Devotional, General, New to Indian Music

Rasa and Bhava: An explainer guide

  • Author: Aysha Imtiaz

Could Rasa and Bhava be the bedrock of modern-day Psychology? And how does music lead to religious enlightenment?  

It’s often said that the Indian artistic ethos is not fragmented or neatly compartmentalised, but continuous, cumulative and inclusive. Without such neatly sequestered boxes or subsets, it becomes an all-consuming wave. A roaring reality, distant hum or primordial reverberation...a pervasive backdrop to what we call life. How can one best navigate such vast, impetuous and at times incomprehensible waters that take us on such wildly emotive journeys? 

The key may lie in understanding the Rasa (or artistic tastes) evoked by each piece, and the Bhavas, or emotions, informing each rasa.   

The origins of Rasa  

Long before Psychology existed as a standalone branch of scientific study, the Bharata Natyashastra, a definitive classical dramatic arts ‘handbook’ for all things Sanskrit, was believed to have been written by Brahman sage and priest Bharata Muni (Bharata the Saint, who is said to have been alive between the 1st century BCE or 3rd century CE). The 6,000 stanza treatise is revered as laying the foundation for the Indian arts and their instrumental role as a means towards religious enlightenment. 

Arguably, of all the facets and nuanced dimensions to the treatise, Rasa theory has some of the most pervasive influence in driving both performance and literary discourse. At an etymological level, rasa means the essence, elixir, nectar or juice of a performance. Connotations transfigure it into the particular aesthetic or ‘soul of poetry’.


And its origins may cut even farther back than the Natyashastra itself. “Rasa as a meaningful word spread in the air of ancient India for a very long time. ‘It figures in rigveda, it is also to be found in our ancient treatise on chemistry and medicine. It must be at least five thousand years since it was codified to be chanted in hymns by man. Perhaps it floated much earlier than that in the air of ordinary conversation.’ (Patnaik, 14),” historians speculate.   

And yet rasa is not distilled emotion alone. Furthermore, the experience of it is anything but ordinary. The emotion or intense feelings must be experienced with a certain degree of detachment, impersonality and contemplation, i.e. through performance. In fact, the rasa school of thought holds the essence of poetry itself to be a quality distinct from its determinants, such as naturally occurring situations, humans or, indeed, emotions. Through generalisation, we are able to both detach from the immediacy of the emotion, and yet experience it with a visceral primality.  

The interplay of Rasa and Bhava  

A simple example illustrating the same in the Indian arts is as follows: why is it that one finds watching a tragedy cathartic, and watching a good tragedy to be pleasurable?  

Instead of perverse sadism, it is through divorcing the emotion and the essence that the spectator is able to reach a plane where wanting to rewatch the tragedy—or the grief of the characters—is normal. And this is the operative premise of Bharata, that the sthayibhav (permanent universal emotions innate to the human psyche) transfigures and morphs into rasa (aesthetic pleasure), with the rasa manifesting through sthayibhav, but not necessarily evoking the same response.  

Rasa, then, becomes a concentrated essence or artistic nectar of the emotion itself. It is also sometimes referred to as self-luminosity. And the reason we resonate with the elicited emotion of a particular character, musical score or situation is in the inherent universality of the emotion itself.  

Despite being shrouded in one score, one drama or one actor or musician's portrayal, the distilled underlying thought is applicable to and experienced by all. For instance, sorrow is a universal emotion, and the tugging of the sitar's sympathetic strings—regardless of which raag it is—transports us to a woebegone and distant heartache all our own.  

Known as the theory of Sadharanikaran or universalisation, this is a 'simplification without dilution', leading to an experience stripped of the situation at hand, but just as visceral or primal in the emotional response it evokes.  

How Rasa translates to Indian classical music  

Indian music can be used as a potent and almost prescriptive form of healing. One of the reasons classical raags are assigned to particular times of day is explained by Time theory, which amplifies the ultimate objective—to maximise and amplify the emotive impact of the music. Because ultimately, the ancient ‘objective’, if you will, of Indian classical music has always been two-fold. It is beautiful and poignantly moving music created to orchestrate a heightened spiritual state in the listener. To help him or her experience both exultant bliss or anand, and sweeping despair, and lull them deeper and deeper into the complexity and nuanced history of the raag itself.  

As such, rasa becomes the ultimate litmus test in Indian music, with many performances assessed on the basis of that certain je ne sais quoi—that intangible yet deeply internalised experience of emotion and the ability of the maestro or maestro to evoke and deliver that rasa.  

But Rasa theory can not and does not claim to be an exact science or a marker of uniformity. Social contexts and personal experience can arguably influence the way the rasa is experienced, as well as the primacy and recency of various life events or circumstance. Some musicologists maintain that rasa is in the mind of the ‘rasika’, or listener, making it somewhat similar to the phenomenon of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. The emotion, supposed to be latently lurking beneath the surface within the listener, is simply awakened from dormancy by the musician. And assuming each listener has identical emotional underpinnings or frames of reference may be a bit of a stretch. It is plausible that certain individuals may find a type of rasa to resonate more profoundly with their being—to tug more earnestly at their heartstrings—than others. Conditioning plays an immense part, as well as the state and condition in which the music is being experienced.  

Other musicologists argue that the role of the musician is much more profound than that of charming or awakening dormant, collective emotions. So fine-tuned and charged is the interplay and exchange of emotion and vibrations between the artist and the audience in Indian music that the rasa may even be influenced by the artist’s own mental and emotional state.  

However, despite these many variables and discourses, one thing remains certain. There is a certain essence or artistic essence in Indian classical music pieces. And while rasa theory can not quantify the exact science behind the emotive impact, it is certainly a condensed start.  

After all, science as a field can only go so far. Then comes…something inexplicable.  

Something beyond the shores of our comprehension.  

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