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General, New to Indian Music

What is Rasa? The 'essence' or 'juice' - a flowing nectar of emotional experience

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

Rasa (also spelt ras) is the word for ‘juice’ in many Indian languages. In a musical sense its meaning is closer to the English words ‘essence’, ‘flavour', or even 'self-luminosity'. It is largely for reasons of rasa, that raags (melodic structures) are also assigned to different times of day or night - see prahar for more on this.

Indian music is specifically emotive. One could argue that all music is emotional in that it evokes particular feelings in the listener, and there are numerous instances in the West whereby someone in a deep coma regains consciousness on being played their favourite pop music. But where Indian classical music is concerned the raags themselves are said to be devised almost like prescriptions intended to create a delicately nuanced emotional state in the listener.

Some are said to have a calming effect on those who are agitated, others are supposed to revive those who are too lethargic. Others are said to cause a bittersweet yearning or nostalgia for those who are displaced or far from home or separated from their beloved (a sentiment known as pratiksha). Many raags are said to evoke the differing colours of sringara (romance).

All these emotions are further underpinned by Indian classical music’s ancient and original purpose: to cause a state of heightened spiritual awareness in the listener. Spirituality is never too far away from Indian classical music because this music has its roots in devotional rituals – something that is still very much a part of Indian concerts even though they now take place in largely secular settings.

It was this belief – that raags can cause certain physiological as well psychological changes in listener and performer alike – that resulted in music being used as a healing tool by the ancients. Many newcomers to Indian music – although they may know nothing about its technicalities or have even heard about the concept of rasa, often admit to feeling a mixture of peace and exhilaration after an Indian classical recital (see our ragatherapy article).

Although the theory of rasa has been systematically detailed in one of the earliest treatises on Indian music, modern musicologists often express doubts about its scientific validity, given that there is absolutely no way of proving that particular melodic phrases necessarily evoke a uniform emotional state in all listeners. Cultural conditioning and the specifics of listening are powerful forces. But many aficionados accept the rasa concept without question as an article of their overall faith.

It is not unusual to hear someone remark, after a performance, that such and such was a terrific, technically flawless recital but it lacked rasa, that most vital property of Indian music which, if demonstrated accurately by the musician, places the entire performance in a much higher bracket. And vice-versa: another musician may have shown some minor technical glitches but if the rasa aspect was delivered accurately and correctly then the odd technical error may be readily forgiven. Needless to say, top maestros are considered such largely because they are able to deliver technically flawless performances appropriately dripping with the right ‘juice'.

Listen to the music | Pandit Shivkumar Sharma's santoor and Pandit Anindo Chatterjee's tabla trade phrases in Raag Jog, said to summon a 'state of enchantment'. Live from Darbar Festival 2010. 

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

 

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

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New to indian Classical Music?

The beginner's guide to Indian classical music. Whether you’re completely new to raga music or just need a refresher, we’ve put together this brief overview of all things raga music to help you feel at ease when visiting one of our concerts or watch our videos on our YouTube or our Darbar Concert Hall.

 

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