In India, music fans are diving into classical music. Recent data shows that over the last two years, India’s classical music consumption grew by nearly 500% on Spotify. And while users of all ages are tuning into these songs, more than 45% of listeners are under the age of 25. Classical music, it turns out, is indeed for everyone.
Indian musical instruments have a rich cultural heritage and are consumed widely not just in the country, but across the world. Generations of artists have taken this music to listeners across the globe, with instruments such as the sitar, flute, tabla, and more, recognized and beloved everywhere. So, to celebrate and highlight this legacy, we launched Echo, an initiative that puts the spotlight on Indian classical music and musicians. Over the past three months, we’ve focused on the flute, tabla, and sitar, educating our listeners via playlists that celebrate artists who have mastered each instrument, including sitarist Rishab Rikhiram Sharma with the Soulful Sitar playlist, flutist Naveen Kumar with the Fascinating Flute playlist, and multi-percussionist Anuradha Pal with the Tabla Rhythms playlist.
All three of these artists, along with more than 30 additional Indian classical instrumentalists, recently put their talents together to record a first-of-its-kind piece that celebrates India’s rich classical music heritage.
Composed by Rishab Rikhiram Sharma, “Kautilya (The Echo Project)” blends traditional Indian instruments with modern production techniques.
“‘Kautilya’ revolves around the soulful sounds of the sitar, the rhythmic beats of the tabla, and the enchanting melodies of the flute,” explained Rishab. “Drawing inspiration from the rich heritage of Indian music ragas, these three instruments gracefully whisk listeners away to another realm of musical enchantment.”
September is the month of the sitar. You’ve probably heard the stringed instrument before, even if you don’t realize it. “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” by The Beatles prominently features the sitar. “George Harrison, the lead guitarist of the band, was introduced to the sitar by Ravi Shankar and became fascinated with the instrument,” Rishab explained to For the Record. The collaboration between Ravi and George was a significant moment in the history of Western and Indian music. The influence can be heard on The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “George played the sitar on several tracks, including “Within You Without You,” which was entirely composed by Harrison and heavily influenced by Indian classical music,” shared Rishab. Other popular songs that feature the sitar include “The End” by The Doors and “Paint It, Black” by The Rolling Stones.
For the Record chatted some more with Rishab about the rise in classical music in India and the captivating sounds of the sitar.
You first picked up the sitar when you were 10. Why were you so drawn to the instrument?
I picked up the sitar when I was 10, but I had been eyeing it for a couple of years before that. My parents put me in vocal lessons when I was eight—Hindustani vocals primarily. I come from a family of musical instrument makers, so it’s a tradition in my family to go through vocal lessons before we even pick an instrument. My great-grandfather believed that in order to make good instruments, you need to be a musician first and understand the music.
I saw sitars being made in our factories and being sold in our shops, and there was just so much hype and grandeur around the sitar. And my dad always used to say, “You know, you can play this instrument, but you have to learn it properly, have respect for it, and receive proper training. Only then can you pick it up.” So I was always drawn to the instrument, but my dad wouldn’t let me touch it for the longest time.
Now I always try to keep the sound of my sitar very authentic. I don’t like much distortion or other funky effects on the sitar. I like preserving the integrity of the instrument and the sound it is known for. The sound has been the same for hundreds of years.
What was it like to work with Spotify for the Echo campaign and composing the original song “Kautilya”?
Working with Spotify on this project was hands down one of my favorite collaboration experiences. I was so excited. For the song, the turnaround time was pretty quick because I was at a point where I was writing a lot of songs every day. I composed the whole song in New York, sent Spotify a demo, and the team vibed with it.
Then I flew down to Mumbai to work with the entire group and we recorded in multiple studios. The song is a hit. It’s a revolutionary project.
Our data shows that in India, streams of classical music are growing on Spotify. Why do you think people are tuning into this music?
I think people are just becoming more aware of the benefits of Indian classical music. I try to promote the mental health benefits of the sitar and Indian classical music in general. There are various studies about music enhancing your mood and making you feel a certain way.
To get someone like me to meditate, you have to set the right environment. I try to create that safe space and that environment where people can actually meditate. It can have a very deep impact on you. I’ve seen people weeping at my shows, and sometimes they are smiling from ear to ear. So everyone goes through their own journey when they listen closely to the depth of the instrument or the music.
And now, all these other wonderful playlists are also generating that awareness. This is great for the future and makes me so happy.
How has Indian classical music moved beyond the borders of the country?
I live in New York, so I can speak for at least the East Coast, or America at large. A lot of people use our music for meditation because of its high meditative value and how rich the harmonics of the instruments are. I was at Burning Man and the moment I started playing my set, people automatically closed their eyes and connected to themselves. That’s the magic of the instrument and the sound it produces. Years and years of blood, sweat, and innovation have gone into these instruments.
Hear Rishab and others play their captivating sounds in our Soulful Sitar playlist.