With roots that are deeply entrenched in Assam’s rich folkand classical tradition, Angaraag Papon Mahanta, is royalty in his native state. Heir to Khagen Mahanta who is also known as the 'King of Bihu,’ he was a rage in Assam much before Coke Studio came calling; and when he graced that stage, he owned every inch. The rich tapestry of Bihu, folk and Ghazals were re-interpreted and presented to a wide audience and his talent as a singer and composer was no longer an exclusive secret. In this interview, Papon talks to us about his Coke Studio journey, amongst other things.
Do you remember your first time on Coke studio? From getting invited to your debut performance –what was that like?
It was quite a journey, and story in itself of my life/career. To be able to do something in a country where a platform like this - so well marketed, given so much liberty to do what you wanted - was a dream then because there was nothing other than Bollywood. When I first got invited, I thought this was very interesting, and Leslie (Lewis) asked me to do a folk number. That inspired me, encouraged me because I could do something in my language that would reach so many people sitting and watching TV in their living room. Then that experience was followed by working with someone I really looked up to, followed his music... Nitin Sawhney in Season 2. To be able to sing for him, to go through that process with him was interesting. Also, I got an opportunity - a kind of an upgrade - to produce ‘Tokari’ that same season, the way I wanted to. And then to do a whole episode where I worked with the best in the profession, the best engineers upped the ante for me. I learnt a lot from that season 3 stint. I think that was experience that gave me so much confidence to be at this level.
Your musical roots are steeped in Assamese folk. What do you feel about the popularity of folk songs amongst today’s audience?
I think folk has always been around and everything is inspired by folk music. At the same time, to make folk sound contemporary, something like Coke Studio went a long way in pushing that. Coke Studio helped to tailor the music of yesteryears, and melodies and words that are hundreds of years old, to today's sound and tastes, Coke Studio helped. So today, wherever we go and perform, we know that we can actually pull off a show with a number of folk songs, designed in a way that fit today's sounds and this definitely gives folk music that 'cool' tag. More and more young people are now trying to understand folk music and working with it.
How has coke studio empowered you as a musician/performer?
Coke Studio broke down the conventional ways of working with various musicians; of scoring. It gave freedom to artists, to musicians to work with different agendas, from different genres. It encouraged musicians to work on contemporary, traditional, global yet Indian sounds in a studied manner, making sure that this music was seen and heard around the world. That gives you the confidence and also puts responsibility on you to innovate, to do something out of the box, to that standard.
If you had to pick a moment that sums up the Coke Studio experience for you, what would it be?
Difficult to say but the biggest takeaway for me personally was that we got back to recording live together; many musicians together under one roof - something that wasn't the norm anymore. Recording so many musicians while one sound is bleeding into another's mic - creates in itself a very organic sound - while being recorded and tracked by the best in the world, Darren and Steve.
To capture such complex recordings, is one of the most interesting and beautiful experiences; and also to have the opportunity to call upon anyone from any of the corner of the country, especially folk musicians. To bring them to an environment like this - similar to trying to domesticate a wild animal - to make them play what they know, it makes you realise that you don't get to do this every day. To be able to work with lyricists on a theme, and give them the freedom... these were very interesting experiences.
For example, to make Nathulal (Solanki) ji, who played the nagada on ‘Baisara Beera,’ sit in one place, facing the mic and to control him under those conditions was quite an experience. I had to convince him to sit in a particular spot, with the mic fixed one way. The nagada is an extremely loud instrument, so whenever he would play it, it would bleed into every mic in the room. We had to change levels, put up a plastic shield to put some distance. When Leslie Lewis gave me the liberty to sing Bihu, he realised that it had a different swing to it, and he allowed me to sit with the musicians, to show them why a certain tempo is required. To work with the best session musicians in the country, to see them enjoying it, and trying to improvise on it was a unique experience.
Nitin Sawhney created the melody for ‘Sahil Tak’ and shared it with me, but he came back the next day saying that he was on Facebook and realised that I have a following, and said, "If you and I are working together, then people are going to expect something special." And overnight he changed the melody and song, and everybody had to learn it again. Everyone put in a 100 per cent.
In ‘Benaam Khwaayishein,’ to get Anweshaa, a young girl, to sing about separation, pain. I had to tell her stories of life, of pain and sadness, which she hadn't experienced as a 19-year-old. I wanted to get a sarod player, to get that particular sound, and I remember no one was available and Pritam Ghoshal from Delhi finally agreed. And even today, we reminisce and wonder when will we get the chance to work again. For ‘Baisara Beera’, I got ravanhatha – a primitive origin of the sarangi - to record that sound, which creates a lot of unnecessary noise for today's production, but we did and to use that with beatboxing (by Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy) which wasn't thought of as a style one could use in folk music.
What kind of preparation did you put into preparing for your episode on season 3? How did you go about selecting the other singers for the show?
I created a lot of songs and we picked the best for the episode. So we had folk music from Assam, two songs were ‘Dinae Dinae’ and ‘Jhumoor,’ each from different part of Assam. ‘Jhumoor’ is from the tea gardens, in the west while ‘Dinae Dinae’ is a Goalpariya folk song. Then, I chose ‘Benaam Khwaayishein,’ which was ghazal-esque, and ‘Tokari,’ which was a peppy number. For ‘Benaam Khwaayishein,’ I wanted a voice that was fresh, had a great texture and therav.
‘Jhumoor’ is a song I learnt from my dad and he had popularised the song way back. I called Dulal Munki to sing on the song, and he actually belongs to the tea tribe, and he already sang ‘Jhumoor.’ I also got on board Simantha Shekhar to sing on the song because I envisioned it as a duet between a traditional style and a modern take. ‘Baisara Beera,’ I sang even though I'm not Rajasthani but I learnt it from my dad who had picked up the song when he was in Rajasthan, and even before I made the song for Coke Studio, people used to ask me to sing two lines because people in Rajasthan had forgotten it. To revive a Rajasthani song that was popularised by an Assamese singer and to have his son produce it today, was a very satisfying experience. I could have got a Rajasthani singer but to keep things interesting, I sang it and also got on board Kalpana Patowary, who is Assamese but is the queen of Bhojpuri! It was an interesting mix. ‘Tauba Tauba’ was funky, its quite like Bihu but not Bihu. Benny Dayal was a name that immediately came to my mind; it had to be Benny. I adjusted the scale to his comfort zone.
How can you make you a folk song different? I decided to take the Punjab route for ‘Dinae Dinae’. I worked with Harshdeep Kaur on this, and her uncle wrote the lyrics in Punjabi, that were similar to the Assamese version. The melody was inspired by this song that Jagjit Singh used to sing; it’s this Punjabi folk melody and something that I have grown up on.
How different or similar is Papon the independent singer from Papon the playback singer?
To be honest, it's not that different. It depends on what the song needs. Papon, the playback singer, also hasn't sung just about whatever came his way. I'm selective. I am focused on delivering what the song needs. For Bollywood, there are certain parameters that you have to keep in mind, have to keep inputs from the producer, music director in mind and still do it your own way. You have to master that and reach a place where you're comfortable and can sing with your eyes closed. And that's possible if you spend enough time with a song. If you're working on too many songs, it may not be possible to feel that connected.