Rasa

In addition to its extensive, almost tiresome, catalog of practical theatrical matters, the Natyashastra offers a theory of how theatrical art affects a person.  The centerpiece of this theory is rasa, a frequently misunderstood or misconstrued concept.  Much of the reason that the rasa idea is so often mishandled is that the Natyashastra itself speaks of rasa in vague, cryptic, or paradoxical ways.

Classical theory from around the globe commonly reaches a point at which its language becomes indeterminate.  The deep, affective, wondrous experience of theatrical art defies our attempts to pin it down with language so well that theoretical essays very often sound like intellectual fog.  In medieval Japan, the primary theorist of  drama resorted to the obscure term yugen in an attempt to articulate the ethereal quality of theatrical experience.  Aristotle, usually so precise, in an oblique reference to the emotional effect that theatre can have uses the term katharsis in a way that makes little sense (nor does Aristotle make any attempt to clarify his use of the term).  Like Zeami’s yugen, or Aristotle’s katharsis, Bharata’s rasa can only point our minds toward an ideal quality of theatre experience.  Even so, the Natyashastra does give us enough to know which direction we should be looking.

The author of the Natyashastra devotes the sixth chapter to a consideration of rasa (RUH-suh).  In Adya Rangacharya’s translation, Bharata writes:

What is this thing called rasa?  Here is the reply.  Because it is enjoyably tasted, it is called rasa.  How does the enjoyment come?  Persons who eat prepared food mixed with different condiments and sauces, etc., if they are sensitive, enjoy the different tastes and then feel pleasure (or satisfaction); likewise, sensitive spectators, after enjoying the various emotions expressed by the actors through words, gestures and feelings feel pleasure, etc.  This (final) feeling by the spectators is here explained as (various) rasa-s of nâtya.

In accordance with Bharata’s implications here, the word rasa may be translated as “juice” or “essence”.  Sometimes the term is translated as “flavor”.  But we should not equate Bharata’s term with the flavor of food.

For Bharata, rasa is not emotion, in the sense that we use the term emotion to talk about the psychological and physiological conditions of both characters and audiences who may develop states of sympathetic feeling for characters.  Emotion, in Bharata’s language, is bhâva (BHAH-vuh), which is the thing that Bharata associates with food and flavor.  In Bharata’s analogy, a person tastes the flavors of food, enjoys those flavors, and then feels a certain kind of pleasure.  An audience member experiences—or tastes—the activity on the stage, including words, gestures, and also feelings or emotions, as though these things were the flavors of food.  The audience member then feels pleasure in his or her experience.  This last feeling of pleasure is what Bharata calls rasa.

“Types” of Rasa

Slumdog Millionaire

What happens when you watch this clip?  Chances are, you perceive what occurs in the action and you experience some degree of revulsion.  Which is not to say that what happens in this clip is only revolting.  The action here includes humor, anxiety, and triumph.  But the scene and all that it implies is permeated by one very tangible sensibility.  If you reflect on your experience of the clip’s action and the revulsion it causes in you, you might even appreciate the degree to which the action in the clip chokes your sensibilities.  You might enjoy the way the clip nauseates you.  This small selection from this movie, at least, is permeated by a particular sensibility we might call bibhatsa, and your experience of the selection is permeated by the same quality.  At the level of bibhatsa rasa, you appreciate—you taste—not only what is revolting in the action of the clip, but also the disgust, itself, that runs through you.

Alien

This trailer for Ridley Scott’s 1979 film adequately communicates the tone that overwhelms the entire movie.  Every element of this production—from the sound design to the costumes to the color to the camera angles to the clumsy delicacy of the acting—leads an audience member further and further into an experience of fear.  At the level of bhayanaka rasa, the movie-goer not only fears, but has a conscious sense of his or her own fear as an inherent and essential quality of the experience of this movie.  Rasa is not in the way an audience member might be carried away and lost in his or her fear.  When this happens, as it surely does, the audience member has not attained to rasa.  Instead, rasa coalesces around an audience member’s very conscious and aware attention to the fear that the movie inspires.

Alien

This vehicle for Jim Carrey’s endlessly entertaining contortions involves some serious matters—divorce, childhood anxiety, the manipulation of the legal system—and includes some genuinely pathetic moments, as, for instance, Jennifer Tilly’s character decides to sue for sole custody of her children in order to wring more money out of her wealthy ex-husband.  But the whole of the movie is hopelessly subject to Carrey’s muppet-like antics, and his clowning infests every nook and cranny of the production.  A viewer might, by the end of the movie, step aside himself or herself and enjoy the taste of his or her own amusement.  This might be the attainment of hasya rasa.

Kathakali: Dushasanavadham

The first five minutes of this sequence from a Kathakali performance dramatizes the moment in the Mahabharata in which Bhima kills his cousin Dushasana.  This portion of this play is permeated by the ferocious element of Bhima’s character, and patrons who know Kathakali may savor this actor’s virtuoso expression of raudra.  The most sensitive of audience members, the Kathakali connoisseurs, might also come to savor their savoring of the anger on display in the play and its manner of presentation.  This state of mind would be raudra rasa.

The moments that follow the first five minutes included in this clip offer different sentiments to audience members (predominantly, perhaps, Draupadi’s sorrow or karuna over fulfilling her vow to wash her hair in Dushasana’s blood).  Krishna’s appearance at the conclusion of this sequence is surrounded by the vira sentiment.  In the mind of the Natyashastra‘s author, the entire performance from which this sequence is taken—a performance lasting several hours—would be unified by one predominant sentiment, inside of which the other sentiments circulate.

What we call feeling, then, referring to emotions, psychological states, and even physical sensation, is only a precursor to a condition that is different from emotions, psychological states, and physical sensation.  Indeed, Bharata uses a battery of variations on the term bhâva to refer to each of these kinds of feelings (sthâyibhava, anubhâva, vyabhicharibhâva, etc.) so as to make sure that his readers do not mistake rasa for some kind of physical sensation.

Instead, these feelings and sensations are the ingredients of a meal.  The primary task of stage actors is the mixing of bhâvas—their words, their physical gestures and dancing, and their expression of emotion.  Theatrical artistry, for the Natyashastra, is the skillful combination of movement, voice, and emotional expression into an integrated, unified whole.

The mixing does not end at the footlights.  The “sensitive spectator” who can experience rasa is budha, or knowledgeable—a connoisseur of theatrical arts.  The enlightened audience member does his or her own mixing of the bhava-stuff that the production presents.  Like the connoisseur who does not expect the wine to do everything, but works very hard to enhance his or her own experience, the sensitive theatre audience ingests the movement and sound of actors, the mise-en-scène, the rhythm and tone of the performance and savors it—swirls it about, breathes it in, rolls it around the tongue, searches out its subtle, affective qualities.  Bharata’s sensitive spectator knows how to join his or her own cognitive faculties to the substance of a theatrical event.

Nevertheless, the audience member’s experience of theatre, however sensitive it might be, is not rasa.  The connoisseur knows not only the flavors integrated in a glass of wine, but also how he or she experiences those flavors.  Bharata’s audience member knows how to savor and to enjoy not only a theatrical production but his or her own experience of the production.  Therefore, a crucial quality of rasa is awareness.  The audience member that Bharata envisions does not get “caught up” or “swept away” in the theatrical moment, but is always conscious of being an audience member at a play.  The audience member who gets lost in the show does not have the presence of mind to savor the experience.

Indeed, an argument about actors and rasa circulated in the centuries following the establishment of the Natyashastra as an authoritative text.  Some Indian philosophers argued that actors could experience rasa, others argued they could not.  By the tenth century, the argument was more-or-less resolved in favor of the proposition that actors could not experience rasa.  Because they saw that rasa depends on reflection on theatrical performance and all its elements as art, philosophers reasoned that rasa requires a distinct aesthetic distance, and actors—embedded directly in the material of the performance—cannot divorce themselves from the performance to a degree that would be sufficient to facilitate rasa.

Rasa, then, is an aesthetic state of mind that accompanies an audience member’s experience of theatrical art and conscious reflection on his or her experience of that art.  Understanding that state of mind is a little more difficult.  We might compare the state of mind involved in rasa to the classical sense of ecstasy.  Rather than a mindless delirium, the ancient Greek word ekstasis resolves literally to mean “standing apart”.  That is, in ecstasy, a person finds himself or herself dissociated from himself or herself.  In rasa, a person stands apart from his or her self enough to regard his or her self and its experiences as part of the whole phenomenon of the theatrical event.  This “meta-self” contemplates the combination of color in the play’s costuming, the elegance of the actors’ movements, the complimentary tones of the musical accompaniment, the emotional suggestions of the story, and his or her own feelings of fear, sorrow, and longing as aesthetic elements coordinated within a single, unified moment.  The audience member’s self, here, is a part of the theatrical performance, to be savored along with the play by the elevated consciousness that the play facilitates.

To complicate matters, the author of the Natyashastra suggests that the aesthetic experiences that theatre provides can all be sorted into into eight types.  An exemplary piece of theatre will produce an experience in its audience members which corresponds with one of the eight types of rasa.  Which is not to say that a person’s experience of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, might not involve several different sorts of experiences (romance, pathos, trepidation, etc.), but that a good play—a play that is genuinely, effectively artistic—will be permeated by one particular quality.  Adopting Aristotelian language, we might say that the Natyashastra expects a dramatic piece to be aesthetically unified, and the evidence of that unity will be manifest in an audience member’s reflection and rumination on the play and his or her experience of it.

The eight types of rasa are:

  1. Shringara (Romance)
  2. Vira (Heroism)
  3. Raudra (Anger)
  4. Bibhatsa (Disgust)
  5. Hasya (Humor)
  6. Karuna (Sorrow)
  7. Adbhuta (Wonder)
  8. Bhayanaka (Fear)

The Natyashastra further divides this list in half, suggesting that the second set of four derive, more or less, from the first set.  Shanti (Peace), a ninth type, is added by later commentators as rasa becomes associated with religious experience. (See Abhinavabharati.)

Consider the movie clips in the sidebar.  Rasa accompanies fully-developed theatrical productions in the context of performances.  Nevertheless, the movie clips here suggest how the metaphysical condition that is rasa might be categorized into types.

Further Study

Baumer, Rachel Van M. and James R. Brandon, eds., Sanskrit Drama in Performance (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1981).

Bharata, The Natyashastra, Adya Rangacharya, trans.  (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1996).