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European classical music has developed relatively narrow criteria for an aesthetically acceptable voice tone. Of course, there are differences between good opera singers and great ones, but those differences are measurable by how close they come to meeting a single standard. In India, however, it has long been acknowledged that every human voice was capable of being refined to its own distinctive form of beauty. A single vocal gharana would often have several different ideal voice tones, and the teacher and the student would decide together which tone was best for the student’s particular vocal chords.Unfortunately, the Bollywood film industry superimposed a standardization on Indian vocals for largely economic reasons. It was convenient to have almost all female film vocals performed by the two most popular playback singers—Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. Young women who used to sing a variety of folk and popular vocal styles in their towns and villages are now learning to sing from film scores, and consequently most of them strive for this single sweet “filmi” sound. Mangeshkar and Bhosle no longer hold a monopoly on playback singing, but the numerous women who substitute for them have faithfully copied their style. Only in classical music, such as khayal or thumri, has there been a continued commitment to maintaining a variety of different vocal styles. As most Indians listen primarily to filmi and other popular music, there is a danger of this variety being diminished or even lost.

Fortunately the San Francisco Bay Area has a rich range of Indian vocal styles to choose from—Rita Sahai’s lyric soprano, Shweta Jhaveri’s rich contralto, Laxmi Ganesh Tewari’s ringing baritone. And relatively recently, a new local voice has become a force to be reckoned with.

I first heard Shubhangi Sakhalkar at a Basant Bahar music festival. The audience loved her powerful vibrant voice, which was capable of an astonishing range of emotional expression. During the slow opening alap, her tone was smooth and pure, which seemed appropriate coming from such a slim and delicate woman. But as she progressed into the fast taans of the drut section, her voice became as reedy and powerful as a shehnai or a qawwali singer, with tongue-twisting rhythmic and miocrotonal variations that inspired repeated applause. At such times an impish smile would occasionally appear on her face, as if she herself was a bit surprised that she could create sounds like this. When Basant Bahar booked her for a solo concert recently, they discovered that the moderate-sized hall couldn’t hold all the people who remembered that previous festival appearance and were eager to hear more.

When Sakhalkar was growing up in Mumbai, she was a great fan of Lata Mangeshkar. “I used to copy her a lot and sing all her songs,” says Sakhalkar. “When I began singing classical music, I had to do a lot of riyaz (practice) to make my voice more solid and less light. I started studying with my first teacher, Smt. Kunda Vaishampayan, when I was 13 or 14. From her I learned how to sing eight- and 16-beat taans, how to figure out where sum and khali were—all the basic stuff. Then I got a master’s degree in music at the university, where I studied with Prabha Atre. From her I learned more aesthetic elements—how she used her voice, which is very melodious. My primary guru today is Padma Talwalkar, whose style is totally different. She’s very aggressive in her singing, combining elements of both the Jaipur and Gwalior gharana. Most of what I perform today I learned from her.”

Sakhalkar is grateful for the choices that were made available to her. “When you learn in the traditional way you share the feeling of the raga, the moods, and the emotions it is meant to express. There is no time limit in the guru-shishya system, the way there is in a classroom. This means you can study the same raga for days or weeks and every day learn new things about it. When you learn a raga in college it is mostly about the technical stuff, so you don’t bond with the teacher that much, or with the raga as much. You usually only learn the bandish and a few variations.

“On the other hand, the academic methods give you more breadth, even if they don’t give as much depth. At the university, I learned about styles of music that I didn’t learn to perform, such as Karnatik music, dhrupad, and thumri. I also learned things like the physics of acoustics, and even some Western music. The academic method works best if you want to be a musicologist rather than a performer.”

Sakhalkar has been living in the United States for 15 years, and continues to grow as an artist. She still maintains contact with her guru, and is even willing to teach herself new material. “I learn things from Amir Khan’s recordings, and taught myself Durga by listening to records. I’ve also learned how to perform thumri that way, as well as variations on a raga that my mother had introduced me to as a girl. Knowing the scale is not enough. If you’re going to sing 40 minutes of variations that keep the spirit of the raga, you’ve got to learn taans, alaps, etc. directly from the performances of a master. Recordings make that possible, if you practice those patterns a long time and let them become part of your style. I’ve also learned things from Western singers. Whitney Houston’s powerful voice inspires me, as does the layakari of the best jazz singers. All of these can be used to enrich Indian classical music, provided you received a firm foundation from a guru.”

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.