Venue: Bandra Fort, Mumbai. In action. Papon. Instead of the readymade fanfare of a ticketed concert, the singer-musician is greeted with an impromptu crowd that has gathered to hear him sing. The audience comprising passers by, evening walkers and lovers in arms alike may be his smallest or even the most uninformed, but the musician’s connect with the audience here, is probably one of the most genuine.
“I realise one note here and there doesn’t matter when I see people responding well to my music, clapping in the right places, smiling at times,” says Papon, in an interview after his performance for One for the Road, a new show for the soon to be launched channel, Pepsi MTV Indies.
The Assamese singer-songwriter is almost a veteran in live shows, and yet, the experience this time has been unique. It is a part of MTV’s efforts to give indie music a breakthrough into the mainstream, but without robbing it of its indie identity. Papon’s set of six songs, hence, were all his lesser known ones such as Boitha maro, Bawle jharne and Choti choti. There is no popular Bollywood number request to be entertained here. It is nice to see a musician, who is used to swaying fans in large arena concerts, trying to hold the attention of a small group of people, probably strangers to his music, with the spirit of a robust live musician.
The trick of live shows, he says, is all about to be able to “live in the moment”. “When I am on stage, I am in love with the universe. It doesn’t matter, how the rest of the things are. My only nervousness about concerts is the fear of not being able to live the moments,” says the 37-year-old, who performed along with his electric folk fusion band The East India Company.
Live performances can take a toll on sensitive throats of singers, but Papon, despite having problems owing to sinus and cold, appears remarkably in control. “It disappoints and betrays you at times, you can’t help it,” he says, adding, “People say I’m good when I sing live. Maybe it’s because my father used to be very good in live performances.” Papon’s parents, Khagen and Archana Mahanta, are noted folk musicians in Assam.
Live shows apart, Papon’s career has been brimming with new possibilities lately. No more just an indie darling or Assam’s biggest rockstar, his music has been reaching out to untapped quarters. It has helped the musician spread his wings, showcasing his versatile repertoire as was seen in last year’s Coke Studio @MTV Season 3, where he pulled off a thoroughly enjoyable fusion of ghazal, funk, lounge, hindustani classical and folk with aplomb. “I have been seen or heard more because of Coke Studio@MTV and The Dewarists. They made me bigger in terms of reaching out to a wider audience,” he says.
His film projects as a playback have been few and far between — the highlights being the breakthrough Jiye kyun from Dum Maaro Dum (2011), Kyun from Barfi (2012) and Maula from Madras Cafe (2013) — but he is now gaining credence as a composer. Besides crooning a song with Pakistani musician Zebunnisa Bangash in the upcoming RunningShaadi.com, Papon has composed a dreamy, old-fashioned duet with Shreya Ghosal for Bobby Jasoos, and three songs for Ishqeria. “I am lucky to get songs I connect to because I won’t take all kinds of work. To not take up a song is rejecting, and people say all sorts of things in the industry but two to three beautiful songs a year is good enough for me,” he says. His “love for soundscape, sound design” although may lead him to do a full-blown movie score soon.
What makes his music blend with ease with films, independent projects and television shows, and now, a busking (i.e. performing in public places) experience as on the day we met, is its all inclusiveness. Papon’s sound is a vibrant mix of styles and genres, making it difficult to label anything but fusion. As for Papon, he finds the term ‘indie’ and other such bracketing as almost farcical. “I don’t even understand what indie music stands for anymore. To me, it has always been about the melodies, beats and languages. And good or bad songs,” he says.