a very popular Bollywood music director Amit Trivedi, Papon made his third appearance on Coke Studio, having graduated from a single song on Season 1 to a full episode in Season 3.
Like his own music, Papon’s episode on Coke Studio was as varying in mood as it was genre. His first song of the episode was an upbeat Rajasthani-Assamese fusion that featured traditional instruments like the Nagada and Ravanhatha.
Papon with Kalpana Patowary on Coke Studio @MTV Season 3 singing Baisara Beera, a fusion of a traditional Rajasthani folk song and an Assamese Holi song.
In stark contrast, his first original composition for the episode was “Khumaar” which, unlike his other previous piece was not folk based, and instead, had an Indi-Pop feel to it. Nonetheless, it is a testament to his magical voice and musical ability that makes this one of the more popular songs of this season, as well as the surprising addition of a shehnai, a traditional double-reed oboe most commonly heard in weddings.
Papon on Coke Studio @MTV Season 3 singing Khumaar, an original composition.
Papon’s episode on Coke Studio @MTV is undoubtedly popular, and, in conjunction with the few songs he’s sung for Bollywood up till now, has put his name into households all over India- a feat otherwise difficult to achieve for an independent fusion artist.
R egardless of the kind of music he’s performing, it’s clear that Papon enjoys his music to the fullest. From slow songs to fast songs, he’s never without a smile or the occasional dance. This passion shines in his compositions, as does his ability to fuse elements of different genres and bring in various cultures. His music, along with that of others like him, are the tipping point of the change in the Indian music industry. The revival of folk and classical forms in the younger generations has surged to popularity thanks to artists like Papon, and will continue to do so in the future.
I think good music doesn’t have to conform to the rules of genre. The world, after all, is melting towards a borderless society.