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How singer Papon cracked the code to indie and mainstream success

His Assamese folk music fans call themselves Paponists, while Bollywood loyalists look forward to his playback songs. Singer Papon has pulled off the rare feat of being an indie music darling as well as a mainstream favourite

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Dec 16, 2016 19:09 IST
Manali Shah
HT48Hours

Singer Papon at his Goregaon Residence(Photo: Aalok Soni/HT)

His Assamese folk music fans call themselves Paponists, while Bollywood loyalists look forward to his playback songs. Singer Papon has pulled off the rare feat of being an indie music darling as well as a mainstream favourite.

W e are at singer Papon’s Goregaon residence. There are a few balloons hung on the walls of the living room, some party hats stacked in a corner and a child’s drawing of a party stuck on a shelf. It was his son’s birthday a few days ago. Papon (41) breaks into a wide smile as he talks about his children (son Puhor, 7 and daughter Parijaat, 5). “They just know that their dad is a rock star. They don’t sing but hum a couple of songs without knowing the lyrics. I am not exposing them to music yet,” he says.

The balancing act

Papon (real name Angaraag Mahanta) is one of the few musicians who have managed to appeal to diverse audiences.Filmfare and JD Rock Awards trophies stand tall side-by-side in his living room. When he sang Jiyein Kyun (Dum Maaro Dum, 2011), his first mainstream hit, he wasn’t accused of being a sell-out (the indie equivalent of being crucified). “Maybe because I only distinguish tunes as either good or bad music,” he says.

Papon has been vocal about his rejection of the label ‘independent’. “In our country, ‘indie’ feels like this poor cousin who also does music… Has a good sense of music, so there’s a lot of sympathy for him. But he’s still the poor cousin in a sad attire,” he chuckles, adding, “I understand the need to classify music into categories, though.”

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Currently, Papon is busy releasing his new EP (Extended Play) — The Story Now — one track at a time. The songs reflect a mix of genres such as reggae, pop, jazz and rock. He is also preparing to perform this weekend at the Enchanted Valley Carnival, Aamby Valley.

Folk music has been a constant in Papon’s career. Indie fans discovered him with Coke Studio’s first Indian edition in 2011, where he sang Pak Pak, a medley of Bihu songs from Assam, usually sung during the Assamese New Year. He has been releasing Assamese folk albums since 2008 (he has five folk albums and two original albums in Assamese to his credit). Not surprising, considering his father, the late Khagen Mahanta, was known as the Bihu Samrat (King of Assamese folk), and his mother, Archana Mahanta, is also a singer. “Today, it might look like I’m trying to be cool with folk, but it’s a way of life for me,” he says.

Papon is also working on a ghazal album, which will have a contemporary sound. “I waited until I felt I was mature enough to indulge in that space, and make it popular among the new generation,” he says.

The legacy

Growing up, despite being surrounded by music, Papon didn’t want to make a career in the field. “Maybe there was an overdose of music, so I didn’t value it or rather I ran away from it,” he says. He admits that he was always apprehensive of being compared to his legendary father.

“Another reason I didn’t want to do music initially was because people would like me to follow his sound or launch a tribute album. I wanted to do my own thing,” he says.

Papon has followed in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one, though. Mahanta Sr was known for highlighting social issues on stage. Papon, too, leaves the audience with food for thought. “I express a lot during my performances. I love mehfils and addas and think of the stage as a bigger adda. I talk about taking care of elderly parents, nature conservation, cleanliness, etc. My father, though, was almost political [in his speeches]. He had no fear,” he says.

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People in metros may have just begun to recognise Papon on the streets, but his fame in his hometown is extraordinary. When he visits Guwahati (about once a month), he can’t step out during the day — he will most certainly be mobbed. His fans call themselves ‘Paponists’ — the way Justin Beiber has his Beliebers and Lady Gaga has her Little Monsters. Inspired by his social messages, they have even started NGOs in his name. “My young fans are doing some great work. I once spoke of how it’s shameful if you drive a swanky car but throw a pizza box out of the window. The kids cleaned up several areas by themselves on a Sunday morning. This was much before the Swachh Bharat campaign. (Narendra) Modi picked it up from me,” he laughs, adding, “Now, the youth inspire me back. Eventually, I want to work with them — I hope to build a model village someday.”

Be there

What: Papon will perform at Enchanted Valley Carnival on December 18.

Where: Aamby Valley City, Lonavala

Tickets: Rs 2125 onward on bookmyshow.com