When Rishab Rikhiram Sharma’s Sitar Set Out To Talk Mental Health

After struggling with mental health issues, the young sitarist took to the Internet to help others with the help of music and also founded “Sitar For Mental Health”.

Published On Feb 01, 2023 | Updated On Mar 02, 2024

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An obsession that began at the age of 10, Rishab Rikhiram Sharma’s journey with the sitar is not just into the world of music but he’s on a path to make lives better, with the help of his strings of course.

Rishab belongs to the illustrious Rikhiram family - Delhi’s Gole Market is home to the famous Rikhi Ram Musical Instrument Manufacturing Co, which was founded in 1920 by Pandit Rikhi Ram Sharma— and is the son of Sanjay Rikhi Ram, who was Rishab’s first guru, technically speaking. It’s when Rishab performed for the first time on stage in 2011 that he caught the attention of Pandit Ravi Shankar who then took him under his wing, thus making Rishab his youngest and last disciple.

Since then, Rishab has also trained under Pandit Parimal Sadaphal, and learned from other exponents such as Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Ustad Rais Khan, Pt. Arun Bharatram, and more.

But as we said, Rishab’s relationship with the sitar intensified the day he realised that music as a means of therapy for mental health is neither a dream nor an impossibility. In India for his tour, this Delhi-based musician who currently lives and works in the US is no stranger to the world of entertainment. He’s a popular face in Indian television shows, has been featured on news channels for his immense talent and is a star on social media, not to mention the founder of ‘Sitar for Mental Health’. In an interview with Zee Zest, he talks about his journey, his project and where it all began. Excerpts:

Rishab: Being born into the family of luthiers, I had access to some of the world's best musicians, got to know them one-on-one and learning from them just sitting in their presence, observing them in their own element. Ever since I was a four-year-old kid, I have been going to the store and in the factory with my father. It was just a very interesting childhood. Initially I wasn't allowed to pick up the sitar because in my family, it had a massive place of respect. My dad always said that you need to have discipline, you need to shower before touching the sitar, and so on. it was an exclusive thing in my family. Naturally, I was little intermediated by all of that and I picked up the guitar instead because it was ‘cooler’. Now I think that the sitar is way cooler. I began playing the guitar at the age of nine and got pretty good at it too.

One day, a broken sitar was sent home to be fixed, and my dad never keeps an an instrument broken, even though it was not going to be shipped to anyone. When I saw the sitar being fixed, I saw the process of it and how from being broken it became an instrument again. He put the sitar on the wall to dry after he had fixed it and then I shyly asked him if I could try it. And he did allow it. I sat on the couch and was just playing it. Within minutes I figured it out the ‘sa-re-ga-ma’ and started playing some familiar tunes, popular music and my dad was astonished. I think he saw the potential in me and that’s how my journey into began, with Sanjay Rikhi Ram Sharma, my first guru.

Rishab: Social media has hyped me and ‘Sitar For Mental Health’ (SFMH) a lot. We have created a huge community, it is a powerful tool. It can get daunting sometimes because you see a lot of content that can be really superficial at times. But how I like to use it to its best advantage- I fought my own anxiety by being out there, performing for other people, to break the ice that was formed during the pandemic as I was in a lull phase. After a point people started resonating with my music and enjoying my content. I received a lot of messages and motivation and Instagram particularly has been a big help, i have networked with so many people, it's great how magically the power of social media can help you.

Rishab: I believe mental health is still stigmatised, even in my own household; it took a lot of arguments and discussion to even bring out SFMH as an intellectual property. My parents were like people may think you're crazy and it's not their fault. Media and movies - they have all stigmatised the conversation around mental health - but we are here to change it as much as we can with conversations and me sharing my story and my struggle with mental health. That's the only way my generation can change the world for the better. Thankfully, my parents have been open and understanding about this journey. Now their reaction to things is changing for the good. Having said that, out there in the world, there's a lot of work that still needs to be done. Mental health is equally if not more important than physical health. Conversation, dialogue and awareness is the only way we will fight this battle and I feel blessed that I can do this through my art, through the art of music.

Rishab: I believe music has always been my coping mechanism to deal with mental health problems and whatever I’m going through in life. Back in school, if I was going through bad times or a bad day, I would just come and practise my sitar. I would just let go and immediately feel better about myself and it felt like I did something productive with myself and have made some progress. During the pandemic, I had a major breakthrough, I believe many people would relate to it as well, everyone was going through something. I hit my peak and I had a couple of episodes of anxiety attacks and went through depression when I lost my grandfather during Covid. That’s when I really understood what mental health means, and how important it is.

Rishab: After my own struggles with mental health, I eventually started doing live sessions on Instagram, some meditative music, just to calm myself down and be out there. I believe I’m born to do this, in the beginning I had about 4000 followers and hardly a few people would join in to hear me. Over time people began to stick around till the end of the session, and after each of my sessions, I would get such supportive and kind DMs. That probably is where the seed for SFMH was sowed. So the SFMH events are multi sensory-immersive experiences helping to bridge ancient practices of sound and energy medicine using traditional Indian classical music, designed to invoke states of deep reflection, receptivity, and introspection. Raga therapy has always been  part of our old traditions and I am here to just use and let people experience the magical powers that music therapy can have, classical music in this case.

Rishab: I do get criticised but it’s never that serious. Some people will always hate anything and everything. It's not just a philosophy but a practice deeply rooted in our tradition, I am not doing anything new, I am just presenting it in more relevant terms. Healing people through ragas; I am just reiterating it in a relevant package and doing my best to present it and make the world a better place. I don't see what people would not understand. Some classicists might feel as if I am changing the format because in SMFH, the first half is purely classical music but for the second half, I like to mix it up and have fun with other genres as  well and some purists may not enjoy that. But that's not the point, SFMH is not just a classical show. Our main point is that people should go home with a smile on their faces feeling relaxed and happy.

Rishab’s last show is on February 4 at Royal Opera House, Mumbai. Tickets here. 


Photo: Mitsun Soni

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