Monday, March 22, 2010

Rajika Puri's masters thesis introduction

Provided by the lovely woman herself:

[A Structural Analysis of Meaning in Movement: the hand gestures of Indian dance (NYU, 1983)]

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 (circa third century A.D.) is the oldest extant text on Indian dramaturgy [see Ghosh 1967]. The text is important to Bharatanatyam, but the subject is not developed here in this short essay[see Puri 1983, Chapter 3, for further discussion]. [The Editors].

[ii] The texts on natya and abhinaya describe in detail the different moves of each of these bodily parts --

cf. Ghosh [1967] translation of Bharata Natyasastra,

Duggirala [1970].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

An interesting metaphor

Did you know that in Sanskrit literature fake ascetics are often compared to herons?

This is because herons are white in color so *look* deceptively innocent and pure but in fact eat fish. The whole fish thing manages to mar their purity. (Going back to the fact that ascetics are vegetarians)

Fascinating. Which I suppose leads to an entire discussion on the use of metaphor in dance, but I'll save that for another day.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Letters to a Young Poet/Chicken Soup for the Artist's Soul

If you're an artist and you ever find yourself in a rut or questioning what you do, please, please read a translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. I just finished the tiny, 100 page book last week and its effects were similar to the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books you would read when your younger - but way better.

Rainer is absolutely inspirational in his ability to take everyday cliches and turn them into beautiful poetic letters about the life of an artist. Much of it rings true, other parts cause you to contemplate deeply the meaning of what you do. Read it when you can no longer stand the politics, the critics, or even yourself haha.

Here are a few quotes I found particularly meaningful:

Paris, February 17, 1903:

"You ask if your verses are good. You ask me. You have previously asked others. You send them to journals. You compare them with other poems, and you are troubled when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (as you have permitted me to advise you) I beg you to give all that up. You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you."

Viareggio near Pisa, April 23, 1903

"And let me here at once request you: read as few aesthetic-critical things as possible,--they are either partisan opinions, become hardened and meaningless in their lifeless petrifaction, or else they are a skillful play upon words, in which one view is uppermost today and its opposite tomorrow. Works of art are of an infinite solitariness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near them than criticism."

Worpswede near Bremen, July 16th, 1903

"...dear Sir...have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer."

Rome, May 14, 1904

"To love is also good: for love is difficult. Fondness between human beings: that is perhaps the most difficult task that is set us, the ultimate thing, the final trial and test, the work for which all other work is only preparation."

Borgeby Gard, Sweden, August 12, 1904

"But please consider whether these great sorrows have not rather passed through the midst of yourself? Whether much in you has not altered, whether you have not somehow changed in some part of your being, while you were sorrowful? Only those sorrows are dangerous and bad which we carry about among our fellows in order to drown them; like diseases which are superficially and foolishly treated, they only recede and break out after a short interval all the more frightfully; and gather themselves in our inwards, and are life, are unlived, disdained, lost life, of which one can die. If it were possible for us to see further than our knowledge extends and out a little over the outworks of our surmising, perhaps we should then bear our sorrows with greater confidence than our joys."