Sometimes it’s easy to take something (or someone) for granted when they are always around and available. Perhaps that is why it’s taken me so long to write an article on Shweta Jhaveri. I’ve seen her perform many times, even taken classes with her, and always look forward to hearing her again. I’ve never doubted that I was in the presence of a major talent whenever I’ve heard her. Her deep rich contralto, which often travels in the same range as her guru Jasraj, is distinctly different from the sweet soprano sound of so many other female vocalists. She does have a strong high register, but it generates a special kind of fiery intensity—precisely because she is singing both at the top of her range and in complete control. These are, however, reflections of physical blessings rather than expressions of creative artistry. I always knew that there are also things she is doing with her voice, which expand and develop her formidable natural gifts. But until now, I’ve been able to only enjoy, rather than understand, the intricacies of her artistry.

Fortunately I discovered a wonderful website that helped teach me how to hear those vocal nuances known as alankar. “Alankar” literally means ornament, and in certain contexts it can even refer to such things as garlands of flowers and decorations on buildings. There was also a time when the musical meaning of alankar referred to any development beyond the rules of the raga, and was thus pretty much synonymous with improvisation. Today, however, the word refers to the different kinds of microtonal colors that are put on individual notes during the performance of a raga. The ITC Sangeet Research Academy (generously supported by the Indian megacorporation ITC Limited) has a website which explains and describes the different kinds of alankar . Better still, each page is accompanied by sound files of vocalists, sitarists, and sarod players playing and singing examples of each. One of the big problems of learning Indian music “by the book” is that a book on music can only describe, not show, its subject matter. Conversely, a recording of a musical performance captures the music itself, but contains so much information that it is hard for the untrained ear to analyze. This website overcomes these problems by giving us the best of both worlds. The sound files are brief, carefully described by accompanying text, and feature several repetitions of the same ornament style in different ragas and on different instruments. Not terribly entertaining stuff, but after repeatedly hearing the files and reading the descriptions, I was able to go back and listen to Jhaveri’s recordings with completely fresh ears.

One ornament that Jhaveri uses more than most khayal singers is calledzamzama. It is a kind of vibrato, somewhat like the ornament called gamak, only not as wide, and filled with the kind of permutations and variations that would be found in what are called khatkas. Khatkas, however, only mark one or two notes. Zamzamas continue up and down the scale like the sequences in Bach or Handel. However, the ornamentation moves so fast that it seems more like a texture than a line. The effect is like a swatch of tone color that slides up and down the scale like the stroke of a paintbrush—if there were such a thing as paisley paint. Zamzamas are most commonly used in a form of light classical vocal music called tappa, named after a town in southern Punjab. Tappa was originally a style of folk song developed by Punjabi and Rajastani camel drivers. Jhaveri is one of the few singers who still performs what is now called traditional tappa, i.e. the style developed by 18th-century Hindustani and Bangla court musicians which turned these folk songs into a very sophisticated form of art music. But she also uses tappa ornaments in her khayal performances, where they play an important part in the extended improvisational development of the raga. For example, she artfully mixes zamzama with khayal ornaments such asmurki. Murki has a lighter touch than zamzama and is often somewhat slower, at least in parts. But of course “touch” is only a metaphor when talking about vocals, and I can’t verbally explain exactly which parts are slow, and how slow they are. Fortunately, the ITC Sangeet Research academy has a sound file with singer Ajoy Chakraborty singing the same phrase ornamented by both murki and zamzama. One sound file is worth a thousand words (and doesn’t take that much longer to download.)

Jhaveri’s mastery of Hindustani music also enables her to participate in fusion projects without having to adapt chameleon-like to other traditions. These projects are built around her music, even when she is the only Indian musician involved. The album Anahita features her compositions, which she describes as “impressions of Drut (fast) Khyals” accompanied by electric guitar, standup bass, jazz drums, and violin. The violinist has Western technique, and makes no attempt to simulate Indian violin. She does, however, put a country fiddle “edge” to the pentatonic scales she plays during raga Shuddha Kalyan, which underscore that raga’s strong relationship to Raga Bhupali. The album At the Court of the Chera King has sarod, violin, cello, hammer dulcimer, and other instruments from a variety of traditions. The result is rich and original instrumental textures, which provide foundations for Jhaveri’s improvised taans on several tracks. Her most important innovation, however, might be her publishing company Cosmic Khyals. In the purely classical album Avishkar, Jhaveri composed each bandish (composition), prints the lyrics in both English and Hindi, and has the songs copyrighted by ASCAP. The bandish is often seen as a mere springboard for improvisation. To give it this kind of attention reframes our awareness of traditional khayal in ways that are perhaps as innovative as any fusion project.

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.