The pandemic has been difficult for many people, creating mental ill-health as well as physical ailments. New York-based sitarist and HT Brunch Social Media Star of The Week from last year, Rishab Rikhiram Sharma, suffering from anxiety for two to three years now, felt it aggravated during the pandemic. So, he started playing live shows on Instagram and Clubhouse, finding them a good outlet for getting out there and being vulnerable. Soon, his DMs were full of long messages about how his sessions brought his audience mental peace, asking if he could make it a regular practice.
From New York to India
So, the 23-year-old formed a community called Sitar for Mental Health, where he played Indian classical tunes every Thursday.
“The point was to heal together,” he says about the online sessions that are now offline as the Gen Z traverses India, holding concerts that entail meditation, breathing exercises, and sitar meditation. For the latter, Rishab plays a very slow alaap, ending with a jam session where other musicians join in, making it an immersive experience.
Rishab began with his now hometown, New York, before bringing it to his native country, where he agrees mental health normalisation still has a long way to go.
“Mental health is still stigmatised in India. It’s like sex education, which didn’t exist in my parents’ generations in school but in some form exists in ours. Things get better with each generation,” he says. And so he’s using his voice—or rather, his sitar—to promote more dialogue about something his mother still dismisses with, “jaldi subah utho and you will be fine” or “fauji kitne strong hote hain”, which forces Rishab to point to the PTSD soldiers suffer from.
Agreeing that his initial target audience comprised millennials and Gen Z, Rishab has learned since that age is just a number. “When I started going for therapy three months ago, my mom thought I had gone crazy. But we have to accept that we all have mental health issues. The point is to make the audience Google the term ‘mental health’ even if they don’t like my music.” Which is why he has licensed therapists and psychiatrists talking about it too, during his gigs.
Music has a deep connection with mental health, especially Indian classical, Rishab emphasises. “Growing up in Delhi, I would have gone crazy if it wasn’t for my music. Music is my happy place. It calms me down and has done wonders for my mental health.”
True to his roots
People don’t realise that Indian classical music has a calming quality because the genre has a “horrible marketing team”.
“How you play a raga is personal to every musician. The audience connects with that artist’s rendition of the raga, and that connection is deep and soul-stirring,” says Rishab.
What of modernising a classical instrument and playing that in a country with strict purists who may not like blues and pop being played on the sitar?
“When it comes to my classical playing, no one can lift a finger at it because I am quite traditional. Even when we do fusion, I try to make the sitar sound like a sitar and not a guitar. You need to stay true to your roots and your tradition of sound. People need to take a chill pill and appreciate the versatility of the instrument,” he says.
Some 90 per cent of Rishab’s profile is full of classical music. “I like to have fun, though. Even Pandit Ravi Shankar played the blues on the sitar,” he says.
So, will we see him in denims on stage? “I’ve been in New York since I was 17, so I do like my jeans, but at classical concerts, I wear designer Indianwear by Suket Dhir!” he grins.
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From HT Brunch, November 14, 2021
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