Rasa : My thoughts on feelings

Rasa refers to the emotions evoked in the audience as they watch a performer.The word “Rasa” literally translates to mean juice, essence or taste. We can interpret this in an artistic context to mean the essence of the performance as perceived by the audience. Rasa, more famously known through the nava rasas is often thought to be the various emotions that a performer exhibits. This is fundamentally incorrect. What the performer expresses is called Bhava. And what the audience experiences as they watch the bhava unfold is a rasa. These are basic definitions that any artist would know and this is not what my blog is about today. My thoughts are about the effective communication of emotions or abhinaya as artists.

As a performer myself, Abhinaya is one aspect of indian classical dance that I am still taking the time to understand and grow into. I used to take it for granted until I started training under my Guru Rukmini Vijayakumar. When I was younger, abhinaya was just a mixture of hand and facial gestures. Now I realized that it can get so much more real. Good abhinaya has the power to make or break a performance, the power to liberate you and dissolve you into a whole other world.

When I watch certain performances, I’m really taken in with the artists journey and emotions. Some other performances, although technically very strong and correct have not touched me emotionally. If asked why, I can’t actually point out any quantifiable flaw in these performances, they just didn’t tug any strings in my heart. I started to question why this happens. Performers intend to emote and communicate certain feelings, ideas and thoughts through the course of their repertoire. As a person of the audience, what I experience need not necessarily be the same as what a performer is expressing or what a performer intends for me to feel.

A lot of the emotions experienced by a person watching, depends on the capability of the performer to evoke the right kind of rasa. For instance, if the intention is to make the audience feel pity for a character, it is not enough for the artist to go into a monologue of self pity. An actor exhibiting self pity will most likely cause the audience to get annoyed or even laugh at the artist. On the other hand, if the performer can convey what it is that is so difficult and sad about his/her situation and establish how they got into the situation, make the audience relate to the emotions they are going through, the audience might actually feel karuna and empathize. If the performer is unable to establish a connect between the audience and the character they are portraying, the performance usually falls flat.

Many times even a really good performer who has the right intentions might not connect with the audience and communicate effectively. This further got me thinking – What is it about a rasa that can make it effective?

I feel that rasa is situational and many times drawn from the audiences experiences and state of mind during the program. What can evoke the right emotion one day need not necessarily evoke the same emotion on a different day. If someone who has lost a dear one  watches a performance where the performer is on the verge of losing someone close, they will instantly connect with the performance and go through the expected rasa. This holds good even if the performer is inadequate. Because at this point, the rasa is not evoked through the performer but through the content of the performance.

If such is the case, does the bhava even matter? Does it matter what the performer is doing on stage if at some level the audience can always connect to the art? When we think of Indian classical dance today, I feel like this particular line of thought seems very relevant.  Since a predominant content of our dance form relies on bhakti, mythology and pre-existing stories that have been embedded into all our minds from childhood, an audience automatically goes through the right rasa. No matter how good or bad the performers bhava is, when they show Rama killing Ravana the audience is going to feel happy. When draupadi is disrobed, people are going to be outraged. When little Krishna is stealing butter, we will laugh. Here lies both the beautiful and ugly truth about indian classical dance forms.

If we take the same performer and put them in a real time current day situation, or lets even say in a drama/theatre and ask them to only use their expressions and body language to tell a day to day story, will they be able to communicate as effectively? Or are we hiding behind the safety of our vocabulary? Is dance really universal?


7 thoughts on “Rasa : My thoughts on feelings

  1. I think you’ve hit some interesting engagements, but they are quite binary and simplistic ! Just because we know the story of the Ramayana or Krishna eating butter does not necessarily mean that we will evoke certain emotions (happy, amused). I think that is where rasa and bhava come in; to our minds they are simply just stories: the beauty is in the enactment of these stories through bhava which allow us to engage with the art. For example, say you saw the depiction of ravan on his deathbed atoning for his sins – it is not historically or culturally embedded in us to feel sympathy for him, but we may if there is rasa and the correct bhava.

    Secondly, rasa is something that is cultivated. Over time, people become better at picking up things the more they have been exposed to it. In this case, it is not entirely universal but has the potential and capacity to be so. Asking if a specific type of dance form is universal is irrelevant because the answer is no. They may be aesthetically impressed or find it engaging, but if they are moved is another question. But is movement, emotion, memory, experience universal ? Yes, most certainly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi there! Thanks for your comment. Would be happy to publish it if you could send it non anonymously 🙂

      I totally agree with what you are saying. This is what i am also trying to explore through my article. The capability of the performer to exhibit the right bhava plays a major role in the audience perception. But at the same time, i think that even a mediocre performance works in today’s world because of the cultural backing that our dance forms come with.

      Like you said, people right now go to watch performances only for the aesthetic appeal and enjoy the beauty of the movement. They go for the entertainment value – no wonder the most popular dance form of india is ironically bollywood. But that is not what classical indian dance is about. The drama and emotional side of dance is as important, infact i would say its even more important. And somewhere along the course of time this has been lost. My view is that if the performers can start to convey their bhava better, people can start enjoying classical dance performances and walk out being more emotionally fulfiled.


      1. Hi there,

        Yes I agree with what you are saying. Have you ever found it that even sometimes classical dancers themselves get quite bored while watching other dancers? Even if these performers are “expressive”? Maybe this has to do with the fact that we are in an instant reward type society at the moment. We feel the need for heightened stimulation at every second, the need to understand something exactly overnight, and the necessity to decipher all things in front of us; we have also not been taught to sit for long periods of time. Bollywood is definitely popular and while I find it baseless mostly, perhaps we can learn something from it. I agree that there is no thinking that is involved, but clearly something about it resonates with large audience members. I feel there needs to be a revitalization movement of Bharatnatyam (which I think Rukmini Vijayakumar is truly in the forefront of) that makes it accessible to everyone. This does not mean that we need to water it down like Bollywood… but perhaps it needs something else at the moment? Something almost transcendental… not just bhava, not just aesthetic strength, something more and above the sum of the parts. Something you can’t actually calculate and train for specifically. Rukmini definitely has that ‘something else’ which I have truly not come across in many other dancers. You are blessed to learn from her! I wish you the best of success for that a-ha moment to come.


  2. Nitya, your blog gave a completely new perspective to me about rasa. I always used to think that a rasa is the emotion of the performer but not of the viewer. This is really a beautiful article. Please keep writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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