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In the storm of viral social media reels, Rishab Rikhiram Sharma’s sitar renditions offer a soulful calm. His “classicool” music breaks the cacophony with its pacifying pace, making you stop, listen to and soak in the magic of music. It is in those moments that the 24-year-old inches closer to what he has set out to achieve – using his passion for music for the purpose of spreading mental health awareness. Rishab, the last disciple of late sitar virtuoso Pandit Ravi Shankar, has taken his Sitar for Mental Health experiences offline – even to the White House, reintroducing the sound of Indian classical music to people as a transformational tool for the mind.
Music is in his blood, quite literally. As the fourth generation of the famed Rikhiram family of luthiers, Rishab’s tryst with music happened early in life.
“I was born into this… being surrounded by musical instruments, watching the construction of musical instruments, watching my dad tie frets. I used to come to the store after school, and take a nap. Often, I would wake up to the beautiful sound of music or my dad hammering the frets. It was very interesting to me that so much noise goes into making something so beautiful,” he says on a reflective note.
HealthShots caught up with the New York-based Rishab Rikhiram Sharma in the midst of his whirlwind India tour, at the family’s musical instrument store in New Delhi. While the walls and glass cabinets showcased the family’s rich musical associations, Rishab stood tall with his modern yet culturally-rooted ideas to making a difference with his art.
The health benefits of music aren’t unknown. Sound and healing complement each other. Music not just enhances mood and emotional health, but its healing power is also harnessed to treat certain ailments. For Rishab, music has been his coping mechanism to battle phases of anxiety and grief. From classical ragas and Lo-Fi music to covers for popular Bollywood songs and classic theme songs of Pink Panther and Game of Thrones, there’s a lot that he does!
Read on for excerpts from the HealthShots interview with Rishab Rikhiram Sharma on Sitar for Mental Health.
Q. What was for your first tryst with music?
Rishabh Rikhiram Sharma: As a part of the family tradition, all kids go through Indian classical vocal lessons. My father put both my brother and I for these lessons. I picked up the guitar when I was 9 years old… My first encounter with the sitar was when a broken sitar shipment came from abroad. My dad has a lot of reverence for musical instruments, so he immediately fixed it and left it to dry. Sitar was a very hyped-up instrument. I had cooked up stories in my head about how it requires you to be a very pure person to play a sitar. I won’t call sitar the forbidden fruit, but it was always so hyped up so I always felt I am not ready for it. One day I was seeing the sitar, and I asked my father, ‘May I try it?’. He was open to it. Within minutes, I figured the Sargam and he was like, “I see you, your lessons start from tomorrow.” My dad became my first teacher.
Q. When did the sitar training get serious?
Rishabh Rikhiram Sharma: When I went to Guruji (Pandit Ravi Shankar), he would spend hours with me. That’s when I realised that such a big personality and dignitary was spending time teaching me and I must take the responsibility to take this forward.
The pressure is scary. As a child, I was taking it pretty lightly as I was immature. I didn’t understand how big of a responsibility it is that I am carrying my family’s tradition on one shoulder and my Guruji’s tradition on the other. One is making instruments and the other is playing them. As I grow older, I have to be very conscious of how I present music of what I play.
Q. Tell us about Sitar for Mental Health.
Rishab Rikhiram Sharma: With Sitar for Mental Health, I am trying to generate more awareness, more conversations, to destigmatise and just talk about mental health on a human basis. It’s not about man or woman; mental health is something that concerns everyone. No one’s immune from mental health issues.
Q. But there happens to be a greater stigma around men mental health issues. Expressing it is sometimes seen as a weakness, isn’t it?
Rishab Rikhiram Sharma: I used to be that man who looked down upon mental health like that. But I had to learn it the hard way because I went through my own episodes of anxiety and depression. Ultimately, you have to responsible for your own mental health as much as your physical health. It is equally important, if not more.
Watch the full HealthShots interview with Rishab Rikhiram Sharma here!
Q. When did you realise that sitar is your coping mechanism?
Rishab Rikhiram Sharma: Ever since I was a child, sitar has been my coping mechanism. After any bad day at school, I would come home, practice it out and let my emotions flow. But it didn’t come to my conscience what I was feeling or how I was reacting to it. I was at a zenith when I realised what was happening to me and I sought help from a therapist. I wasn’t playing much and wasn’t practicing the sitar enough. But when I went back to practicing it, I realised sitar is my happy place and music is my therapy.
I’m also grateful for the support system I have. My friends and family members supported that I seek help. When you don’t feel good, see someone. Don’t be shy to reach out for help. It only makes you stronger, and doesn’t make you look weak.
Q. What would you tell women about how to handle a man battling mental health issues?
Rishab Rikhiram Sharma: I think some people may call it mansplaining (laughs). Well, when someone is going through something – it’s a very icy ground. You often don’t know how to manouvre. Just be careful with your words. Keep a check on how you talk or how you say things. The most you can do for someone who is anxious or depressed is just be there for them and make your presence felt. You cannot fix them. Don’t expect yourself to fix them. Just give them love and reassurance. And when you see something is getting out of hand, leave it to the professionals.
Q. What do you do when you’re not playing the sitar?
Rishab Rikhiram Sharma: I am a pretty boring person. I am always surrounded by music. It is my absolute life. If I am not playing the sitar, I am making music, producing music, I am collaborating, making instruments, designing covers for my music or clothes I want to wear when I play music. Everything is around music.