Queens College alumnus Rishab Sharma combines both his traditional Indian culture and aspects of modern music to create a unique genre of sitar playing that also pays homage to his family’s extensive history with the instrument itself.
Born in Delhi and later moving to New York at the age of 17, Rishab comes from a legacy entrenched in Indian Classical music. “I’ve been touring and collaborating with musicians since the age of 10. I come from a family of musical instrument makers. We started from Lahore in 1920, which was pre-Partition India, before Pakistan was formed.”
Rishab explained the religious significance of the sitar; it is seen as an extension of God and is therefore played with respect. This reverence was evident even during his childhood; Sharma wasn’t allowed to touch the sitars his father would make. “One day, however, a damaged sitar came from shipment, so my dad fixed it and just let it dry. I asked him if I could play, since it had already been broken, and he said, ‘Ok, go ahead.’”
Having previous experience with the guitar, Rishab was able to play a song on the instrument within 15 minutes. Impressed, his father would later become his guru, or teacher.
Despite his family’s history with Indian classical music, Rishab tells The Knight News that he was the first in his family to actually perform on stage. Motivated by his father, he played his first piece in 2011 in honor of the anniversary of his grandfather’s death.
The performance, uploaded to YouTube, caught the attention of Ravi Shankar, guru for The Beatles. Visiting Delhi, Shankar invited Rishab to play a piece for him. Afterwards, Shankar agreed to become Rishab’s guru, shocking the young sitarist.
Studying at Queens College, Rishab got to mingle with various producers and rappers, inspiring him to look at how he could mix hip hop and Bollywood music to create a genre of his own. So which modern artists influence his music? “Aside from Indian Classical Music, I was inspired by Hardwell, EDM, and Avicii. When it comes to performance, definitely Kanye West.”
Rishab found support from the Aaron Copland School of Music, including professors such as James McElwain, Peter Calandra, and Donna Doyle. He was given free access to the school’s facilities. “I would be in the studios with my friends recording the sitar and rap – just jamming out. I’m so grateful I got to experience that,” Sharma recounts about his past collaborations.
Indian classical music remains a traditional practice, being played in large auditoriums. “There are a few things I’m particular about when it comes to classical recital,” Rishab explains to The Knight News. “There needs to be a platform for all artists and proper seating. People expect me to play on the floor, but the sitar is sacred and should be played higher than the ground.”
Rishab has worked to bring traditional sitar playing onto modern platforms, mainly through Instagram, with his professional account having over 42,000 followers. He told The Knight News that he started playing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I noticed I wasn’t playing my instrument as much, because it used to be my happy place. So, I motivated myself to go live on Instagram and just perform. Music can do wonders for the psyche and it’s amazing to watch and hear someone play,” Rishab explains. After creating a regular schedule, he now has 200 to 600 listeners and garners 500 to 1000 new followers a day.
Understanding the importance of mental health, Rishab also organizes what he calls Mental Health Thursday, where he plays calming ragas that have to do with the nine emotions.
Along with doing performances and tours across the US, Canada, and India, Rishab has also been working on his album, Navaras (Nine Emotions), with a few of his tracks having been recorded at the Aaron Copland School of Music. He also scored the music of Bethany Fancher’s documentary, “Charlie in India,” composing the pieces as he was watching the movie.
When asked about his future career goals, Rishab told The Knight News that he wants to set up a school to form a community of sitar players and Indian artists. He also wants to do more mental health work by sharing his art around the world. “Mental health is important. Coming out of my anxiety and depression, music really helped me to appreciate myself more as a musician. Music has the power to heal.”