Sitar player Rishab Rikhiram Sharma talks about his tryst with the instrument and on pursuing it in the United States.
Rishab Rikhiram Sharma, a sitar player and music producer, initiated a multisensory musical series based on Indian classical music called “Sitar for Mental Health.” (Photograph courtesy Mitsun Soni)
Music can be therapeutic, and you’d agree if you’ve been to a “Sitar for Mental Health” session by Rishab Rikhiram Sharma. A sitar player and music producer, he conceptualized “Sitar for Mental Health” sessions as a multisensory immersive experience using traditional Indian classical music.
Rishab belongs to a family of luthiers, a business started by his grandfather in 1920, in Lahore of undivided India. He picked up the instrument at the age of 10 and was the youngest disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar. In 2022, he played the sitar at the U.S. President’s annual Diwali celebrations and even made it to the President’s Instagram account. Rishab has a bachelor’s degree in music production and economics from Queens College, The City University of New York.
Excerpts from an interview.
When and why did you start to learn the sitar? What is special about it, and how is it different from western instruments?
My father didn’t let me touch the sitar as it is considered an instrument of disciplined practice and reverence. But he was fairly liberal about me playing the guitar. He eventually allowed me to try my hands on a sitar he had restored from a broken shipment. I started to play the sitar only recently and figured out the basic scales within minutes. What I loved the most about the sitar is the sustaining harmonics and the blending capacity. It lets me express myself through music better than any other musical instrument.
What inspired you to pursue Indian classical music in the United States?
The United States has a big population that appreciates the sitar. My father used to frequently conduct lectures and demonstrations on classical music and the construction of musical instruments in the United States. We eventually moved there to expand our family business. I started a school in New York, where I teach about 12 to 14 students every week. We make musical instruments in New York, such as the sitar, tanpuras and basically all Indian classical instruments. Teaching, performing and surrounding ourselves with music is what we’ve been doing [as a family]. I want to spread this art and culture in the United States and represent my country and its wonderful culture to carry the legacy forward. That’s my purpose.
What is “Sitar for Mental Health”?
It is my initiative to promote mental well-being, create awareness and destigmatize the conversation by talking about my mental health struggles. We also have audience activities where people interact with each other. Sometimes it’s easier to open up and share with a stranger.
You weave modern music elements into your classical training. How has the audience responded to it?
I receive a lot of love and appreciation on social media, especially for my “Sitar for Mental Health” videos and content. The response has been overwhelmingly wonderful, and our audience pool just keeps growing bigger. It started with 50 people, which grew to 250. Now we are close to 600, which is a great feeling. You can really see “Sitar for Mental Health” becoming the next big thing and it feels wonderful.
Can you tell us about your collaborations with western musicians?
So far, I have been working on my original music, but this time when I came to India, I had the chance to collaborate with English Jazz fusion drummer Yussef Dayes. He is a wonderful artist, an avid lover of Indian classical music and a big enthusiast of the sitar and Pandit Ravi Shankar. We have been working on some songs and I’m very excited about them. I have also been working on my extended play (EP) called “Sitar & Chill,” which blends the lo-fi genre and Indian classical music in a very interesting format. One of those songs from that EP is called “What you doing tonight.” I love blending the genres and try to fit the sitar in areas that have not been explored yet.
What are your thoughts on music bridging cultures and about being seen as a cultural ambassador between the United States and India?
I believe the only way any music form survives is through collaboration; it gives you a new horizon to explore. As a cultural ambassador, it’s my responsibility to keep the art form as pure as possible, be respectful to other music cultures, and blend them together to create something fresh and beautiful.
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