#KetchupTalks: Rishab Rikhiram Sharma's “Sitar for Mental Health” tour and concept of musical healing

Piyush Singh
New Update
Rishab Rikhiram Sharma

In an exclusive conversation with Rishab Rikhiram Sharma, we uncover the inspirations behind the 'Sitar For Mental Health' series and learn about Rishab's journey as a musician and an advocate for mental health.

We've heard "Music is therapy", but have you ever wondered how true it is? Of course, listening to the music you like helps ease your stressed-out mind, but have you given music enough credit for that? Well, most of us overlook the power that art, in general, has to heal us. Rishab Rikhiram Sharma, has explored the power of musical healing through his love for Indian traditional music, and his "Sitar for Mental Health" India tour is just that. A series of multi-sensory-immersive experiences helping bridge ancient practices of sound and energy medicine using traditional Indian classical music. The tour is designed to invoke states of deep reflection, receptivity, and introspection re-introducing the sound of the Sitar as a transformational tool. He has already visited Chennai, Jaipur, Goa, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, and reintroduced people to the beauty of Indian traditional music.

In an exclusive conversation with Rishab Rikhiram Sharma, we dive deeper into the intersection of music and mental health, exploring the transformative potential of the sitar and his unique approach to harnessing its healing power. Join us as we uncover the inspirations behind the 'Sitar For Mental Health' series and learn about Rishab's journey as a musician and an advocate for mental health. 

Also Read: Old wine in a new bottle: Evergreen old songs and their newest upgrades

Here is what he shared: 

Can you share more about your journey with the sitar and how it led you to become an advocate for mental health through music?

At the age of 10, I made the switch from strumming the guitar to the intricate melodies of the sitar. It was a significant shift, one that resonated deeply within me as I found a means to express my innermost feelings through music. Growing up in a household where musical instruments were crafted with care and precision, I had to earn the privilege of learning sitar under the watchful eye of my father, Sanjay Rikhiram who himself was a master craftsman. My journey with the sitar wasn't just about learning notes and melodies; it was about cultivating a profound respect and reverence for the instrument itself. My father, acting as my initial guide, instilled in me the importance of understanding the soul of the sitar before attempting to play it. 

It wasn't until a chance to meet Guru Ji (Pandit Ravi Shankar), that my musical journey took a significant turn. Through a stroke of fate, Guru Ji stumbled upon a video of me playing the sitar, and something about my performance caught his attention. My father knew him well and hence, Guru Ji reached out to him expressing a keen interest in meeting me. This encounter marked the beginning of a life-changing chapter in my musical journey.  Guru Ji, impressed by my potential, extended an offer that would shape the course of my musical career forever. At the tender age of 11, he proposed to take me under his wing as his disciple, a gesture that left my parents astounded and humbled.

In a traditional ceremony known as Gandhaban, Guru Ji formally initiated me into his lineage, symbolizing a sacred bond between master and disciple. It was a momentous occasion, one filled with a sense of awe and responsibility as I started a journey of musical enlightenment under his guidance. Despite his advanced age of 90 years, Guru Ji remains dedicated to nurturing my talents, spending countless hours imparting his wisdom and expertise. His unwavering faith in my abilities serves as a constant source of inspiration, propelling me forward on a path paved with passion, dedication, and the timeless legacy of Guru Ji's teachings.

As the youngest disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar, how has his influence shaped your musical journey and your approach to using the sitar as a transformational tool?

One thing I really learned from Guruji is discipline. Even at 90 years old, he'd wake up super early, practice for hours, and then get on with his day. I love how he tackled things head-on in the morning instead of putting them off. He was also great with words, always stressing the importance of practice in performing arts.

Guruji was like a walking encyclopedia, always eager to share his knowledge. Sometimes he'd get a bit worked up because he wanted to teach me as much as possible because somehow he knew that he would be leaving his body soon. He'd say, "You're my last disciple, so learn everything you can." I was the youngest in our group, and he saw me as the one to carry on his legacy and my family's legacy of making musical instruments. He encouraged me to excel both as a musician and an instrument maker.

How do you believe classical Indian music, particularly the sitar, can aid in mental well-being? 

I've seen firsthand how music has a healing power, not just for me but for many others too. While I haven't conducted any scientific studies myself, I'm intrigued by the potential of music to positively impact mental well-being, especially after experiencing its effects during a difficult time in my life. When I lost my grandfather and found myself struggling with depression and anxiety, I realized I needed to take action to improve my mental health. My friends played a significant role in encouraging me to seek help, leading me to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist. During our session, the doctor educated me about mental health and suggested coping mechanisms to manage my symptoms.

As an artist, I've always turned to music during challenging times, but I had temporarily abandoned it. Upon the psychiatrist's recommendation, I returned to my musical practice and started working out again to improve my overall well-being. Reconnecting with my sitar after months of neglect was like rediscovering a long-lost friend, bringing me a sense of comfort and familiarity during a tumultuous period, particularly amidst the pandemic. In late 2020 and early 2021, I found solace in sharing my music with others through live performances on the Clubhouse app. What began as a personal outlet quickly evolved into a supportive community where individuals gathered to appreciate music and open up about their struggles with mental health. Through these sessions, I aimed to create a safe space for vulnerability and healing, incorporating discussions about mental health alongside musical performances.

The positive response from listeners inspired me to continue refining my musical offerings to cater to their preferences. I curated sets that incorporated breathing exercises, meditative melodies, and gradual increases in energy to create a therapeutic journey for participants. The growing audience engagement, including participation from celebrities and individuals from diverse backgrounds, underscored the universal appeal of music as a tool for healing and connection. To reach a wider audience, I took my performances to Instagram, where our community has since grown to over 266,000 followers worldwide. While Indian classical music remains a cornerstone of our repertoire, the universal language of music transcends cultural boundaries, resonating with individuals from various parts of the globe. It's been a humbling and gratifying experience to witness the transformative power of music in fostering healing, connection, and community across geographical and cultural divides.

Your recent performances at notable events like the Woodstock 50 Reunion and President Biden's Diwali celebrations have garnered significant attention. How was the whole experience for you ? 

I've had the privilege of seizing opportunities at the White House, thanks to the impactful work I've been involved in. The Biden administration's commitment to mental health is commendable, reflected in their substantial budget allocation for this critical issue. It's a level of investment that sets a noteworthy example, especially considering the lack of similar resources in many other countries, including our own.

My involvement with the administration stemmed from their recognition of the work I've done in the mental health space. The event itself was historic, marking the first Diwali celebration hosted inside the White House. The decor, adorned with traditional elements like Genda Phool, Dias, and Rangoli, transported attendees to a festive atmosphere reminiscent of India. Surrounded by esteemed guests, including dignitaries and friends, the gathering felt both grand and intimate.

Overall, the opportunity to perform at the White House was a memorable and humbling experience, highlighting the intersection of culture, diplomacy, and personal passion on a prestigious stage.

We are very excited to see what kind of an impact this tour will have on the Indian audience. Could you elaborate on what attendees can expect during your 'Sitar For Mental Health' events?

At my shows, attendees can expect an immersive experience designed to soothe the mind and uplift the spirit. The evening begins with a warm introduction, setting the tone for what lies ahead. We kick off with a simple yet effective breathing exercise, guiding participants through deep, intentional breaths for five to ten minutes. This serves as a grounding practice, helping everyone to center themselves and cultivate a sense of calm.

Next, we do meditation, characterized by a gentle unfolding of melodic layers. The music unfolds slowly, inviting listeners to immerse themselves in its tranquil embrace. As the atmosphere settles, we introduce the tabla artist, adding rhythmic depth and complexity to the compositions. For my upcoming Delhi show, I'm thrilled to feature talented Shehnai artists, as this instrument deserves wider recognition. Together, we perform a series of compositions, blending traditional elements with contemporary flair. The synergy between instruments creates harmonious sounds, captivating the audience and transporting them to a realm of musical bliss.

Following this performance, we pause for an intermission, offering an opportunity for audience engagement. Through a structured activity, attendees are encouraged to connect with one another, fostering a sense of community and shared experience. Prompted by questions like "What are you grateful for?" or "What is one blessing in your life?" participants engage in meaningful conversations with newfound acquaintances. This simple yet powerful exercise encourages openness and vulnerability. 

Through these activities, I aim to not only entertain but also to create a space for genuine human connection and introspection. By fostering a sense of community and shared experience, we forge deeper connections and spread positivity through the universal language of music.

 How do you plan to engage audiences across different cities in India during your multi-city tour, considering the diverse cultural backgrounds and perspectives?

It's more than just a concert—it's an unforgettable experience where everyone leaves with a smile. After a fun audience activity, the whole atmosphere changes. We feel like we're all in it together. I start with some of my own music, both released and unreleased, along with Lokeshji and other talented musicians like a guitarist and a bassist.

We also have the Rajasthani Manganiyars, amazing musicians from Jaisalmer, joining us later on. Their lively performances add a special touch to the night. Each year, we aim to make the experience better, and this time, we're moving to a bigger venue with 1800 seats. It shows how much people love what we do, bringing joy and togetherness through music.

How do you balance honoring the rich traditional Indian classical music and innovating to reach contemporary audiences, especially in the context of mental health advocacy?

I make sure to support local artists and include songs that people in each city love. In Jaipur, we played folk tunes like "Kesariya Balam" by the Manganiyars. Mumbai's setlist had Bollywood and jazz songs, while Ahmedabad enjoyed "Raghu Pati Raghav" and Gujarati music. Pune had Marathi songs, and in Kolkata, we honored Satyajit Ray with songs from his movies.

Playing familiar songs makes people happy because it brings back good memories and makes them feel connected to the music.

How do you wish your 'Sitar For Mental Health' tour leaves an impact both within the music industry and in broader conversations about mental health awareness and support?

In my opinion, what I'm doing isn't anything new. Raag Chikitsa, which is using music for healing, has been around for a long time. I'm just trying to make it more relatable for people today. It's important to show how it works and that it's effective, and I think we're doing a good job of that.

I don't have specific goals. If even just one person feels better listening to my music and learns something about mental health, I'm happy. They can then talk about it with others, starting important conversations. By sharing my own story, I want to make people feel comfortable opening up, so we can support each other better.

What does music mean to you when it comes to your mental health? Share it with us in the comments below.

Follow us for more such content @socialketchup

Rishab Rikhiram Sharma Sitaar for mental health sitaar music musical healing musical healing concerts