Relevance of rasa

Print edition :

Title: A Rasa Leader. Author: Sheldon Pollock Publlisher: Columbia University Press release.

Leela Samson performing at The Music Academy in Chennai. The book traces the transition of rasa as form to rasa as reception. Photo: R. Ravindran

A Kathakali performance in Visakhapatnam. It is in Sanskrit dramaturgy that eight rasas were first expounded. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

A creative exploration of the wellsprings and implications of aesthetics.

CONTRARY to its aesthetic title, A Rasa Reader is not really for the aesthete. An exemplary work of hardcore intellectual history, this book, edited and compiled by Sheldon Pollock, the master-Sanskritist based in New York, is not even for the casual academic. It is a fundamentally philosophical investigation of how a millennium and a half of India’s finest minds thought and debated not only about art and beauty but, in the process, about all cultural communication and appreciation. It is also an invaluable collection of excerpts from their peerless writings.

Rasa, literally “taste” or “juice/essence”, refers to the abstracted and universalised emotional states, like the erotic (srngara), the furious (raudra), the heroic (vira), the comic (hasya), and so on, that are generated as aesthetic experience through art. As Pollock evinces, while aesthetics was understood in Western traditions as a kind of “feeling”, it is an outstanding creative peculiarity of the Indian thought-world that here aesthetics was conceived of as a kind of “tasting”.

Metaphor of taste

The volume editor creatively explores the wellsprings and implications of such an understanding. He tells us that among other things, it points to an Indian intellectual bent towards analysis of phenomena as composite wholes that can be broken down into numerous constitutive elements (page 26). This is analogous to the preparation of a dish the taste of which derives from the melding of numerous ingredients, thereby justifying the metaphor of taste for an aesthetic degustation.

At a deeper level, the metaphor may capture one of the central dilemmas that agitated rasa theorists: the question whether rasa lies in the text-object or in the reader-subject or in the totality of the interaction between the two. The editor suggests that “in this, rasa precisely resembles the ‘taste’ it metaphorically references, which may be regarded as existing at once in the food, the taster, and the act of tasting” (page 26). Significantly, however, it seems that this comprehensive view was one that Indian thinkers themselves never developed.

Having said that, Pollock notes the difference between the way the word taste is used in the West—good/bad taste, tasteless, etc.,—which always carries a hint of high or low social origins whereas the word rasa in all its uses—sarasa, nirasa, etc.,—is only about an aesthetic subject, not a social one (page 44). This is an interesting observation, which in fact provides a corrective to the earlier observation in the book that foundational Sanskrit texts on rasa institute a “social aesthetics, rigorously relating rasa and status” (page 27).

Although in time it came to inform all fields of Indian artistic production, the world to which rasa originally belonged was that of alamkarasastra, or Sanskrit poetics, which Pollock makes it a point to distinguish sharply from natyasastra, or Sanskrit dramaturgy. Interestingly, it is in the latter field that eight rasas were first expounded, in Bharata’s iconic text Natyasastra, circa 2nd century CE. (The ninth, santa rasa, was conceptualised only around the 9th century CE.) It is the editor’s founding premise throughout A Rasa Reader that it is in the transition “from stage to page” (page 15) that rasa, or the dynamics of emotional representation, became the subject of intense debate in the history of Sanskrit literature.

In other words, when rasa transitioned circa 4th-5th century CE from theatre, where emotions could be displayed visually, to poetry, where the loss of visuality had to be compensated with new linguistic techniques of emotional expression, a 1,000-year-long discourse commenced on the centrality and modalities of rasa. This is a very persuasive hypothesis and one that is founded on textual references that are cited in the Reader. But one wonders if the sharp separation between natya (drama) and kavya (poetry) that underwrites the hypothesis is upheld historically. After all, Natyasastra itself speaks of natya and kavya as interchangeable, and later poeticians such as Bhamaha, in his Kavyalamkara, enumerated natya as a sub-genre of kavya, nothing more, nothing less.

Further, can the association of emotion to literature not be traced to the much earlier Valmiki Ramayana, which is self-conscious about the birth of the adi kavya (“first kavya” as the Ramayana is called) in the poet’s experience of grief (soka) upon witnessing the piteous lament of a stork at the death of her mate? The book does refer to this originary episode elsewhere (page 5).

So did rasa originate in drama and move later to poetry, or was it a joint “problem”, perhaps, that no doubt acquired significantly wider dimensions in sravyakavya (literature to be heard) than drsyakavya (literature to be seen)?

One of the wider dimensions that Pollock explains beautifully is that: “Once visibility had ceased to limit the understanding of what emotions could count as a rasa … the palette of rasas could be increased theoretically to the very limits of expressive language and psychological complexity …. [T]he category of rasa was now open, and would be expanded over the centuries, sometimes— as in the case of the devotional rasa [bhakti rasa]—in the face of intense scholarly opposition. The dispute over the peaceful rasa [santa rasa], the emotion of emotionlessness, speaks not only to the difficult extension from performance, where it could not be represented, to narrative, where it could, but also to the movement from formalism, where it could not be embodied, to reception, where it could be felt. And such rethinking was not just about classification. The expansion of rasas … reflects an expansion of the emotional imagination of writers as they explored new areas of human feeling” (pages 14-15).

It is only someone with lifelong scholarship like Pollock, someone adept at the intricacies as much as the big picture of early Indian literature and philosophy who can walk readers through some of the most complex Sanskrit concepts and theories as also show agreements and disagreements among them. In a mind-boggling feat, he works his way through more than two dozen seminal texts of alamkara, spanning the 2nd to the 17th centuries CE, including the works of Bharata, Bhamaha, Dandin, Udbhata, Bhoja, Bhatta Nayaka, Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta and Jagannatha Pandita.

Pollock provides both a select translation and a commentary on every text’s position on the rasa question and its contribution to advancing, sometimes revolutionising, and at other times reversing Sanskrit’s treatment of emotion and of language. A detailed introduction to the volume brings out perspicaciously the two main issues that this history revolved around: its ontology (where and how rasa exists, whether in the character, the actor, or the poet) and its epistemology (how it comes to be known, whether through perception, inference or manifestation) (page 17).

Transition of rasa

The author traces, for example, the early view, represented by Bhamaha and Dandin, that rasa was just another figure or ornament of speech, to the later singularity that rasa obtained in Bhoja, as the supreme end of poetry which figures of speech merely facilitated. The still later changes in the understanding of rasa as devotional rapture (in Jiva Gosvamin) or as a state of blissful consciousness under the influence of Vedanta (in Jagannatha Pandita) are fascinating and clearly etched. This was also a transition from rasa as form to rasa as reception, from something generated and perceived to something actualised through experiencing, the latter best represented by Abhinavagupta.

Pollock lays out the aim of the Rasa Reader as “to make available to a contemporary reading public … translated and annotated texts [of classical Indian aesthetics]… arranged in such a way that the principal arguments and disputes can be observed in their historical development” (page xi). While the book succeeds admirably in achieving this formidable goal, it seems to address primarily the Western reader at times, describing some traits of the Sanskrit thought-world as familiar or unfamiliar accordingly (pages xii, xvi). This is likely in keeping with a comparativist perspective, which Pollock has carried off with distinction earlier as well in his magnum opus, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men.

A regrettable consequence in this book, however, seems to be the decision to omit, for the most, the Sanskrit terms, providing only the English translation or explanation instead. Though done presumably for purposes of readability, this is likely to be disappointing for students of Sanskrit and literary theory, Indian and Western alike, for whom it ought to have been a ready reckoner for the original terms as much as for their meanings.

But why have a reader on rasa at all? Why is it important to look back at Sanskrit aesthetics, and why did our ancestors think it fit to devote to it a thousand years and more of cogitation when us moderns place far greater emphasis on science and technology than art and beauty? As Pollock explains, the rise of modernity and colonialism was defined in part by the rise of scientific rationalism, which was accompanied by a devaluation of what was not science, and, therefore, the knowledge, moral and emotional and otherwise, that art and aesthetics offered was rendered subjective, non-knowledge (page 4).

Pre-modern Indian thinkers, on the other hand, seem to have known better. As this reviewer, too, has consistently argued in her work, Sanskrit aesthetics was ultimately an ethico-moral category where apart from critically representing the ways of the world and generating beauty and amusement in the process, educating the audience in right and wrong—in a critical idealism called dharma—was an integral, if subtle, part of the literary project. In the words of Abhinavagupta, the audience became suffused with “the desire to attain the good and to avoid the bad … given that they had now gained an understanding to this end” (page 43). It is in its aesthetic pedagogy perhaps, and its humanity, that the enduring relevance of studying rasa for troubled modern societies may lie.

Shonaleeka Kaul is Associate Professor in the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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