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Sangeeta Isvaran

The aesthetics of Rasa across Southeast Asia.

Its varied implications in the contemporary social context.

Sangeeta Isvaran: "The aesthetics of Rasa across Southeast Asia. Its varied implications in the contemporary social context", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

1. Introduction

The paper begins with an introduction to the Rasa Theory and attendant terminology; continues with an analysis of character types; a brief description of each dance/drama form; a practical description of how rasa is achieved in each form using as a case study, a scene from the Ramayana; conclusions drawn regarding the process of realizing rasa in each form and the innate nature of rasa; inferences made as to how this experience can be simulated and applied in work with underprivileged communities with descriptions of techniques developed.

2. A brief introduction to the Rasa theory of the Natyasastra

The rasa theory of the Natyasastra is a seminal work that scholars over the centuries have extensively analysed. To understand this theory three concepts defined in the Natyasastra must be understood: abhinaya, bhava and rasa. Abhinaya is the art and technique of communicating bhava, emotion, to produce rasa, aesthetic enjoyment. The fundamental, yet most important unit of expression is emotion or bhava. The Natyasastra divides bhava into three categories: sthayi bhava the principal emotion), vyabhicari or sancari bhava transient emotion) and satvika bhava involuntary emotion).The sthayi bhava-s are 8 in number, the vyabhicari bhava-s are 33 in all and are used to reinforce the sthayi and there are 8 satvika bhava-s, which are the involuntary reactions manifested in the body such as horripulaton, tears, temporary paralysis) when one successfully invokes the sthayi in the deepest manner possible, i.e. when satvika abhinaya is invoked. Finally, the Natyasastra states that the goal of any art form is to invoke rasa. The Natyasastra lists 8 rasa-s but scholars in later centuries added a ninth one to create the concept of the nava rasa-s or 9 rasa-s.

Coming back to the rasa sutra or basic ‘formula’ to invoke rasa stated as follows:vibhava anubhava vyabhicari samyogat rasa nishpattih. Vibhava is the determinant or the cause of a bhava, anubhava is the physical result or performance of that bhava that is communicated through abhinaya. The most important vibhava and anubhava are those that invoke the sthayi bhava or the principal emotion at the moment. Thus the rasa sutra states that vibhava, anubhava, and vyabhicari bhava-s together produce rasa, i.e. good vibhava and anubhava imply the strong invocation and expression of a bhava especially the sthayi bhava). Appropriate vyabhicari bhava-s enhance the sthayi bhava so that the satvika bhava-s are invoked, resulting in rasa.

This does not exist simply as a theory in the Natyasastra but can also be seen in practice in several Indian classical dance forms including Bharatanatyam. For example, let the principal emotion or sthayi bhava be anger, Krodha. Let us say the cause of anger, vibhava, is betrayal by a friend. The anger will be more potent if the vibhava is strongly established. If the sthayi bhava is deeply felt then it will result in physical manifestation of anger such as burning eyes, heaving chest, which is the anubhava. But in anger one can make fun of and laugh sarcastically at the object of one’s anger. One can feel sorrow when thinking of happy times spent together earlier. One can feel disgust for the other person’s behaviour or be amazed at the change in him now and so on. Through all this the fundamental thread of anger must be maintained. But the transient emotions, vyabhicari bhava-s of laughter, sorrow, disgust and amazement enhance the present angry state and if performed with appropriate Angika, Vacika, Aharya and above all, true Satvika abhinaya, will invoke the rasa of Raudra or anger in the spectator whose mind is completely in accordance with the performer.

3. Character types

A very important point to note is the existence of distinct character types in all these performing art forms and indeed in almost all performing art forms in Asia. A movement is created always keeping in mind the context of the character executing that movement. Thus, in the study of abhinaya, there is also a need for a basic analysis of character types. In the Natyasastra, Bharata defines three major character types, uttama or character of high ‘moral’ fibre, madhyama or character that is neither noble nor base and adhama or evil or low character type.According to the Natyasastra, the style of attitude and behaviour varies sharply from the uttama to the adhama. The uttama uses the natya dharmi style or refined way of movement and expression characterized by complete self-control, while the adhama uses the loka dharmi style or the casual, natural style of behaviour with less self-restraint. The Madhyama character uses a mixture of both styles. For example, the technique of expressing laughter according to the Natyasastra manifests itself in an uttama as a controlled smile and in an adhama as an open-mouthed loud sound, accompanied by the shaking of the shoulders, and sometimes with the hands slapping the thighs.

The concept of uttama, madhyama and adhama characters already exists in Southeast Asia. In all the Southeast Asian dance drama forms, movements are generated, divided and classified according to character types and are well defined. Every character uses a specific type of movement technique that also helps the audience identify the nature of the character. In Thai and Cambodian classical dance drama forms there are 4 main character types: ManUttamaPrahPreah ; WomanUttamaNangNeung ; MonkeyUttama/MadhyamaLingSwa ; DemonUttama/AdhamaYakJea. In Indonesia, the Javanese Wayang Wong has the two kinds of women types and two kinds of men types. The Balinese style has one woman type and two men types. In both, the monkey usually is a variation of the strong male type. The heroes usually use the refined male type. Strong kings and demons use the strong male type.

Burmese classical dance is divided in male and female forms of technique but the character types within each technique is based more on personal interpretation like the Indian classical dance styles. Bharatanatyam also defines different character types, but they are all played by one dancer and the interpretation is intuitive. There are no specific movements delineated for any particular character type. This analysis based on character type plays an important role on how each culture perceives the physical comportement of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ behaviour.Thus, the aim of this paper is to discuss the methods of abhinaya used to express bhava and evoke rasa using the rasa sutra as a model, focusing mainly on three aspects.1. The expression of sthayi, vyabhicari and satvika bhava-s in Southeast Asian dance forms. 2. The manner in which the style of abhinaya changes in uttama and adhama characters.3. Using the perceptions of the body, communication through the body, social hierarchy and the existence of different mental or ‘spiritual’ states in generating techniques of ‘creative movement’ designed to help expression, communication, raise self-esteem, and aid education and empowerment. The implications of these aspects in the philosophy of rasa, in the actual practice of abhinaya and in work with underprivileged groups will be discussed.

4. Realising Rasa

The existence of the concept of rasa in these dance drama forms is fact. The term as well as the concept of rasa exists in the Indonesian vocabulary of dance. The term rasa does not exist in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia but all teachers teach the principle goal of art to be to lift the spectator and the performer to a different world where nothing exists but the art, to make the audience laugh and cry along with the artist. This in other words is rasa. In all these five dance forms and indeed in almost all the traditional performing arts of Asia the artist is always taught to pray, to meditate, to focus his or her energy before commencing her art. The Balinese pray for ‘taksu’ or energy or involvement without which the most perfect performance would be a failure. The Cambodians do the ‘Sampeah Gru’, a ceremony to pray to the gods to invoke the spirit of dance in students and to honour the teacher. The Thai perform a similar ceremony and in fact pay respects to their teachers every Thursday which is the day of the ‘guru’. The Javanese teach rasa to be one of the essentials of art.

In order to delineate clearly the process by which rasa is achieved one scene from the Ramayana an Indian epic that was taken to several parts of Asia and is now performed by all the dance drama forms mentioned in this paper) has been chosen and its execution in each style briefly described. The scene chosen is the confrontation of Sita the wife of King Rama) and Ravana the demon king who kidnaps her) in his garden in Lanka where she is brought.

5. Description of the case study - Sita with Ravana

The scene of Sita and Ravana is used as a case study for the following reasons: 1. This scene exists in all the different versions of the Ramayana in these five countries and is popularly performed in all the five art forms.2. It involves one female and one male character.3. It involves one uttama Sita) and one adhama Ravana) character so that one can study the different ways of invoking abhinaya based on gender and character type.4. It involves two strong bhava-s of sorrow and anger.

Sita is in the garden surrounded by demonesses. Filled with sorrow, she bewails her present situation, when Ravana enters. Seeing Sita he is filled with desire for her. He approaches her, talks to her and tries to embrace her. Sita rejects him violently. He tries to approach her once, twice and each time she rejects him using strong words condemning his actions, vowing her eternal love for Rama and her disgust for Ravana, preferring death to marriage to Ravana. Filled with rage Ravana draws his sword to kill her and is stopped by his sister Trijata, who is a good woman and pities Sita. She convinces Ravana to come back later while she will talk to Sita on his behalf. Ravana exits. This is the basic structure of the scene that is followed by all four forms.The goal of this scene is to evoke sorrow and pity on behalf of Sita and disgust and anger against Ravana.

6. Depiction in performance in all the styles (to be demonstrated)

6.1. Bharatanatyam

Sita expresses her sorrow with slow movements, tear-filled eyes, heavy sighs, chest and shoulders rounded and stance drooping slightly. The gestures are both stylised using stylised mudras or symbols to show Rama etc) and natural using hands in a natural, gentle manner to wipe away tears). Even while the sthayi of sorrow is held strongly, she might think of Rama, and the happy times they spent together and smile. Thinking of Ravana she gets angry, remembering her harsh words to Lashmana she feels regret. Thus many vyabhicari bhava-s like depression, suspicion, anxiety, memory, bravery, regret can be expressed, though the fundamental thread of sorrow, the sthayi, must be maintained. They enhance her present grief stricken state. While expressing her anger and disgust against Ravana, the movements are stronger and more staccato. The feet strike the ground, the gestures are large and the stance held strongly with shoulders back and head held high. Even as she repulses him, her movements are always dignified as befitting an uttama. The approach of Ravana, the vibhava evokes her sthayi of anger, resulting in the appropriate expression, anubhava, of that anger using abhinaya effectively.

Ravana’s movements are very strong and confident. His stance is wide, his movements are staccato. His emotions and moods are violent yet filled with dignity since though he is not an uttama character, he is a king. His sthayi when confronting Sita the vibhava) is first, desire Rati). He tries to seduce her with sweet words and promises of wealth, all expressed through soft gestures and cajoling movements anubhava). Through it many vyabhicari bhava-s like contempt for Rama), dissimulation as he tries to deceive Sita) etc may be portrayed. When she continues to repulse him vibhava), it rouses the sthayi of anger Krodha). The anubhava of his anger is violent and expressed through savage movements, heaving chest, reddened eyes etc. Ravana’s movements and abhinaya are drawn from the same technique as Sita but the mode of rendering is imbued with his character. All emotions are vividly conveyed using the eyes, a gamut of facial expressions and gesture language.

6.2. Khon

In Khon, Sita’s sorrow is more subtly conveyed. Since today, a woman performs the role and not a man; the movements are highly influenced by the more graceful Lakhon Nai style. The expression of sorrow is held strongly and never lost. Her stance is erect but her shoulders are narrow, the arms are never held widely apart. The knees are usually kept together while seated and in movement. Usually the scene commences with Sita seated and her sorrow is communicated through tears portrayed in an extremely stylised manner with the upper body moving gracefully in a series of ‘hiccupping’ movements, which are rather difficult to achieve. The movement manifests itself in the shoulder and chest but actually originates at the navel and even lower at times. The hands move in a graceful manner to wipe away tears. It is done in a highly stylised fashion. The gestures follow the lyrics as she expresses her sorrow of separation from Rama but the face does not change its expression from sorrow, maintaining the sthayi strictly, permitting no other emotion to appear. This lends an abstract and stylised character to the movement since one cannot interpret the gestures unless one is familiar with the gesture language of Khon. Leisurely the atmosphere of sorrow is built up. The extremely slowness of the movements and the emotional intensity of sustaining the emotion draws the spectator into the same mood.While repulsing Ravana, called Tosakan in Thailand and Cambodia from Sanskrit, ‘Dasakantha meaning ‘ten necks or ten heads’), her movements are stronger and quicker but never staccato. The face changes to anger as the sthayi shifts to krodha but it is very minimalist in expression. But even then her uttama character prevents extensive facial expression.

Tosakan is masked and so cannot show facial expression. His desire for Sita and later anger is conveyed very explicitly through his body movements. His stance is very wide and movements very strong and staccato. In abhinaya, his body is used in a natural fashion loka dharmi), e.g. He emits sounds of rage when repulsed by Sita. He too uses gestures but the way of expression is more violent. His feet often strike the floor violently. Thus his character though masked discharges a lot more emotion than that of Sita.

6.3. Rabam Boran

The portrayal of Sita and Tosakan is almost the same as in Khon. While the lyrics are in Khmer, the stances and movement technique is more or less the same though the choreography may be different. The main difference is that dancers of Rabam Boran are permitted to show a stronger degree of emotion. Sita’s face conveys her sorrow with a more intense degree of emotion. Tosakan is given a far more license in his approach to Sita but even so the characters only express the principal emotion.The physical distance between dancers is less. E.g.) Rama and Sita sit very close together during the scene when Sita asks Rama to get her the golden deer. This lends an intimacy to the situation that is absent in Khon and in Thai classical forms in general. Thai forms tend to be more aloof and reserved in expression.

6.4. Wayang Wong

Javanese style from Surakarta:The Javanese style is by the far the most reserved one. Sita’s sorrow is highly internalised and muted. Her stance is rounded and eyes bent to the floor. Seated, her movements very slow, repetitive, swaying, she uses the traditional scarf sampur) tied around her waist as a tool to wipe away her tears and later, to flick at Ravana Rahwono in Javanese) in rejection. Even her anger against Rahwono is expressed in a very contained fashion and her movements never lose their grace and stylisation. She never looks at him and stands with her back to him. Never aggressive, at his approach, she simply walks away from him, the style of walking on tiptoe making her appear very fragile. Gestures are very minimally used. She may speak in dialogue in Wayang Wong but the voice intonation too is very controlled.In strong contrast, Rahwono makes sounds of rage when rejected by Sita. His movements are strong, which his legs extending in controlled kicking movements to the sides. His stance is erect and movements large. While his desire for Sita and subsequent anger is expressed more strongly than an uttama, still Rahwono does not descend completely into loka dharmi but retains a certain amount of aloofness.

Balinese style:The Balinese Sita too uses her scarf as an aid to expression but her face is allowed to show a lot more emotion. There is a lot more importance placed on spontaneity of emotion and eye movement. The stance usually shifts one hip out and the shoulders are pushed back to the maximum possible, projecting the chest. But while expressing an emotion the stance relaxes to a more natural one. While the scene begins with her sorrow, wiping her tears, the advances of Rahwana, provokes her to extreme anger. Slapping her hand on her thigh and pointing at Rahwana, with concentrated eye contact she repulses Rahwana.Rahwana also has a lot more freedom to express his emotions. His movements are rough. His stance itself is with shoulders raised up to the ears and elbows raised and fingers in the manner of the putra keras style. His desire for Sita is conveyed through the manner of his approach and his attempts to embrace her all performed in the natural ‘loka dharmi’ mode of behaviour. His anger too is expressed in the same mode with sounds of rage emitted.

6.5. Burmese classical dance

The Burmese Sita is by far the most high-spirited. She also sings to express her grief more strongly. While her stance is not wide, she has a long train that she flicks with her feet to accentuate movement, lending a dynamic element to the choreography. She has a long scarf, either white or blue, which represents her chastity. She uses it as a veil to hide from Ravana (called Dasagiri in Myanmar). He enters with a rose which he offers as a symbol of his love for her. She, naturally refuses it and retreats behind her veil. After several attempts at reaching her, at one point he catches one end of the veil and lifts it high. She immediately drops her end and this see-saw kind of movement continues for a while. When he get angry, Dasagiri roars with rage and attempts to kill her. His feet planted wide apart, sometimes leaping and spinning, he is the embodiment of rage and brute power.

7. Inferences

From the observations above it is possible to draw the pattern of emotions of this scene as follows: For Sita: Kidnapping by Ravana, separation from Rama; For Sita: Sorrow (Soka); Entry of Ravana; For Sita: Disgust (Jugupsa). For Ravana: Desire (Rati) at the sight of Sita; Ravana declaring his love for Sita and asking her to leave Rama and accept him; For Sita: Disgust (Jugupsa) and anger (Krodha). For Ravana: Desire (Rati); Rejection of Ravana by Sita; For Ravana: Anger (Krodha). For Sita: Disgust (Jugupsa) and anger (Krodha). The sthayibhava is felt by the performers and manifested physically as anubhava using the techniques of abhinaya in each form and if performed with true feeling, will invoke the appropriate rasa-s in the spectator. Concerning Sita, the rasa-s to be evoked are pity, Karuna, sorrow, Soka and anger, Raudra on her behalf). Concerning Ravana, the rasa-s are disgust, Bhibatsa, and anger, Raudra, against Ravana).

So much is true for all these forms, which are story-telling traditions. Vibhava and anubhava exist in each form. But in the Southeast Asian forms they only exist for the sthayi bhava. Only the principle emotion is expressed. Vyabhicari bhava-s are not brought into the emotional equation as it is done in India. The sthayi bhava with the attendant vibhava and anubhava are evoked, then intensified in the strongest manner possible and this if carried out with complete involvement results in rasa. Vyabhicari bhava are not considered essential to evoke rasa. This implies the importance placed on internalising an emotion and expressing it in the deepest manner possible. Rather like narrowing and concentrating the emotion into a laser beam of expression, not seen by the visible eye but powerful enough to cut across all mental and physical barriers to reach the heart and evoke rasa. Facial expressions are not prominent the characters being either masked or showing minimal expression. Instead body language, the extremely slowness of the movements and the emotional intensity of sustaining the feeling draws the spectator into the same mood where the mind is completely engaged and rasa is evoked.

The styles of abhinaya used by the uttama and adhama characters, i.e., sophisticated, restrained style of behaviour and unrestrained, often crude forms of behaviour respectively, conform to the principles of the Natyasastra -- even more so than many Indian dance forms. It is obvious that the uttama and adhama characters in Southeast Asia use distinct natya dharmi and loka dharmi styles of communication. This implies that high value is placed on self-control in these regions. In the context of performance it implies that the uttama characters are more circumscribed by rules and the movements are strictly pre-choreographed without much room for improvisation. For the adhama characters there is relatively more freedom in expression even though they are usually masked.

On the other hand, in Bharatanatyam, there is not such a vast distinction between uttama and adhama modes of behaviour. One is more contained and the other more unrestrained but in terms of spontaneity and creativity, both have equal freedom. The extreme self-control advocated by the Natyasastra for the uttama is sacrificed in order to allow for freedom to explore different emotions. Spontaneity and creativity are the most prized attributes in abhinaya in Bharatanatyam. But that is not the approach of a dancer to her art in Southeast Asia. This difference is undoubtedly partly due to the fact the four Southeast Asian forms under consideration developed in the courts and were danced by royalty too. The codes of conduct were very strict. Whereas Bharatanatyam was danced by devadasi-s, who were in a sense beyond societal rules.The contrast in movement of uttama and adhama helps the audience identify the type of character and also helps create rasa. E.g.) The extreme control of Sita’s movements and the rigid turning of the head away in repulsion and the contrast of the fragility of her movements with the violent ones of Ravana in the Southeast Asian dance drama forms evoke the rasa-s of pity and anger in the audience on her behalf. Ravana’s crude methods to seduce Sita easily arouse disgust.

In my view, the Indian approach to achieving rasa is to exhaustively explore emotion, to reach the limits of expression, an explosion of emotion, throwing out more and more feeling till there is nothing left and one reaches the state beyond emotion, that is rasa. The Southeast Asian way, it seems to me, to be more an implosion; the dancer throws emotion inwards, internalising it until it consumes her. The tightly controlled, repetitive movements reinforce the emotion. The refusal to physically express the emotion throws it inwards and if allowed sufficient time, to deepen it gradually till one is full of emotion and then – empty, realising rasa. This of course is only an observation based on personal experience with teachers, other students and also learning the dance forms. I would like to state that the practitioners of these dance forms are usually not aware of the Natyasastra and various theories of rasa. In each tradition dancers are taught the techniques of abhinaya and through watching, dancing and learning from their teachers they realise slowly the experience of rasa. It is the emotion that is of primary importance and the goal of the dancer is to submerge herself in the role deeply in order to enjoy the ultimate experience of rasa.

8. Observations

From the above study some observations can be made about the different processes of realising rasa:1. The quality of dissociation or even escape from reality as one perceives it, that the experience of rasa offers.2. Absence of vyabhicari bhava-s or transient emotions in the process of attaining rasa in Southeast Asia. This implies a focusing on an emotion to a degree that all other feelings are negated, marginalized or erased at that particular instant of time. This gives one the chance to explore an emotion in depth.3. Rasa can be perceived to have two attributes. On one hand, it is an intensely personal experience and on the other hand it is capable of forging a link between people going through the same experience.4. Uttama characters are characterized by extreme control and Adhama by the lack of the same equating nobility and good behaviour with physicl and emotional self control.5. Strict division of “masculine” and “feminine” styles of movement (irrespective of whether the performer, in reality, is male or female) endorsing stereotypes of male and female attitudes and perceptions of the body. Far more restrained techniques of movement for women than for men, freedom of the body curtailed a lot more in the former.

These are just a few observations made about the nature of rasa. These observations have been used in developing creative movement techniques working with groups of street children, sex workers, orphans, victims of sexual abuse, drug addicts and so on. In each case I have endeavoured to use the experience of rasa to help communicate better, to enhance self-esteem, facilitate education and empowerment.

9. Example of exercises using abhinaya and rasa

Ask each participant to choose and emotion (sthayi bhava). Then execute it (anubhava). One decides on happiness and laughs, another sorrow and cries, another chooses anger, another pain and so on. At first it is a game and everybody laughs at each others efforts. Then the next step is to add a sound or make the emotion more real. When they ‘feel’ it more, then the next step is to ask the question ‘why?’ Why do you feel angry or happy or sad, i.e. the vibhava. Then we begin to talk slowly, to describe what moves them to feel a particular emotion, to share their thoughts and feelings. Then ask the person sitting by the side of you to react to your emotion creating a kind of ‘dominoes’ effect in emotion. Then everyone is asked to participate in each emotion, that is to participate in the life experience of each one. Together, we laugh, we cry, we yell in pain, growl with anger, cry out in yearning and so on. The effects can be funny, liberating, moving, and painful. But as you begin to focus more and more on an emotion, to explore it to the fullest together as a group a bond is formed. An energy is released and a link forged.This is an example of an exercise that can be done sitting down or standing and using the whole body by any age group. There are also more physical exercises where movements are choreographed and “danced” to music and as a group when one sweats, moving in accordance, touching one another, giving weight, trusting, a physical sense of a bonding can be generated.

Signature movements can be created asking each person to generate a movement using the sound of his or her name as music. This explores notions of the body, in relation to other bodies and as an individual. As each one generates a “body signature” the fullness of exploring your identity, of expressing yourself through the body can expand to create rasa. It can be useful when dealing with male-female perceptions like in work with transvestites, victims of sexual abuse and so on.When talking about rasa to a group at a drug rehabilitation centre, one participant remarked that it sounded a lot like the high one is looking for with drugs. We tried ways of achieving rasa with intensive physical workouts, role-play, generating arbid emotions and at the end the “high” achieved was enormously satisfying. And the best part was that it was generated without the use of any chemicals or aid from anything outside the body. The process took a longer time but the process of seeking rasa is as important as the experience itself.

10. The author

Sangeeta Isvaran is a professional dancer of the Bharatanatyam style, a classical dance form from Tamil Nadu, India and has performed in several coutries in Europe, Asia and North America. She has studied several performing art forms of Southeast Asia, Africa and other parts of India working with dance and theatre techniques as well as music and rhythm. She is also a researcher with the Asian Scholarship Foundation and is affiliated with the Centre of Indian and South Asian Studies, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, CNRS, Paris, France and has written papers on the Indian influence on the performing arts of Southeast Asia, perception of gender in their performing arts, comparative studies of abhinaya or the art of expression and so on. She works with underprivileged groups like street children, professional sex workers, orphans, drug addicts, homeless people in several countries using dance for self expression and self empowerment as well as for education in human rights, AIDS awareness and so on. She strongly believes that dance is not just for performance but can be a powerful tool for self-empowerment, self-expression and social reform; to give and receive joy.

Ms. Sangeeta Isvaran



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