|Photography by Daniel Barkley
Along with being the frontman of Canadian indie rock band Elephant Stone, Rishi Dhir is one of the most respected sitar (and bass) players in the international psychedelic scene. Among others, he has recorded, performed and toured with Beck, The Black Angels, Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Horrors.
Rishi was exposed to the sitar at a very young age through Bollywood movies, the Beatles and a vinyl copy of Ravi Shankar’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, but it wasn’t until a family trip to India in ’97 that he decided to learn how to play it. After dabbling on it for a few years, in 2001 he met his guru, Uwe Neumann, in his hometown Montreal. He has been taking lessons since then and is incredibly knowledgeable about Hindustani Classical music.
I caught up with him and asked him a few questions on his sitar playing and how he integrates this wonderful instrument into contemporary music.
What type(s) of sitar do you own?
I am part of the Maihar gharana (school) of Hindustani Classical music. This form of music was popularized by Ravi Shankar. I own a Hiren Roy and Srishti sitar.
Do you think that sitar works better played on its own or accompanied by other instruments and if so which ones?
The ideal accompaniment to the sitar is a tanpura (drone instrument) and tabla. However, I have heard amazing duets with the sitar and sarod. Also, I find analog synths really enhance the outer world feel of the sitar (see Ananda Shankar).
Can you please name your top 5 sitar-oriented records?
Ananda Shankar - Ananda Shankar (1970)
Ananda Shankar - Ananda Shankar and His Music (1975)
Ravi Shankar - Ravi Shankar at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967)
Cornershop - When I Was Born for the 7th Time (1997)
Charanjit Singh - Ten Ragas To a Disco Beat (no sitar, but Hindustani musical-based with synths) (1982)
How would you describe the relevance of sitar in contemporary music?
The introduction of Hindustani music to the west via records of the Beatles, Byrds, Yardbirds, Stones etc. have definitely left their mark on popular music. I don't think you have to look too hard to hear its relevance as it's everywhere without you even realizing it.
You also play bass guitar. How would you compare the emotions you feel when playing sitar to the ones you feel when playing bass?
The sitar takes complete control over your body, mind and soul. I usually look forward to the part of the show when I can just let go and have the sitar guide me. However, if I am not feeling a particular performance, I find my sitar solo can feel forced and unauthentic. Usually, bad sound on stage has a lot to do with it. However, with the bass, I just have to lock in with the drums and feel the groove. Both instruments provide different levels of connectedness to the unknown.
You have been taking sitar lessons for 13 years. Have you ever considered teaching as well?
In this life, I think it's better I remain as the student rather than the teacher.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering/has just started playing sitar?
Find a teacher and respect the instrument.