Levitating Monkey recently spoke with Assamese singer, composer and record producer Angaraag Mahanta, (aka Papon). Papon is currently in New York City, gearing up for his heavily anticipated upcoming Bollywood Musical Night 2014 show this Friday, July 11, in Edison, New Jersey.
Levitating Monkey: With both your parents being doyens of Assamese music and your own deep roots in the classical and folk traditions of Assam, how did you first come to be interested in more of the indie rock scene?
Papon: My parents are respected folk musicians so I grew up on that, and being born in the North East, you can’t escape rock and blues. When I was older, I also started listening to bands like Pink Floyd and Sting, so my influences are quite varied, and it’s shaped who I am as a producer now.
LM: I read that you wanted to be an architect when you were growing up. Was there a specific event or incident that changed your focus towards a career in music?
Papon: My musical journey began before I was born, my mother was pregnant when she was teaching and learning Indian classical music. So I started listening to music even then! My father is a folk legend in Assam. He’s been performing folk music and popularizing it for years, and is a very well-respected figure in Assamese folk music. I was born into a musical family and that’s where the journey began. But I didn’t immediately take to music as a profession, that happened later in my life. It took me a while to realize I am good at it myself and not because my parents are musicians.
When I was in Delhi I started jamming and doing jingles for documentary features and that was about when I started thinking about music as a profession. Then I made my first Assamese album and that really pulled me towards making it a profession.
LM: Can you talk to us about how you came to be known as Papon?
Papon: It’s my pet name, and also easier to remember.
LM: Having worked in the area of commercial jingles, what lead you to release your first album, ‘Jonaaki Raati’ in Assamese in 2004?
Papon: Jonaaki Raati was never a planned album – it was another journey – a compilation of songs over a period of seven years, that happened over travels and jamming with friends. When I had a few songs, I thought I’d compile it to make an album. It all started off quite slowly – in the first 3 months, 300 CDs sold, and then suddenly it picked up, and over the next 6 months – we sold about 10,000 CDs, and within year’s time it was over 80,000. It was a very different kind of music compared to what was coming out at that time. It was a phase of remixes and this was against the stream, different from that, and there was a space for melody again. Lots of critics wrote about it and gave it positive reviews.
LM: Which famous musicians do you admire? Why?
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was someone who did so much; was never stuck in boundaries, styles and rules, but yet had a strong understanding of the core of classical music. He would venture everywhere, exploring newer sounds and soundscapes, all the time. His experimentation and exploration has been really inspiring, and pushed me to not get “stuck” in a singular school of thought.
Jagjit Singh mostly because of his production and sophisticated, yet traditional melody, and Kishore Kumar because of his versatility, spontaneity and natural way of singing. Kishore Da’s style of singing kind of makes music closer to life. It’s like he’s talking and he’s singing. He’s narrating in tune.
RD Burman and Hemant Kumar were significant in changing so many things around in how music is perceived in India.
LM: How do you go about writing songs? What inspires you?
Papon: I think my inspiration is music itself; when I hear some beautiful melody. When I’m surprised by some melody that comes from within and it touches me, and feels so fresh, it sometimes actually gives me goosebumps; that’s one thing that definitely keeps me going. Now, when fans and listeners understand the honest effort behind creating music, only for the music itself and not for various other reasons; I feel great about that, because then I know I can keep making music they way I want it, the way I love it and the way the music should be. Music should just be honest and pure from the heart, then it definitely will touch people.
LM: You have made folk music popular again in Assam. I’ve read how there are many young people who are getting back to Assamese folk music because you’ve “designed it in a new way.” Can you talk to us about how you’ve bridged the gap between connecting that sound with this new sound?
Papon: I spent a lot of time dwelling on folk music, its meaning and history, understanding it, and why and where it comes from, and then after that – I made it my own, while still keeping the essence of folk music intact.
LM: Talk to us about the character you play in your first feature film as an actor, the Assamese movie, Rodor Sithi.
Papon: Rodor Sithi has been directed by Baharul Islam, who I call Baharul Da. I acted in the film because Baharul Da asked me to be part of it, but it’s also a character whose philosophy is similar to my own, and it fits my persona and energy. The message that the film delivers is also quite true. I connected with the film and my character.
The film explores a youth’s drive for material wealth and struggles in love and life. I play a Science professor who believes that man should look for answers in nature, instead of accumulating material wealth and money.
LM: Having now also worked in Bollywood for several years, what’s next for Papon?
Papon: I have recently sung for a couple of Bollywood films – there’s Bobby Jasoos, for which I sang my first duet with Shreya Ghoshal, and Lakshmi, Nagesh Kukunoor’s next film, for which I have sung one song. As mentioned above, I’ve also acted in my first feature film, an Assamese film called, Rodor Sithi; and I’ve just released a traditional Bihu album called, Kirili. Apart from that, I have been travelling a lot and consequently haven’t had too much time to produce much music, but I have been sketching ideas and putting them down for albums.
LM: Tell us about your upcoming headlining performance at the Bollywood Musical Night 2014 event being held in New Jersey in July.
Papon: I am looking forward to this show as this is my first ticketed gig with my band, the East India Company in the US. A couple of months back, I had performed for IIFA in Florida and I really liked the crowd. In this one, we are going to play my numbers from Bollywood, as well as other stuff from our independent music albums and some songs from CokeStudio@Mtv.
For those interested in attending the show, get your tickets here.
Papon (ANGARAAG MAHANTA) is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer and one of the most powerful new voices in India. While rooted in folk, Papon has a wide variety of influences and is an extremely versatile artist and a composer. Papon was born in Assam, India, to a set of brilliant musicians of Assam and was introduced to music and its intricacies at a very early age. His mother ARCHANA MAHNATA and father KHAGEN MAHANTA are two very popular and respected musicians of the region. Coming from a musically attuned family, music has always been in his blood. His inspirations came from the wide array of sound that he has been exposed to – from the traditional Folk songs of Eastern India to new-age electronica. His initial training has been in Indian classical and traditional music (devotional and folk) from Assam. His innovative experiments are rich with ambient electronica, acoustic folk, electro ghazals, new-age, Ind-classical sounds. To learn more, visit his website.