BN Goswamy’s book on Indian painting is as layered, thought provoking and almost as beautiful to behold as the 101 great works of art that are its subject. In this excerpt, the author writes succinctly about the idea of rasa in Indian art.The idea of rasa lies at the heart of the Indian theory of art. The concept is old, going back at least to the Natyashastra of Bharata, that extraordinary work on the arts of the theatre which is generally placed close to the beginning of the Common Era. In his work, where he clearly acknowledged his debt to older masters, Bharata enunciated and applied the rasa theory to the arts of the stage, incorporating dance and music (natya). But, as the great art critic Ananda Coomaraswamy commented, the theory is ‘immediately applicable to art of all kinds’. This has been argued earlier. For writers such as Vishwanatha, fourteenth-century author of the Sahitya Darpana, a celebrated work on poetics, the very definition of poetry involves invoking rasa. His dictum is often quoted — ‘Poetry is a sentence the soul of which is rasa.’
The experience might possess the suddenness of a flash of lightning (chamatkara), leaving the viewer unprepared for the moment and unaware of the swiftness with which it comes. This is the moment when, as a later writer put it, ‘magical flowers . . . blossom’ in the viewer’s awareness and rasa is tasted. The experience is genuine and definable but cannot be predicted, there being so many variables. It just simply happens, comes into sudden bloom.
Vishwanatha’s definition of the nature of the aesthetic experience has such authority and value that it is still quoted: Pure aesthetic experience is theirs in whom the knowledge of ideal beauty is innate; it is known intuitively in intellectual ecstasy without accompaniment of ideation, at the highest level of conscious being; born of one mother with the vision of God, its life is as it were a flash of blinding light of transmundane origin, impossible to analyse, and yet in the image of our very being.
There are so many aspects to rasa that it has continually been debated among the learned. Is the number of rasas fixed, for instance; is the experience in the nature of a revelation or is it the coming into being of a state that did not exist before? How does aesthetic experience differ from experience of the kinds of emotions which are part of our real, everyday life? How can the states of sorrow or fear or disgust yield pleasure? Are there any impediments to rasa? And so on.
And yet to return to an earlier point, one is struck by how readily people even today use the term to describe their experience of a work of art. It was sarasa, a person might say after having heard a music recital, or neerasa: meaning, respectively, ‘full of delight’ or ‘devoid’ of it.
This is not far removed from the manner in which, in literary works of old, one reads about praise being lavished upon a work of art because of the delight it has yielded. When suddenly moved — reading a passage, seeing a performance, listening to a poem — a person would involuntarily experience a heightened state, and would speak of having romaharsha, meaning, literally, ‘the hair on my body has become happy’.
For all the meanings that rasa yields, this popular view of the effect of great art upon the viewer remains at its centre. In essence, rasa points to the relationship between art and its audience, and about the states that are awakened in the viewer. The rasika — he who is sahridaya, meaning ‘of the same heart’ — must be competent, deserving, knowledgeable; who can bring utsaha to the act of viewing. And with this one comes back to the idea spoken of at the very start: that we can take from works of art only according to our own energies, or capacities.