Meet the wonderfully talented and open-to-the-world musician Papon and his new band The East India Company
It’s the annual night of the Assamese Students Association of Delhi in late 2007 and the highlight of the evening is the performance of Angaraag Mahanta (aka Papon). The entire hall is throbbing with anticipation and breaks into a roar when his name is announced and the long-haired, handsome Assamese lad with a disarming smile takes the mike. He breaks right into a soulful number from his brooding, mood-evoking album in Assamese Jonaki Raati (2004) and the audience is stilled into breathless silence. This is his home crowd and they love him. His band members may include a German with a gamcha wrapped round his head who will later break into some insane Bihu dance moves and Papon may go on to sing some Hindi and some Urdu songs, but the Assamese know that his heart is Assamese.
This is the hallmark of this young and incredibly talented musician: his musical world knows no boundaries and borrows freely from a variety of traditions and sources ”“ from Assamese devotional to electronica, as his website says, from Miles Davis to Frank Zappa ”“ even as the hills of Assam are never too far away from his horizon. In some sense, that’s a typical North Eastern upbringing for you, but Papon has the additional advantage of having in his parents two of the best-known singers in Assam ”“ Archana and Khagen Mahanta ”“ who introduced him to Hindustani classical vocal and instrumental music from a young age. Asked when he first became interested in music, he audaciously replies: “Even before I was born. Since my parents were into music and were singers, music was with me since childhood. I really don’t know when did it begin.”
Assamese folk is the fulcrum of his musical repertoire. He says “My dad is a folk artist from Assam, (he is one of the formost representatives of folk music in Assam.) I was bombarded with traditional music. Folk music, traditional music, tea-garden music- all that came to me. And as my mom is into Hindustani classical, I was introduced to ghazals through that. So at a very interesting age, without even understanding Hindi I was hooked on to it. Then obviously, soft rock, jazz and electronic later.” One solo album down and several super-hit Bihu and other Assamese songs later, he is ready to go on the road with his band, cheekily called East India Company. Bringing together people from different musical traditions, Papon calls EIC’s music “genre free, because all five of us come from different starting points.” The band includes Kirti (tabla and folk instruments), Dipu (bass), Brin (an engineer into electronica), Krishna (guitarist) and Papon.
Papon is based in Delhi where he owns a small studio called Purple Harmoniks in nondescript Mayur Vihar where lots of his friends hang out, where he welcomes music lovers and, if he really likes you, cooks you good Assamese food. In the middle of the polluted and aggressive madness of Delhi, this dreamy Assamese lad still manages to retain his idyllic sense of nature. Asked about he influences behind his first album Jonaki Raati, he says: “Nature has been a big influence. You can say my entire journey till the album got released. Since it’s my first album every influence came in to making of it.”
Though based in the big, bad capital, he is not about to forget his Assamese roots. “I want to continue singing in Assamese,” he says. “Not only sing but to in fact improvise on it. Though, I also want to sing Sufi and in Urdu. What I do is throw the song to the audience after explaining it in short in English. And then let the audience take over to understand the song through music and the body language. Interestingly, more and more people actually want Assamese numbers more.”
Ask him about why his songs are so apolitical and do not address the burning issues of Assamese politics and discontent and he answers disarmingly: “In the future may be I’ll be political, some where, but my thing is to talk about nature and interpret it in human life. My personal belief is, if you can improve as human, make it beautiful. Rather that discussing the problem if you go to the roots, you can improve.”
Nothing seems to faze this laidback typical Assamese boy. Asked about his future plans, all he says is: “I want to travel, travel the world with music. Want to do films, background scores for films. Basically just want to travel.” No wonder he has almost a thousand women wanting to swoon in his arms at his concerts, on his orkut profile and elsewhere.
‘Khudha Hota’: A throbbing bass and earthy vocals are met by some deft guitar lines and galloping rhythms.
‘Omo’: A guaranteed body-moer that explores everything from rootsy folk to electronica and rock.