South Asian Aesthetics

University of Pennsylvania, Fall 2014

Session 04: Rasa Part I


Scene from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dir. Tim Supple. Photo: Sydney Morning Herald.

Coordinator: Corey

What happens when we have an aesthetic experience?  How do art, literature, music, etcetera produce emotional, physical, and cognitive effects in the audience member?

न हि रसादृते कश्चिदर्थः प्रवर्तते । (na hi rasādṛte kaścidarthaḥ pravartate)

Nothing (no meaning) ever proceeds without rasa. – Bharata, Nātỵaśāstra, Chapter 6.

To begin our dig into the conceptual categories of South Asian aesthetic theory, there is perhaps no better place to start that the concept of rasa.  Rasa literally means ‘juice’ or ‘essence’, but in the context of discussions on drama, poetry and art in general, it is used to refer to that unique experience, quality, or rather phenomenon that occurs when we experience verbal or performance art: it relates to, and is part of an attempt to understand, the cognitive, physical, and emotional response we have to art.  How is it possible that (when viewing drama) we see something on stage that we know to be ‘unreal’ in the mundane sense, and yet it effects emotionally and even physically as if it were (sometimes more than) real?  What is that strange and unique pleasure we experience from reading or hearing poetry, even when it is about something (like heartbreak, or sickness, or death), that is in itself displeasurable?  For example, why do we enjoy watching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet so much, when the death of two young lovers in that manner– were it to be real– would only disturb and sadden us?

The concept of rasa, and how it works, occupied the minds of theorists in South Asia from the time of Bharata (300 CE?) until the dawn of the colonial period, and sparked the development of several different strains of thought on poetics and semiotics within the discourses of literary criticism and dramaturgy.  As we will see later in the course, it also contributed greatly to theorization of music and the development of religious aesthetics in several traditions.  So though we will only be spending three class sessions specifically on rasa, it will continue to arise throughout the course.

The texts:

Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra (300-800 CE?) will be familiar to you from last week; in this reading, however, we will be looking closely at the concept of rasa, and the attendant concepts of bhāva, anubhāva, etc. You only need to read pp 53-77 closely, but I recommend you also look over the other sections (on acting with limbs, abhinaya, verbal expression, etc.) briefly, just to get an idea of what is contained with them, and how Bharata treats these subjects.  Most of all, however, I hope you will read the sections on rasa and bhāva closely and try to understand the process, epistemology, or ontology that Bharata is constructing or working with.

Edwin Gerow, “Nāṭyaśāstra: Rasa in dramatic criticism.” This short section from Gerow’s Indian Poetics is intended to help you think through the concepts in the Nāṭyaśāstra— but don’t let it do the thinking for you.  Really dig into the original text and make up your own mind about what you think Bharata is getting at.

Levinson, “Emotion in Response to Art: A Survey of the Terrain,” and Cohen, “The Philosophy of Taste: Thoughts on an Idea.” These are meant to stimulate reflection on how the concept of rasa intersects with, or diverges from, Western thinking on aesthetics in the early modern and contemporary periods.

Aristotle, Poetics (4th century BCE). Continuing our reading of Aristotle from last week, for this session we be looking at sections on plot, character and action (pp 13-31).  However, you may also want to quickly review pp 10-13.  Why?  Because Aristotle makes some interesting remarks about character and action there that will be of interest later when we discuss the thought of Bharata and others on where rasa resides.

Case studies: Don’t worry about looking at these in advance, unless you have the time and would like to think about them a bit beforehand.  We’ll be looking at them during both of the class sessions this week.

Replies: Please contribute your questions/thoughts to this discussion thread before 6:00 PM Monday, so as to give the coordinator enough time to prepare for Tuesday’s discussion.

Happy reading!

Conceptual readings:

  1. Bharata. The Nāṭyaśāstra: English translation with critical notes. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1999. 53-77.
  2. Gerow, Edwin. “Nāṭyaśāstra: Rasa in dramatic criticism.” In Indian Poetics. Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz, 1977. 245-250.
  3. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Malcolm Heath. New York: Penguin, 1996. 13-31.
  4. Levinson, Jerrold. “Emotion in Response to Art: A Survey of the Terrain.” In Emotion and the Arts, edited by Mette Hjort and Sue Lever. 20-34. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  5. Cohen, “The Philosophy of Taste: Thoughts on an Idea.” The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics. Kivy, Peter (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

South Asian studies:

  1. Śakuntalā. In Theater of Memory. Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. Act I only.
  2. Shakuntala. [film clip] Shemaroo, 195?.

Western and other studies:

1. Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Act I, Scenes 4-5. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1900. 54-66.

One comment on “Session 04: Rasa Part I

  1. Pingback: Post: Experiencing the synthesis Dennis Hopper and Lauryn Hill, cognitively and vicerally | South Asian Aesthetics

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