We will discuss the rasa theory of Abhinavagupta and the persistence of its aesthetic into modern times. This discussion is based on Chapter 6 of “The Literatures of India: An Introduction” by Dimock, Gerow, Naim, Ramanujam, Roadarmel, and von Buitenen, published 1974 and 1978 by the University of Chicago Press. The rasa theory of art appreciation was formalized and expounded by Abhinavagupta, a Shaivite from Kashmir of the eleventh century AD.
Rasa is generalized emotion. When all particular consciousness is eliminated from a portrayal, what is left is rasa. Rasa is the essence, the core, the very juice portrayed and appreciated. Rasa imposes its character on the elements that express and realize it, and structures their organization. It is not the artist portraying an emotion perceived by the audience, but the emotion that becomes the portrayal by the artist and the perception by the audience. A work of art is the enabler of direct apprehension of a generalized emotional being by both the artist and the audience. The mysterious transcendence of particular consciousness through intuitive identification with emotion is rasa.
In order to make it systematic, a practical basis is given to this essentially subjective and incommunicable experience by eliminating confusion in the portrayal and imparting a constancy of character to its elements. This constant character is exposed and refined through interplay of stylized action in a field of uneventful happenings that build to a denouement which, in the end, simply clarifies the character and reconciles its actions. The audience is required to be sympathetic and tutored in its ability to read this constant character in its stylized acts.
Opposite to the progressive revelation of a constant character is the style of portraying the sudden transformation of a character through the agency of an extraordinary event. This is the basis of the Aristotlean plot and the Shakespearean tragedy and, in modern times, formulaic cinema, in which a crisis leads to the examination and reconstitution of the hero’s self. The appeal of the sudden transformation is clear in linear portrayals such as a book or a play or a movie: the contrast is easily portrayed and easily grasped—trading some measure of emotional content for enhanced tangibility of plot structure.
Examples of progressive character development too are easily found beyond the rich and extensive literatures of India. The detective story comes to mind wherein the characters remain substantially what they are and the sequence of events builds to a denouement which explains all. The network television serial is another example wherein the same characters work out their personalities from week to week while negotiating various situations that the plot throws at them. Movies such as 2001: A Space Odessey and The Matrix, and the books on which they are based, while replete with absorbing developments, in the end simply portray the progressive revelation of a constant character. Some other art forms such as figure skating and gymnastics are also of this nature wherein during the portrayal, in spite of several explosive maneuvers, what emerges is the fluid beauty of an unfolding performance.
In art the rehearsal is distinct from the performance. The former is transformative of the person’s character and under rasa the latter is unchanging in the portrayed character. The expert figure skater’s performance, for example, bears great interest when taken together with the development of the figure skater’s person. Reaching the level of physical and aesthetic ability demanded by a superlative performance calls for a signal endeavor over many years that marks the person. The person undergoes a transformation to attain, in the aesthetic frame, a constant portrayal.
There is a field of human development and action in which there is no distinction between rehearsal and performance: the rehearsal is not removed from the performance and the inner character is not different from the portrayed one. This is the field of yoga. Yoga is a profoundly transformative process that leads to the emergence of a constant inner character, and action from the yogic consciousness is a constant pressure on the world that ultimately transforms it.
This brings us back to the interpenetrated unbrokenness of the aesthetic experience under the rasa system in which the generalized emotion descends into the portrayal and the perception. In the setting of performing arts such as a play or a dance or a recital, the artist and the audience are organically present, and hence this descent is enabled. To draw a simile that is commonplace and accessible, the satisfaction derived from cooking a meal and eating it, perhaps by a mother and child, respectively, is like the mysterious identification with the generalized emotion behind a portrayal and its perception—for both carry the same unbrokenness.
On the other hand, there are arts that do not intrinsically enjoy such a setting. Sculpture, for example, and painting are forms in which the artist portrays first and the audience perceives later. In fact, with modern technology, virtually all performing arts can be recorded for later viewing. Is there then any diminution in the aesthetic experience of a performing art in its recording? The organic presence, indeed participation, of the audience in a portrayal gives the performance an adaptive character which is necessarily absent in recorded portrayals. Thus it is best to treat the recording of a performance as a distinct art form from the live performance. The question is similar to asking whether the satisfaction derived from cooking for later consumption or from eating alone is less than the satisfaction derived from eating a freshly cooked meal in the company of the cook, even when the meal eaten later is of the same culinary quality because of modern technology such as a microwave oven. The answer is probably in the affirmative. But if it was known to the cook that the meal would be eaten later, then only such a meal would have been prepared that would have been eminently satisfactory after reheating—thereby altering the art form.
Painting and sculpture are no less able to evoke the range and depth of aesthetic experience than any other form of art, and the separation of the process of creation and of perception is inherent in them. Does rasa theory apply to them? The aesthetic experience transcends localizations, both of the particulars of the plot and other creative artifices as well as of the medium and transmission. It has in it the power to project itself across various gulfs and be received by a sympathetic and tutored perceiver.
To draw another simile, the ability of art to transfer emotion is like the ability of a commodity to transfer utility. A good, say an apple (why not draw all similes from the kitchen), can be taken from one place to the next, and preserved from one day to the next, and still be eaten. The ability of a good to transfer utility across the gulfs of time and space and circumstance is formalized in economics by the notion of value. The transaction of exchanging one good for another is broken into the exchange of goods for money, and for all economic purposes, value is equated to price. Business activity deals with the creation and monetization of value.
While economic theory provides a rational and analytical basis for the study of this activity, all practical business persons will attest that the communication of a value proposition for the purpose of its exchange for money is a deeply emotional process. By the time the buying decision is called to question, a tremendous amount of communication of the value proposition has already taken place between the buyer and the seller, to the extent that both parties are shaped by this process of communication and the setting for the buying decision itself is fashioned by it. In business, value imposes its character on the buyer and the seller, the producer and the consumer, and structures their organization.
Unlike a physical commodity, though, which ends after its consumption, a work of art appropriately reproduced can be experienced over and over. In that sense, works of art are more like ideas (trading food for thought) that do not end with dissemination. Education, with its classic setting of the teacher and the student, is the process of communicating knowledge—a body of ideas—and knowledge imposes its character on both teacher and student and structures the organization of the discourse.
Knowledge, emotion, value, beauty, yogic consciousness—these are some of the core principles that impose themselves on our world and have the practical effect of structuring its organization. They pierce all gulfs and bring an organic unbrokenness to experience. Following Abhinavagupta’s rasa theory, they are best developed by eliminating confusion in their exposition and imparting constancy to their practice. Rasa theory is a common theme underlying the progressive unfolding of several aspects in our world at large.