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“I am designing a new sitar” – Rishab Rikhiram Sharma

Rishab Rikhiram Sharma grew up in New York but remained deeply attached to his roots. The sitar player and musician, who happened to be the youngest disciple of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar, was born to a family of luthiers who hailed from Delhi. In a very short span of time, the 26-year-old has carved out a distinctive identity for himself in the world of music.

After touring extensively across different cities in the United States and Canada, Rishab has been on a multi-city tour in India since March 15. Through his music, Rishab has been on endeavour to help people deal with emotional challenges and issues affecting their mental health. ‘Sitar For Mental Health’, which is a musical initiative spearheaded by Rishab, has been designed to create an atmosphere where people would be able to heal themselves through the soothing melodies created by the musician.

In this interview, Rishab talks about the ‘Sitar for Mental Health’ series, lessons from Pandit Ravi Shankar, how a personal loss led him towards taking a sabbatical from music, attachment to the Sitar, the importance of music therapy, the future of Indian classical music and more.

What is the ‘Sitar for Mental Health’ series all about?

‘Sitar for Mental Health’ is my initiative to promote health awareness. In our shows, we try to have conversations on mental health. Through conversations, we can destimagmatize the subject of mental health. While we do that, we also try to highlight the healing properties of Indian classical music. My shows are divided into two halves. In the first half, the music I play is deeply rooted in Indian classical music. We start off with breathing exercises. Then, I play some deep and slow ragas. Then, we play a few compositions on the tabla. Then, we have audience activity.

It is not a performance but an experience. I encourage people to make a friend or talk to the person sitting next to them. I request them to ask each other some deep, thoughtful questions like what they are grateful for and what they look forward to. Things like that help people open, which otherwise they have a hard time doing. We expect people to be vulnerable and come together as one community.

In the second half of the show, we play some contemporary music, Bollywood covers and also offer them a glimpse of unreleased tracks. We play some jazz and blues songs. We try to show the different applications of Sitar and exemplify how it can be used in different genres.

A few years back, you suffered from a personal loss. You lost your grandfather. After that, you suffered from some mental health issues. Did that lead you towards exploring music therapy?

I would not say that music alone healed me. After I lost my grandfather, I went into depression. I was dealing with anxiety. I was at the lowest point of my life then. It was a combination of counselling and music that helped me cope with it. I had quit music for some time. I am a moderately social person and liked going out. However, during this phase, I would barely step out of my room. I would often wake up with my heart beating very fast. I would share these experiences with my friends. My friends were a little more educated abuot mental health than I was. They told me that this is called anxiety. They said that since I have been deeply affected by my grandfather’s loss, it might be a good idea for me to talk to a counsellor.

It was hard to get an appointment with a psychologist as everybody was going through something. It was right in the middle of the pandemic. Finally, I got an appointment with a psychologist. He was very nice, We spoke a lot about coping mechanism. He told me working out is a great coping mechanism. I realized music has always been my coping mechanism. I asked myself as to why I am not doing music anymore. He encouraged me to go back to music. When I held the sitar after 5-6 months, I felt so good. I used social media as an outlet to release some of my new music. When the audience members tell me my music helped them cope with a lot of things, I feel humbled.

In the recent years, many musicians have spoken about music therapy. How, do you think, it has evolved over the years?

Music can be therapeutic but it has to be listened to in the right manner and atmosphere. In my shows, we start off with a breathing exercise. The reason behind that is that we have to take them on a journey. It is about the presentation. The kind of music that is played and the way it is presented matters a lot. Traditionally, raga chikitsa has been a thing for thousands of years. Raga chikitsa means raga therapy. I am just trying to bring it to relevant terms. Our music is good for mental health. I don’t call myself a music therapist. I know what has worked for me and what could work for my community and audience. I listen to the feedback and try to implement them. If you listen to it in the right atmosphere, it is going to have a positive impact on you. There are so many testimonies for that.

It is an ever-evolving subject. People change and the way they listen to and perceive music also changes. For some people, a certain kind of music works. Some people, who have a higher intellect and those who understand classical music, it hits them differently. It is very subjective.

You have expressed your wish to present the sitar in a modern avatar. You have been working on creating an electric mic sitar.

The electric mic sitar was actually created by my father in the late ‘90s. Now, I am going more traditional. I enjoyed the sound  of traditional guitar more than putting distortion and messing around with its organic sound. I do like experimenting. Apart from playing the sitar, I am a music producer as well. Sometimes, I like to implement the sitar in a house song or a hip-hop song. While doing that, I maintain its integrity. A sitar should sound like a sitar and not an electric guitar. I am designing a new sitar which will have a unique feature. It will react to what you play.

You were mentored by the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Is there any particular lesson learnt by him which stayed with you?

Guru ji was an encyclopedia of knowledge. At the dinner table, he would take my hand and show me how to count the musical notes. He would say that performing arts is called ‘kartab ki vidya’. He would often, “karoge, tabhi milegi”. What he meant was there is no alternative to riyaaz and you have to do it every day. It’s one advice which has stayed with me.

There was a time when most music labels would release the works of classical musicians in India. That is not happening now. How do you look at the future of Indian classical music?

I don’t like referring to it as Indian classical music. It is a western concept. They play music which was written centuries ago. They still play the same music. We take influences from different places. Dhrupad, for instance, has some elements borrowed from the Mughal empire. That also gave birth to khyaal gayaki. There has been Persian influence in ragas like Bhairav and Bhairavi. Even sitar has a lot of Persian influence. It is an inspired by an instrument called saintar which is from Persia. Our music has always been through a process of evolution. We just have to adapt to the way the world is changing. At the same time, we have to stay true to our roots. When you are not open for change, that’s when an art form dies out. I feel you have to be accepting to change.

What are you doing next?

We are almost approaching the end of the tour. I like doing one tour a year. A while back, we tried doing two tours but it was too hectic (laughs). I will be putting out some original music soon. I have a tape coming out called ‘Sitar for Mental Health’, which is a dusk-to-dawn experience. People will get to hear me play some morning, afternoon, and late evening ragas. It will feature traditional ragas produced in a modern way. We have a shows lined up in the UK. I will be performing in London in June. We are also planning a US tour in the fall.

Do you want to compose music for films?

I have scored a couple of documentaries. I want to do films as well. I plan to venture into a few other areas. I have written a script. I was talking to Dharma Productions about it. I hope to co-direct it.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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