13 January 2010

'Rasa-Bhava' & The Audience

Somewhere between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE, what are now The Natyasastra’s 37 chapters were assembled in India. Preceded only by The Poetics (335 BCE) of Aristotle (384-22 BCE), to which it bears some superficial resemblance, The Natyasastra is the second-oldest known “how-to” book on theater. Predating the treatises of Zeami Motokiyo (c. 1363-c. 1443) on Japanese Noh drama (1402-23) by some 15 centuries, it is attributed to the sage Bharata-muni but was probably compiled by several contributors over many years. (Bharata’s life dates are unknown--if he in fact existed at all--though they have been put anywhere between the 5th century BCE and the 2nd century CE. Bharata had 100 sons, who became actors. Bharata is the Sanskrit word for both ‘actor’ and ‘India.’ Bharata Natyam, for instance, means ‘Indian dance.’ Muni corresponds to the title ‘Sage.’) Our primary source of information about ancient Sanskrit performance and a guide to understanding the many living performance traditions in India today, the treatise is still used by classical performers such as Kathakali dancer-actors, Kutiyattam storytellers, and Bharata Natyam and Orissi dancers. Unlike Aristotle’s Poetics, The Natyasastra was written for theater practitioners, not analysts. A detailed handbook of theater production, it covers all elements of playwriting, theater construction, costume, make-up, acting, dance, and music. I’m going to look at only one aspect of acting which I find intriguing, the Theory of Rasa-Bhava.

The Natyasastra is partly a religious text, the “fifth Veda,” revealing to the people the rules of dramaturgy and stagecraft as handed down to Bharata by the god Brahma. The production of a play is an offering to the gods (much as it was in ancient Greece), and performing is a religious act.

The Natyasastra is written in the classic Indo-European language of Sanskrit, the language of the intelligentsia and aristocracy of ancient India. Natya is the Sanskrit word for both dance and acting or theater; sastra means ‘set of rules.’ (Classical Indian performers are “dancer-actors” because the distinction we make in the West simply doesn’t exist in classical Indian theater.) English transliterations of Sanskrit words vary in their spellings (many with elaborate diacritical marks) depending on the system used, so I’ll try to avoid using them at all when I can. But note that the original words and terms have multiple English meanings, none of which may be precise, or even entirely accurate. (Some Sanskrit words are unavoidable, as you’ll see, but I won’t provide the Sanskrit term for every concept I mention as most academic studies on the subject do.) My essay covering this subject, "The Natyasastra and Stanislavsky: Points of Contact" (Theatre Studies 36 [1991]: 46-62), from which this column is partly excerpted, was a comparison of the theories of Konstantin Stanislavsky and the performance practices laid out in The Natyasastra. Towards that end, I used Stanislavsky terminology and examples to discuss the Sanskrit system. For the sake of simplicity and consistency, I’ll keep to that tactic--with the caveat that the approaches, while I determined they had overlapping features, are not precisely equivalent. In other words, what I’m going to say here is something of a simplistic approximation. Now, a word about the text of The Natyasastra: there are several English translations available, as well as many analyses and commentaries (both ancient and modern), but the terminology and quotations I’m using here have been drawn from Manomohan Ghosh’s rendering: Bharata-muni, ascribed author, The Natyasastra: A Treatise on Ancient Indian Dramaturgy and Histrionics (Calcutta: Manisha Grantalaya, 1961-67). One more note--about gender references in this column: like Greek drama, Kabuki, Elizabethan theater, and Kathakali, all actors in classical Sanskrit drama were men; all pronouns will therefore be masculine. (Some modern descendants of Sanskrit theater, such as Bharata Natyam and Orissi dance, have both male and female artists.)

Before getting down to rasa-bhava, I want to touch on a broader Sanskrit concept that in a sense governs all of performance: abhinaya. The word literally means “leading towards,” with the implication in performance of leading the audience toward an emotional response (rasa), but it is generally used to mean the actor’s art of expressing feeling. It covers everything that an actor may use on stage to communicate the play’s meaning and the character’s emotions and intentions to the audience. Abhinaya has four components: gesture and movement (anything to do with the body), speech and singing (anything accomplished with the voice), costume and make-up (anything using outside objects, including the few props or set elements that appear in Sanskrit drama), and “representation of the Sattva” or the portrayal of emotion. (I’ll touch on sattvika abhinaya a little later. It’s the heart of rasa-bhava, as you’ll see.) So, you see that abhinaya comprises the whole of an actor’s craft. Western observers of Asian performance sometimes consider that it’s all technically rendered, and if you look only at the treatises like The Natyasastra and Zeami’s Kadensho, you might well think that. But examining the performances themselves, hearing from the actors, and delving below the superficial appearances, you’d find that they are all rife with emotional content. (I discuss this in some detail in my original essay. I have also written another essay on the expression of emotions by Kabuki actors, "Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams," which I’m preparing for publication and a version of which I may eventually post on ROT.)

Like many Asian forms of performance, from Noh and Kabuki to Beijing opera to Wayang Kulit and Wayang Orang to Kathakali, Sanskrit drama is codified and conventional. Just as the iconography of the costumes and make-up convey meaning to the initiated spectators, so do the movements and gestures of the actors, such as the hand or eye movements which they learn in years of training and apprenticeship. With good abhinaya, the gestural codes seem spontaneous and natural even though they have been carefully worked out and codified over centuries, like the kata of Kabuki performances. (Most of the published studies on Indian classical theater provide lists of the scores of codified movements and gestures Indian actors and dancers use. Many are depicted in temple carvings so you can get an idea how amazingly precise and detailed they are.) The whole aim of abhinaya is to depict the feelings of the character (bhavas) and convey them to the audience so that they will respond with the desired “mood” (rasa) appropriate for the play. While the Greek tragedies, according to Aristotle, were aimed at purging the spectator of pity and terror though catharsis, Indian heroic romances (there are no tragedies in classical Sanskrit theater--all the plays end happily so there’s nothing to purge) aim to provide the audience with an emotional experience they enjoy. The Greek audience was expected to achieve insight by learning something from the events of the play they witnessed, terrible and pitiful though they may have been. The Indian audience achieved insight from the emotional response they had to the feelings portrayed on stage by the heroic characters in the play they witnessed. That audience response is rasa. Everything that happens on stage, everything that went into writing the play, is designed to achieve rasa.

The transmission of the actor’s emotions to the spectator toward this achievement is the subject of the most interesting and complex discussion of The Natyasastra. Chapters VI and VII identify and describe the bhavas, the “Psychological States” or “Modes of Being” of the performers, and the corresponding rasas, the “Sentiments” felt by the spectator. Known as the Rasa Theory or the Theory of Rasa-Bhava, what I’m going to outline is The Natyasastra’s description of how the bhavas arise in the performer. (This theory is very complex and I’m not going to cover all of it. Curious readers are directed to excellent discussions of Rasa-Bhava in Pramod Kale, The Theatric Universe (A Study of the Natyasastra) [Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1974] and G. H. Tarlekar, Studies in the Natyasastra [Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975].) It is here that sattvika abhinaya has its most significant application. All of the components of abhinaya must be applied by the actor in order for him to bring the audience to the correct rasa, and thus to the enjoyment of the play, but sattva, which literally means ‘purity,’ however in dramaturgy is the pyschological ability of the actor to identify with the character and his emotions, is the hardest to master and to understand. As Bharata asserts, “Sattva . . . is [something] originating in mind. It is caused by the concentrated mind. The Sattva is accomplished by concentration of the mind. It’s nature . . . cannot be mimicked by an absent-minded man.” There is no adequate translation of sattva (the noun) or sattvika (the adjective); the The Natyasastra calls it the “Spirited” modes of abhinaya, but the best explanations link it to Stanislavsky’s “Magic ‘If’” and “Sense of Truth.” This allows the actor to convince himself the circumstances are real to the character, even though, as the actor, he knows they are not. When executed properly, sattvika abhinaya allows the actor to exhibit the physical signs of the emotions the character’s feeling, such as tears, trembling, change of color, or (and I love this one--it’s so “Indian English”) horripilation (the hair standing on end, or goosebumps). For the audience to feel the correct rasa, the actor must manifest the outward expressions of the character’s emotion with all of abhinaya, but especially sattva. The Natyasastra insists, “The Histrionic Representation”--that’s the English term Ghosh uses for performance--“with an exuberant Sattva is superior, the one with the level Sattva is middling, and that with no [exercise of] Sattva is inferior.”

The end result for a performance, rasa, is different from the feelings we have in everyday life. (Rasa literally means ‘taste’ or ‘flavor’; it’s used in aesthetics because it signifies something that can be “tasted” or “savored.”) Ordinary emotions don’t result in enjoyment or fulfillment and aren’t the consequence of representation, or abhinaya. In fact, rasa only results from drama--not literature, poetry, or even dance creates rasa. The Natyasastra names eight rasas to which drama leads its audiences: erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, odious, marvelous. (Different words are used in different translations.) These sentiments or moods, which the spectator is meant to feel from a successful performance, correspond to eight bhavas, the emotions the character feels (and which the actor must express): love, mirth, sorrow, anger, energy, terror, disgust, astonishment, each emotion matching the relevant rasa. (A later commentary added a ninth rasa and modern aestheticians have even added more, but The Natyasastra recognized only eight.) In other words, if a character is feeling anger (bhava), the actor uses all his abhinaya skills to impassion the audience with fury (rasa). Furthermore, an actor must distinguish between the way one character projects a rasa and the way a different character does it. Late Kathakali actor Padmanabhan Nair explained that while a king and a brahmin may both feel sadness at the loss of a son, for instance, the ordinary brahmin “may express his sadness very loudly. But the king’s is very much controlled.” Rasa, then, imbues the spectator with “pleasure and satisfaction,” says The Natyasastra.

To put it very briefly, the bhava, the emotion felt by the character, results from a “Determinant” (vibhava), or determining circumstance, such as the time of year, the presence of loved ones, the decor or environment, and so on, which are described in the dialogue (as noted earlier, Sanskrit plays have very little scenery, like Elizabethan theater). The vibhava affects the character so that he feels sorrow, terror, anger, or some such emotion (bhava). The “Consequent” (anubhava) of a particular bhava is a specific behavior exhibited by the actor (as he portrays the character) such as weeping, fainting, blushing, or the like. (This is where sattvika abhinaya comes most pertinently into play: the better the actor’s sattva, the more real, and therefore convincing, will be his anubhavas.) The anubhava, if properly executed, will cause the audience to feel a specific rasa corresponding to the bhava felt by the actor. A simple diagram of this process looks like this:


This is precisely the process Stanislavsky describes for his actors. A character’s feelings arise from the circumstances of the scene, both those in effect at the moment and those that occurred before. The feelings, combined with the “given circumstances,” cause her to behave in a certain way--the “stage action.” Replacing the Sanskrit terms of The Natyasastra with Stanislavskian terminology, the diagram might look like this:


This is, admittedly, a simplistic reduction of Rasa-Bhava. Chapter VII of The Natyasastra goes into great detail about the bhavas, which are broken down into three categories. The major one consists of the eight “Durable,” “Permanent,” or “Constant” modes (sthayibhavas) which I listed above. These affect the character so profoundly that all other circumstances may become irrelevant. They are accompanied by thirty-three vyabhicari-bhavas, called “Complementary” or “Inconstant” modes, which may be seen as what Uta Hagen calls the “Conditioning Forces” of a scene--the changeable conditions that affect a character’s behavior, such as intoxication or exhaustion. The way famous Bharata Natyam dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai put it makes the system clear and simple: “There is an old poem that says: ‘Where the hands go the eyes follow [anubhava], where the eyes go the mind follows [sattvika abhinaya], where the mind goes the mood [bhava] follows, where the mood goes there is rasa born . . . .’”

The Theory of Rasa-Bhava also establishes a relationship between the performer and the spectator. In Indian aesthetics, the model spectator is a sahrdaya, someone ‘who empathizes with the author.’ Since the success of a performance is measured by whether or not the audience has a specific experience (rasa), the performer depends heavily on the spectator. Even more, since the goal of Rasa Theory is to create a mood in the audience, the spectator becomes a vital participant in the play. Another way to look at abhinaya is that it’s the process by which the meaning of the play is “led toward” the audience.


  1. Thank you Rick for the detailed study.

  2. Thank you, whoever you are. Appreciative comments are always welcome.


  3. Replies
    1. You're more than welcome. It's my pleasure!


  4. On 1 February 2016, the New York Times reported the death of Bharata Natyam dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, mentioned in my article on Rasa-Bhava above, on 21 January. Here's an excerpt from the Times' obituary by Nida Najar:

    "Mrinalini Sarabhai, an Indian dancer and choreographer who brought ancient South Indian dance forms into the 20th century and infused her work with social commentary, died on Jan. 21 at her home in Ahmedabad, in western India. She was 97.

    "The cause was complications of a stomach infection, her son, Kartikeya, said.

    "Ms. Sarabhai was one of the first women to perform Kathakali, a classical dance form based on Hindu epics that was usually performed by all-male troupes in elaborate makeup and costumes. She was also among a group of contemporaries who introduced wider audiences to Bharatanatyam, a dance form that had traditionally been presented in temples by women who were promised to Hindu gods.

    "As a choreographer, Ms. Sarabhai often deviated from the typical subjects of classical dance to tackle injustice.

    . . . .

    "Ms. Sarabhai was born Mrinalini Swaminadhan in the South Indian city of Chennai, then called Madras, on May 11, 1918. Her father was a prominent lawyer, her mother a social activist and later a member of Parliament.

    "Her sister, Lakshmi Sahgal, was, like their mother, active in the struggle for Indian independence, and served as a captain in the Indian National Army, formed by the Bengali freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose.

    "Ms. Sarabhai studied in Switzerland and at a school run by the Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan, in present-day West Bengal. She learned classical dance from various instructors.

    "She married Vikram Sarabhai, a physicist regarded as the father of India’s space program, in 1942, and later moved with him to Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat. He died in 1971.

    "In 1949 she and her husband founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad; it is now run by their daughter. In addition to her daughter and her son, an environmentalist, Ms. Sarabhai is survived by four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren."


  5. hi, How can we apply this ancient theory to modern theatre?

    1. Thanks for leaving a Comment, Samira.

      I'm afraid I can't answer your question, except to say, it's open to your interpretation and whatever ways it inspires you is a good place to start.

      I'm not an expert in Asian theater techniques, though I've studied a number of forms of Asian theater. There are such people, though, and one of the best I know is James Brandon at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He may be emeritus by now, but if you can contact him, he may have some concrete suggestions. He has directed many productions of Asian classical dramas, including Indian, in English and has experience applying many Asian techniques to Western acting practices.

      Good luck.