Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.
Terms of Art #43:
Pronunciation: RUH-suh (but in English often RA-sa)
Definition: Rasa is an important term in Indian aesthetics and philosophy. It’s a Sanskrit word for the overall mood or feeling produced by a performance – later extended to works of art more generally.
It literally means the juice or nectar of a plant or fruit, so think: flavor or taste. Other translations: ‘essence’, or the super awkward ‘savor’-as-a-noun (as in, “I love the savor of these Skittles”).
The term is from the Nāṭyaśāstra, a classic Indian text about the performing arts that dates from between 200 BCE-200 CE. There, a rasa is the overall “taste” of a performance. It’s the mood or feeling that a well-situated audience will experience when they see it.
Performances can have four main rasas and four derivative rasas. Respectively, these are love, hate, heroism, and terror/anger; and humor, compassion, wonder, and fear. Why are the second four derivative? Because parodied love becomes humor; terrifying stuff can produce compassion; witnessing heroism produces wonder; and disgust produces fear. Later thinkers added a ninth rasa, peace, to capture the mood of certain religious texts.
How do works come to produce these different moods? Through bhāvas (BHA-vuhs, singular ‘bhāva’). Bhāvas are basically the states that a performer embodies to produce the rasa.
Sometimes individual rasas are associated with particular bhāvas, but there are way more bhāvas (49) than rasas (8 or 9). So a better way to think about it is that individual bhāvas can combine to produce an overall rasa that is more than the mere sum of its parts.Example time!
I can add salt to cookie batter without the cookies tasting salty. In fact, the right amount of salt enhances the existing flavors, rather than creating the overall (or even detectable) taste of salt.
Similarly, a performer can act proud or lazy or forgetful or combative or asleep (all of those are actual bhāvas), but that doesn’t mean that the overall rasa is laziness or, um, sleep. A villain’s pride might make you feel hate or anger or fear, and a hero’s combativeness might make you feel wonder, but these will contribute to the overall rasa of the story: heroism.
Rasas and bhāvas are the building blocks of much of Indian aesthetics over the last two thousand years.
Here are some common debates:
- Is the only aim of art to produce rasas? Or can there be others, like persuasion, education, or making a social statement?
- What factors get in the way of successfully producing rasa in an audience?
- What is the state of the performers? Do they actually feel the emotions or do they just superficially adopt certain expressions?
The Nāṭyaśāstra (NAT-yuh-SHA-struh) by Bharata Muni
Commentary on The Nāṭyaśāstra by Abhinavagupta
A Rasa Reader by Sheldon Pollock – for a good translation
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