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.
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?