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Star of the east

Mumbai-based musician Papon's contemporary approach to his Assamese roots got him a nomination on Tuesday for a national award.

music Updated: Jul 29, 2012 01:35 IST
Suprateek Chatterjee

Singer, composer and song-writer Angaraag Mahanta, popularly known as Papon, faced a challenge while growing up in his hometown, Guwahati: emerging from the shadow of his parents, Khagen and Archana Mahanta, a duo renowned in the northeast for their contribution to Assamese folk music. His father is called 'Bihu Samrat', or the King of Bihu', a genre of folk music native to upper Assam.

Papon faced two extreme reactions.

"Some people would say, 'Of course, he's going to be a singer. Look at the backing he has.'" says Papon, 36, at his publicist's office in Bandra (West). "Others would say I had no choice but to live up to my parents' standards."

These pressures seem to have delayed Papon's rise. He was 28 when he took the northeast by storm, in 2004, with his Assamese album Junaki Raati (Moonlit Night). He was 30 by the time he gained wider popularity in India's independent music scene, when he began playing with his band, The East India Company. Meanwhile, between 2004 and 2011, he released five Assamese albums, all of which received glowing reviews and commercial success.

In January, he released his debut Hindi album, The Story So Far, which, on Tuesday, got nominated for a Global Indian Music Academy (GiMA) award in the Best Pop Album category.

Today, Papon plays all over India and abroad, but his core base still lies in the northeast, where he attracts 80,000-strong crowds, something that very few of his indie counterparts can do. After being featured in the Cannes Award-winning TV show The Dewarists last year, he shot for two episodes of MTV's Coke Studio this year, one which aired last night and the season finale, which airs on August 25.

But as an English honours student at Delhi's Motilal Nehru College, Papon was just another long-haired boy from the northeast. "I'd be floating around with my guitar and riding my Yamaha RX-100," he says, with a laugh, candidly admitting that he picked up the guitar only at 18, when he came to Delhi, to impress girls.

While growing up, he listened to everything from ghazals to old-school Bollywood; from blues to Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa. "My mother tells me I used to sing ghazals of Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh when I was as young as five, but I have no memory of this," he says.

In college, he would often be seen strumming his guitar at house parties across Delhi, where he would also sing ghazals, giving their pentatonic nature a more blues-y and contemporary feel.

At one party, he ran into Susmit Sen, co-founder and guitarist of folk-fusion giants Indian Ocean. "Rana (Sen) told me I should consider pursuing music as a career," says Papon, who was already getting encouraging feedback about his singing style from people who had no idea his parents were folk music legends. "That was when I started taking my music a little more seriously," he says.

By the time he was 22, he'd dropped out of college in his final semester ("I still haven't officially told my parents this, but they know," he says with a laugh), and started learning how to program and produce his own music. He spent the next 13 years in Delhi, making music, touring and going on frequent trips to the Himalayas, before shifting to Mumbai last year.

Well-wishers back home urged him to follow in his father's footsteps and take Bihu music further, but by then Papon had forged his own sound: an intriguing blend of northeast folk music, blues, rock and electronic, in which Assamese instruments such as the khol, a percussive instrument, and the dutora, a two-stringed instrument, make regular appearances.

Today, Assam is in the news for all the wrong reasons: the Guwahati molestation, the Kokrajhar riots. "We didn't have these problems till a decade ago," he admits ruefully. "It's sad that we are going the same way as the rest of India."

Although fiercely proud of his Assamese identity, he refrains from writing politically-charged lyrics. "I'm still in the love song and writing-about-life phase," he says, with a chuckle. "Perhaps that will change soon."