Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 17-18 (June 1989) p. 33.


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Rasa: The Audience and the Stage

[HAngelika Heckel

In the following attempt to delineate the structure of what is called rasa, we will once again deal with the text which so often before has been used to explore the subject:

the Natyashastra. However, the rasa concepts long history of reception in different contexts of the Indian tradition cannot simply be left behind, and some considerations about the conditions of specific translations or interpretations should precede an examination of the text.

Therefore we must examine the way of interpreting rasa which became dominant in the nineteenth century in the context of the colonial situation in India. The concept was assimilated to the paradigms of western aesthetics, also by modem Indian interpreters, sometimes accompanied by apologetics. In this context rasa came to be understood as an 'emotional delight, a special 'feeling' effected by theatre. This remained the central interpretative framwork: to view the shift from a 'purel/ aesthetic to a more 'psychological' interpretation1 as progress obscures the fact that the basic schema of understanding has not changed. This schema is based on some fundamental dichotomies which have their roots in the modem European philosophical tradition. Starting with Descartes (around whose time 'aesthetics' was constituted as a discipline), the separation of 'cognition' from 'emotion' is decisive for the whole 'scientific' enterprise. While 'objectivity' is attributed to the former, the latter is viewed as fundamentally 'subjective'. Thus cognition and emotion stand in a relation of mutual exclusion. Although emotions initially lack any objective content, they can become objects of cognition and interpretation when they are isolated from the situations in which they occur. Conversely, 'cognition' and 'objectivit/ should be purged of any emotional bias. Thus 'scientific neutrality' becomes possible.

Aesthetics and psychology2 are both sciences concerned with the subject—both intend to produce a general and objective theory for subjective experiences. In the light of this, it is understandable that the Natyashastra has been interpreted both as an 'aesthetic theor/ and as 'empirical psychology^3 Accordingly, rasa might be viewed either as a 'sentiment' occurring within the spectator during the performance or as an object to be produced by theatre in order to effect 'psychological states'.4 In the former case rasa is placed in the subject and loses its objectivity and


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