Ragas and resonance: Rishab's tour of ‘Sitar for Mental Health’ reaches Hyderabad

In conversation with CE, Rishab talks about his journey from learning a guitar as a hobby to playing sitar for others and his sanity.

Published: 31st January 2023 10:44 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st January 2023 10:44 AM   |  A+A-

Rishab Rikhiram Sharma

Rishab Rikhiram Sharma

Express News Service

HYDERABAD: Sitarist, music producer and mental health advocate, Rishab Rikhiram Sharma brought ‘Sitar for Mental Health’ to India after touring the world. As a part of the India leg of the tour, Rishab performed in Hyderabad this weekend. While a major chunk of the population still walks on eggshells regarding mental health care, there has been a spike in testimonies of battling anxiety and depression. Such a story is Rishab’s. In conversation with CE, Rishab talks about his journey from learning a guitar as a hobby to playing sitar for others and his sanity.

Reminiscing about his childhood, he recollects how he was barred from touching sitar. In his home, as it was considered holy. “I’ve been going to the store and the factory with my father; it was an exciting childhood that I went through. Initially, I wasn’t allowed to pick up the sitar and try to play it because it has a lot of respect, at least in our family. And my dad always hyped it up and said you have to have discipline, like showering before touching the sitar; it’s a very exclusive thing in our home.

Naturally, I was intimidated by this,” shares Rishabh. His father, Sanjay Rikhiram, was his first guru. Despite being born into a family of luthiers, Rishab didn’t get to play or even touch the Sitar until he was proven worthy, “As I was intimidated by the sitar, I picked up the guitar as it was a cool instrument while I was growing up, it still is, but I think sitar is way cooler now.

I  was pretty good with the guitar, so one day, this broken sitar came from the shipment. My dad never keeps instruments in a broken state, so he fixes them.  Even if it wasn’t going to someone else, it had to be in good condition. So he left it on the wall to dry after fixing it. So I shyly asked him, ‘baba, can I try this instrument, as it is already broken, and how much more can I break it? And no one was going to buy a broken sitar anyways’. He said okay, as he was in a good mood. After I picked up the sitar and played it, I figured it out within minutes, and  played some familiar tunes since it was similar to the guitar. My dad was astonished. He was like how are you doing this? He was impressed. So he started my lessons the next day. Finally, that’s how my sitar journey began.”

As everyone relates to music on some or the other level, Rishab believed it could be one of the coping mechanisms. “Even when I was in school, if I was having a bad time or day, I would come back home and practice,” Rishab says as he talks about his journey to play sitar for mental health. “I lost my grandfather during the pandemic, and I couldn’t cope. At that time, I didn’t even get out of my room. I barely ate. I had a couple of episodes of anxiety, but with my friends’ and family’s suggestion, I sought counseling. During one of the conversations with my counselor, I was suggested to have therapy work and find some good coping mechanisms.

As I mentioned my background, I realised I hadn’t played much sitar lately. When I went to therapy, I used to talk and process my ideas, and I used to feel better; then I came back home to practice sitar, and I felt much better,” says Rishab. As he strived to heal, he began playing sitar for himself, but as there were no gigs or concerts, playing within the four walls was quite demotivating. With the help of social media, going live with sitar helped Rishab to stay motivated. “I thought I could be fruitful and help myself fight my anxiety. I played some meditative pieces on Instagram live.

And I kept on doing these sessions, but initially, no one came despite having 4k followers; only three people joined. I would get a compliment now and then. After a while, more and more people joined and stuck around for the whole session. And after the session, I received long dms and very kind words of appreciation; some were profound and thoughtful messages, while others shared how my music helped them calm down, as some people were grieving as they lost their parents to Covid-19. I had no words, I was doing this for myself, and I realised this was helping others too. I realised that music is a two-way street; it’s just not about me anymore, I found these messages so inspiring and heart-touching, and they kept me going. I have become even more consistent in these sessions; if not for me, I wanted to be there for them. Slowly we built a community.”

On asking how he stayed connected to the gen-z, with a reduced attention span now, “Everyone is on social media these days and has to pitch and sell themselves in those two-three seconds. I have never worried about that. I analysed social media and understood the algorithms, so I posted snippets of my ragas as a hint to my work. Currently, I’m doing lo-fi sitar beats and collaborations with jazz artists, and I think modernising traditional music is a tough task to capture the Indian essence. Still, they are also modern in their production technique, which appeals to the gen-z. Mental health is my little baby, and I want to generate more of this and de-stigmatise and talk about it. It is not easy for me to show up and talk about what I went through; it’s always a painful process. But the conversation is essential. And only through conversation, we can de-stigmatise mental health and generate awareness. That’s my little effort, and I think my effort and being out there appeals to gen-Z. I feel like I’m doing something cool and fruitful,” concludes Rishabh Rikhiram.


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