New York-based sitar player Rishab Rikhiram Sharma, the last disciple of late sitar virtuoso Pandit Ravi Shankar, is on a tour of the country where he is presenting his music in the hopes of encouraging conversations on mental health. A project that began during the pandemic as a way for him to cope with his own anxiety and depression has snowballed into something much larger. From playing for PM Narendra Modi at the Howdy Modi event in Texas, USA to presenting his own compositions to current US President Joe Biden at the White House, this 26-year-old is using his music to do good. “I saw this as an opportunity to be in front of all these people at an event that is celebrating US and India relations. As an Indian living in the US, playing for my country’s Prime Minister was great. I met so many people and made so many connections that day,” the young musician says.
He is performing in Mumbai as part of his multi-sensory and immersive multi-city tour Sitar for Mental Health.
However, this journey has not been easy. As a man speaking about mental health and opening up about his own issues is still stigmatized. It was not something that everyone was ready to accept, including his parents. He says, “When I was doing my first live show, my dad was against me using the word mental. He felt that people would think I am crazy. I listened to him and called my first show sitar for mindfulness. But I realised that it did not resonate with me especially since I am using my voice and my sitar to increase awareness for mental health. So five days before my show I changed the name to sitar for mental health.”
Ask him if his parents are now more understanding about this career path, and he is happy with the change. “We can’t blame them if they don’t understand the issue around mental health. That is how they were brought up, it is not their fault. Sometimes children have to educate their parents and reverse the ideologies that they were brought up with. So now, they really understand things about mental health. When they see me stressed or anxious, they won’t bother me. They will tell me to take care and provide me with reassurance.”
Music and Social Media
Social media is a big part of our lives, including musicians. Trends and algorithms influence which artistes and what kind of music will make it big. In the age of decreasing attention spans and one minute reels being the default, Indian classical music which is known to be nuanced and lengthy, does not fit the bill. Ask Sharma about his thoughts, he shares, “Social media is very powerful. But with great power comes great responsibility. It depends on how you use it. Social media helped me build my community. Sitar for mental health was born on online and for me, it has been a blessing.”
However, when it comes to making and releasing music, it can be tricky. He explains, “When you talk about music, especially Indian classical music, it is very hard for us to give listeners an idea of what we do in such a short period of time. My ideology was to give listeners a little experience of what it is like to listen to classical music. So I started to compose one minute compositions, which were purely classical in nature.”
Adding, he says, “I have been composing for a reduced timeframe and attention spans but I’m not altering the music. I am still sticking to the tradition and the rules are of our music, while making compositions that are not two-hour long. I am just condensing it. You just have to adapt to the time.”
Remembering his guru, Pandit Ravi Shankar and the golden advice he gave him, Sharma shares “My guru ji used to say, ‘Subko sunno.’ Listen to everyone and every culture.” Shankar has collaborated with many different kinds of musicians from around the world. From Jazz musicians John Coltrane and Don Ellis to violinist Yehudi Menuhin and sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, his most noteworthy collaboration was with George Harrison and the Beatles.
Sharma has taken his guru’s words to heart and uses his music to express himself whie being true to his roots. “Unlike many other indian classical musicas my age, I was never put into a box which is great,” he signs off.
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