The tasting of flavour

  • Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 13, 2014 11:42 IST

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 term rasa in itself is difficult to translate: among the variants used are ‘tincture’, ‘essence’, ‘flavour’, ‘relish’ and, most often, ‘sentiment’. Aesthetic experience is described as rasasvadana, ‘the tasting of flavour’. The taster or the ‘knower’, in other words, the viewer or the reader, most specifically a scholar or connoisseur, is referred to as a rasika; a work of art possessing rasa is designated as rasavat or rasavanta.

The Great Goddess Battles The Demons; from a Sirohi workshop; 1703 (Photo courtesy: Penguin)

In its most obvious sense, the sense in which it is still employed most widely in daily parlance in India, rasa means the sap or extract of plants. In this sense the word means the same thing to nearly everyone. In its secondary sense, however, rasa signifies the non-material essence of a thing, ‘the best or finest part of it’, like perfume, which comes from matter but is not so easy to describe or comprehend. In its tertiary sense, rasa denotes taste, flavour; the relish or pleasure related to consuming or handling either the physical object or taking in its non-physical properties.

In its final and subtlest sense, however — and this is close to the tertiary sense in which the word is applied to art and aesthetic experience — rasa comes to signify a state of heightened delight, in the sense of ananda, the kind of bliss that can be experienced only by the spirit.

Left: A Lady of Rank, c 1875; Right: Kamsa Attempts to Kill the Newborn Child, possibly from a Mandi Workshop, c 1650 (Photo courtesy: Penguin)

Over centuries, the rasa theory became more refined and complex. But whatever philosophers and theoreticians might have to say, the common person uses the word frequently, often with remarkable accuracy. Great works insist that the justification of art, its raison d’être, lies in its service of the fourfold purposes of life: right action (dharma), pleasure (kama), wealth (artha) and spiritual freedom (moksha). But, without reference to those leaps of thought, at the ordinary level it is understood that art must result in an experience of rasa. It must yield delight.

It is possible that the concept of rasa would have been more familiar to persons who came from the Hindu–Buddhist–Jain tradition rather than, say, to those from the Islamic. It may thus have been spoken of more in relationship to Rajput works — Rajasthani or Pahari — than in relationship to the Islamic Mughal or Deccani works. But even in the latter tradition, the idea of works of art yielding heightened delight, not simply pleasure, was not unfamiliar. Or else one would not hear, in the context of art, words like soz and gadaz, meaning, literally, ‘burning and melting’ that one comes upon so frequently in the Persian–Urdu tradition.

How rasa comes into being, or is experienced by the viewer, is a matter of importance and has been sought to be explained by many. It is causally related to bhava — the term has been translated generally as ‘mood’ or ‘emotional state’— of which, according to Bharata, there are eight dominant types, and each has its equivalent rasa. The rasas, ‘everyone knows’ as they say, are Shringara (the erotic), Hasya (the amusing), Karuna (the compassionate), Raudra (the furious), Vira (the heroic), Bhayanaka (the fearsome), Bibhatsa (the odious), and Adbhuta (the marvellous). To these, over time, was added a ninth: Shanta (the quiescent). Even though in its essence rasa is one and undivided, it is through one or the other of these nine rasas that an aesthetic experience takes place. This is because out of these nine, one sentiment or flavour dominates a work of art and propels a spectator towards, or becomes the occasion for, a rasa experience.

Two Camels Fighting by ’Abd-al Samad c 1590 (Photo courtesy: Penguin)

Bhava — mood or emotional state — has several components: those that determine it, those that follow it, others that give rise to complementary emotional states, each having specific Sanskrit terms. Physical stimulants or surroundings, gestures, movements, all come into play for bringing a dominant emotional state into being. While a performance is being watched — the original context is, after all, that of theatre — all these things are being registered upon the mind of the viewer. With it a ‘churning of the heart’ takes place, as the phrase has it.

The conversations around rasa take a more ambiguous and subtle turn hereon. The argument runs thus: as a result of this ‘churning of the heart’, this coming together of different elements, a dominant or durable emotional state emerges in the mind of the viewer. This state transmutes itself into a rasa. ‘Bhava,’ it is said, ‘is the flower and rasa the fruit thereof.’ Now, if the circumstances have been right, if the performance is of the proper order, and if the viewer is cultured and sensitive enough — is, in other words, a rasika — a spark will leap from the performance to the viewer, resulting in an experience that will suffuse his entire being.

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.

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