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The Rasa Rules – What is Rasa?

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This is not another explanation of the rasa-sutra of Bharata that we dancers are drilled to recite even in half-asleep modes; neither is this an account of the open source chatbot platform, which to my mild disappointment took up much of the real estate of the first page of the Google search, “What is rasa.” Let me clarify. These are two different things. The second rasa, pronounced ‘raasuh’ is a framework used to develop conversational AI, like our Alexas and Siris. This, to my technologically challenged mind is a tool used to build a virtual person that approximates human behaviour. The older rasa, pronounced ‘rasaah!’ is a pivotal word in Indian aesthetics and performing arts theory understood as delight/ relish, flavour, juice, essence, without going into the categorizations of the rasas and the mechanics of their production.

While ‘rasa’, a concept mentioned by Bharata in the ancient text, Natyashastra, has been a runaway success, whether in terms of the multitude of commentators who took it up, or more recently, since the renaissance of the classical dances in India that began in the early twentieth century, the term still continues to dominate our thinking about dance and music. Not a lec-dem on classical Indian dance goes without paying homage to the term and even dance festivals flaunt the name; audiences are complimented as ‘rasikas’ for their discernment or even plain persistence in following classical dance and music; and some performances qualify as ‘rasic’ if the artist succeeds in soaking herself and her audiences in the rasa. To my mind, it is the intangible vibes in the aura that the performer invokes that leads to an experience of communion between the artist and the audiences. It unfolds in the inter-subjective space between the performer and the audience, making rasa, a co-created feeling. But there is an unpredictability involved – rasa doesn’t show up every time, even if the artists are really good. That is why a lot depends on the audience and the space of performance. There is also the divine angle, brought in by Abhinavagupta that its experience is next to the ultimate bliss of meeting the Maker, and the idea that the capacity to experience rasa is a result of merit earned in previous births.

In any case, this intangible rasa often engulfs entire audiences as they sway with the dancer, their eyes glisten in response to an imaginary tragedy or keep rhythm with the musicians, nodding and gesticulating ecstatically in tune with the performers. This, if you have experienced it, is a hundred times the power of the ‘amusement’ your raasuh powered chatbots can give you. Rasaah! needs to come with a warning for addiction. Meanwhile, for the lazy, the lonely and bored, or the poor kid without human companions, or the technology geeks, raasuh is there to stay. It might be useful, though to have a dancer-chatbot to remind one of schedules and things to pack for a performance, or even to assist classes.


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