I was surrounded by musical instruments, but not allowed to touch them: Sitarist Rishab Rikhiram Sharma

Rishab Rikhiram Sharma has been in India since February, performing at various places. The Sitarist, who lives in New York, was taken to the Sitar at age ten. He was Pandit Ravi Shankar’s last and one of his youngest disciples. As the son of a luthier, Sharma said, he was always surrounded by musical instruments. “But I wasn’t allowed to touch any of them,” he recalls. 

“Then one day, a sitar my dad made, got damaged en route delivery. And it was returned. So, I repaired it and started playing it,” 25-year-old Sharma says. His father saw this and started guiding him since then. He then started training under Pandit Ravi Shankar at age ten. Sharma, who has been influenced by rap music, hip-hop, EDM, dance music and electronic music, says, that Pandit Ravi Shankar was a “strict and stern guru, but also a funny man.”

Talking about performing at the White House, Sharma said President Joe Biden wrote him a letter appreciating his performance at the 2022 Diwali dinner, where Vice President Kamala Harris was present too. “The Biden administration also had a very sophisticated budget for mental health, and they really believe in my cause, Sitar for Mental Health,” he added. Sharma moved to New York at 17 to pursue a course in  Music Production and Economics at City University New York. 

Sharma says Sitar for Mental Health is an immersive experience. And he says so, as there’s a segment, where the audience interact with one another. They are given prompts like What are they grateful for? What do they look forward to? and so on. “There have been couples, who got married after coming to one of the Sitar for Mental Health experiences,” Sharma quips. “I’ve found that music has a unique power to connect people emotionally and spark important conversations,” he adds. 

The 90-minute Sitar for Mental Health experience is designed to help individuals achieve states of deep reflection, connection, and introspection, Sharma says. Sharma started Sitar for Mental Health in 2020, amidst the lockdown, after his grandfather passed away. “I was miles away from him and couldn’t even make it to the funeral due to COVID-19 restrictions. This affected me in a bad way.” What started as sessions on Clubhouse, turned into in-person gatherings once restrictions were lifted. They then expanded into shows.

Currently, Sharma is on a Sitar for Mental Health tour in India, which began in Chennai on February 18 and will end on April 14 in Hyderabad. Sharma will have performed in 11 Indian cities including Jaipur, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Chennai. The next performance is on March 17 in Pune. Sharma’s accompanying artists are Naveen Kumar on flute, Keith Peters on bass, Raghuraman R on guitar, Kulta Khan on khartal, and Prashant Trivedi on tabla. After the tour, Sharma plans to release Sitar for Mental Health Mix Tape, which will feature five distinct ragas – Alhaiya Bilawal, Bhairavi, Khamaj, Shankara, and a unique creation, Bihaagananda.

The musician says his focus has been to modernise the Sitar. “I’m trying to create an electric-mic Sitar so that the instrument can lend itself better to a band setting,” he says.