Rasa (‘flavor’) and Bhava (‘mood’)
One of the basic concepts that has preoccupied all writers on Indian theatre and dance since the third century is the theory of rasa (glossed as ‘taste’, or ‘flavor’) which is at the root of Indian aesthetics, providing an underlying unity to all classical mediums of expression. The theory is difficult to articulate, for all discussions of it are based on complex metaphysical concepts.
The theory of rasa, as conceived by the Hindu aesthetician and as practiced by the artist, has two aspects. the first is the evoked state (rasavastha) in which transcendental bliss is experienced; the second is the sentiments, the moods, the permanent and transitory states, which were the object of presentation. the second provided the content of art; the first was its ultimate objective . . . . The technique of the arts was directly conditioned by these principles, and the techniques of the Indian arts are the rules through which these rasa states can be evoked [Vatsyayan 1968: 6]*.
Interpretation of this theory is a constant theme that recurs in every treatise on Indian art forms whether music, architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry or drama. It differs slightly for each medium of expression. Discussion of the first aspect ('evoked state') mentioned in the passage above involves inquiries into the very nature of aesthetic experience. The second aspect (sentiments, moods) bears directly on the forms and presen-tations of what are known as the ‘transitory’ and ‘permanent’ states, in the various mediums which have been the foci of writers on dramaturgy since the sage, Bharata’s writings.[i] Even if one can only present a glimpse of the concept of rasa in the available space of this essay, it cannot be ignored since it is essential to the concepts of natya and nrtya.
Fundamental to the idea of rasa is the notion of transforming nature into art [Coomaraswamy 1934]** which may be demonstrated with reference to thenavarasa (nine rasas) as codified in Indian dramaturgy. As Vatsyayan says, “Significantly, the one point on which all the commentators agreed was the in trinsic difference between aesthetic emotion and emotion in real life” [1968: 7].
The Indian actor-dancer evokes rasa through the presentation of one of nine complementary bhavas (‘moods’ or ‘states’) that have their basis in nine emotions, i.e. love (srngara), valour (vira), wonder (adbhuta), compassion or grief (karuna), laughter (hasya), fear (bhayanaka), aversion or revulsion (vibhatsa), rage or wrath (raudra) and tranquility (santa), which are considered to be several steps removed from the passions or natural feelings. With the use of gesture, the dancer repre sents situations that lead the spectator to enter into the bhava (mood) that accom panies contemplation of these emotions.
Performers present these emotions transformed into sentiments that are removed from the subjective and personal realms of experience by referring to those episodes from stories about the lives of divinities which best evoke these sentiments. He or she is expected to engender an intellectual apprehension of the idea of the heroic, the marvelous, the compassionate, the erotic, and so forth. The route to understanding these concepts is through reference to the senses and the emotions, but final understanding is at a level freed from sensory awareness and as far from nature as possible.
The actor or dancer conveys through movement the bhavas evoked by the music. He or she brings forth the meaning of the words and the melody by using conventional movements of the eyes, eye-brows, cheeks, neck, hands, limbs, torso, legs and feet -- indeed, every part of the body.[ii] The ultimate aim of the actor or dancer, however, is not simply to “please the eye” or to “tell a story,” although these are intermediate goals. The true purpose is to engender in the spectator an apprehension of rasa. The ability to apprehend rasa is eventually dpenedent on the spectator’s own capacityfor understanding.
The ideal spectator is the rasika (the ‘taster of rasa’) who is familiar with the conventions not only of drama and music, but of sculpture and painting. It is also assumed that the rasika understands Hindu philosophy and is conversant with the mythology and literature of India.
The Rasika and the Ordinary Spectator
From the many treatises on art, music and drama, one is led to believe that the ideal rasika must be as carefully trained and disciplined as the artist [Vatsyayan 1968: 3] and that nrtya and natya are on the whole, esoteric -- inacces sible to the ordinary spectator. Many scholars insist that properly to appreciate an idiom of dancing, one must know the significance of each gesture, the many associations of each word in the sahitya, and, they say it is also necessary to be able to identify each raga and tala.
While it is true that the more one knows, the more levels there are at which one can appreciate and enjoy a dance recital, a major part of the knowledge expected of the ordinary spectator is not that complicated. The requirement is common cultural knowledge.
The rasika is distinguished as the person who possesses scholarly knowledge: the person who has studied the sastras (the treatises and sacred books), and can comment on various aspects of a medium of expression with the use of a highly technical language. While this level of understanding is definitely specialized, there are aspects of what he or she knows which can be acquired informally simply through being exposed as one grows up to many cultural performances, including dances, religious rituals, dramas, and such. Cultural knowledge, then, is first acquired in the same way as one learns one’s native language. Only after wards does a rasika formalize this knowledge with reference to scholarly texts and disciplined study.
Throughout his or her childhood an individual participates in religious cere monies, readings from the scriptures and literature, and in musical performances that take place. Since Bharatanatyam is allied to south Indian traditions -- the music is Karnatic and the spoken languages used (with the exception of Sanskrit) are south Indian -- a south Indian audience is familiar with the heroes and di vinities referred to by the dancer and he or she also knows many of the melodies and songs that the performer interprets. At an informal level (in contrast to a scholarly or analytical level), most south Indian spectators can discern the differ ent elements of the music, the poetry and the movements.
If organized by a south Indian community, it is not unusual during a recital to see spectators’ heads being moved from side to side signifying appreciation of a particular musical passage or sequence of movements. Many spectators mark the tala (time cycle) by hitting the right palm against the right thigh, or by clapping, then waving the hand in the air. Occasionally, during a particularly complex jati sequence a spectator might get up and mark this tala till the end of the jati, ac centing the down beat that terminates both the jati and a cycle of tala. If the dancer’s rhythm is precise, the spectator may turn around to face the rest of the audience and, with a smile, nod approval before sitting down again. To westerners, to whom such audience participation is unfamiliar, these kinds of action are distracting, but for an Indian audience, they are a primary means of expressing approval. It may be, too, that discussion of the merits or demerits of a performer takes place during the recital, although this is now frowned upon as western-style etiquette has begun to influence Indian audience’s behavior.
[i] Bharata’s Natyasastra (cir
[ii] The texts on natya and abhinaya describ
cf. Ghosh  translation of Bharata Natyasastra,
Duggirala .translation of Nandikesvara's Abhinaya Darpanam ('Mirror of Gesture')
* Vatsayan, 1968 is Classical Indian dance in Literature and the Arts by Dr. Kapila Vatsayan
** Coomaraswamy 1934 is The Transformation of Nature in Art by Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy