Guruji was a happy sitarist, but a strict teacher: Rishab Rikhiram on Pt Ravi Shankar

Rishab Rikhiram Sharma, the last disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar, in an exclusive interview with Deccan Chronicle talks about how he's using Sitar for mental health.


How did your Chennai concert go?

This early tour show allowed us to debut new visuals and concepts. The disciplined and appreciative Chennai audience eagerly queued up 30 minutes before the gates opened, providing valuable feedback for further improvements.

Did coming from a family of luthiers influence your interest in music?

Growing up in a family of conservative musical instrument makers, shaped my perspective on music profoundly. For my father, Sanjay Rikhiram, each instrument he crafted was considered a piece of art, embodying a spiritual essence akin to Maa Saraswati. Despite being surrounded by musical instruments, I wasn't allowed to touch a sitar until I reached a certain age. This restriction wasn't about age per se but instilled a sense of respect and understanding for the instrument before handling it. Interestingly, my family didn't pressure me into pursuing music; instead, they allowed me to develop my own passion naturally. Looking back, it seems like they employed a bit of reverse psychology, fueling my curiosity even further.

When did you decide to use Music as therapy?

During the pandemic, after losing my grandfather, I experienced profound grief and struggled with depression and anxiety. Seeking professional help, I rediscovered the therapeutic power of music in my life. Gradually returning to playing the sitar, I found solace and joy in sharing my music on Clubhouse (an app), eventually reaching thousands of listeners. This inspired me to create "Sitar for Mental Health," a platform where musicians and I could share our experiences and support one another in our mental health journeys. It became a community of healing and solidarity, offering comfort and motivation through shared grief and music. It was like a warm group hug.

Was your family supportive of your decision to create music for mental health?

Despite my parents being supportive, the heavy stigma surrounding mental health made them cautious about using the term 'mental' in Sitar for Mental Health. They feared it would lead to misconceptions about my intentions. However, this stigma only fueled my determination. I believe in the healing power of music, supported by evidence of its effectiveness in treating mental health issues. While there may not be specific studies on sitar music, research confirms the therapeutic benefits of music, including Indian classical music. Therefore, I chose to use music as a direct means to advocate for mental health awareness and challenge the associated stigma.

Your music is more like meditative music. What kind of preparation goes into this?

Initially, Sitar for Mental Health was spontaneous, but now it's structured based on feedback to provide greater support. Sessions start with breathing exercises, followed by a meditative sitar performance gradually joined by tabla. After playing compositions, we pause for an audience activity, encouraging deep, meaningful conversations among participants. This mirrors the openness I experienced on Clubhouse, where connecting with strangers felt easier than with friends. I aim to cultivate a sense of community, transforming the experience from a solitary one into a shared journey where mental health is openly discussed and supported.

What are the takeaways from your interactions with the Pandit Ravi Shankar?

Guruji was a strict teacher during sitar lessons, but outside of class, he transformed into the kindest soul, often cracking jokes. His teachings carried a sense of urgency due to his age, pushing me to absorb knowledge quickly. Now, reflecting on his words, I understand his desire for me to carry on his legacy. Despite my initial fear of lessons, his wit and wisdom made every interaction memorable. His presence was like a festival. Despite fear of classes, his humor and wisdom left a lasting impact.

Tell us about your collaborations and solo concerts

During our tour, we teamed up with a Rajasthani folk band, blending our own songs with traditional Rajasthani folk tunes. We're also thrilled to showcase cultural artists from regions known for their vibrant musical heritage. In Hyderabad, we're even collaborating with the Tollywood industry, adding an exciting dimension to our journey. It's amazing how unexpected opportunities keep arising throughout this tour, and we're truly enjoying the diversity it brings.

Tell us about your work in the south Indian film industry

I had the opportunity to play the sitar for one of Kamal Haasan's songs, 'Venmurasu'. Despite the challenges of the COVID era, a few individuals from the industry flew down to New York to record me. We rented a studio for recording, it even made it to the album. It was quite an adventurous experience. Additionally, my family has ties to the South Indian film industry as we manufacture musical instruments. Notably, AR Rahman and Bombay Jaishree among others are our clients.
( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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