Literary Review

The aesthetic trajectory

A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics; Sheldon Pollock  

Sheldon Pollock has done pioneering work in the field of Sanskrit studies, and the book under review alongside his magnum opus The Language of Gods in the World of Men is part of a series on Historical Sourcebooks in Classical Indian Thought. In fact, a brief review like this might not do full justice to the scope and range of A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics. Six chapters, densely packed with text, translation, commentary and explications (including several previously unavailable in reliable translations) prefaced by an erudite introduction tracking the various issues relating to the conceptual framework of rasa, its avatars, extensions and exclusions, make this work unique and a collector’s item. The reader gets a brilliant compendium of comparative aesthetic scholarship in elegant prose. The book is taxing for the non-initiate but a feast for any discerning student of Indian aesthetics.

What is rasa? When was it actually formulated, and in what context? How did it assume such significance in the contexts of aesthetic debates? For several years, albeit such discussions had been fairly common in Indian academic circles, scholars have always felt a severe lacuna when it came to tracing the history of the concept in comprehensive terms.

Granted there have been insightful contributions from scholars like S.K. De, P.V. Kane, K. Krishnamoorthy, V. Raghavan and others, but Shelden Pollock has foregrounded many key elements that sort out the sequence of this elusive concept in clear-cut terms. He traces the trajectory of the idea of rasa from theatre to poetics. Indian scholars had designated literature as that which is ‘seen’ (on stage) and that which is ‘heard’ (through literature). Although poetry ( kavya) is an all-inclusive term, theatre had developed suitably early in this country. The oldest extant text on dramaturgy in India is Bharata’s Natyasastra. This treatise is a comprehensive account of everything from ritual preliminaries of a theatrical performance to the various types of acting (language, gestures, facial expressions, costume and make-up) to music, dance and stage design. Chapter 6 in the Natyasastra is the closest thing we have to a foundational text of the discipline of aesthetics, where the celebrated “aphorism on rasa” is found. As Bharata sees it, rasa arises from conjunction of vibhava, anubhava and vyabhicharibhava — factors, reactions and transitory emotions.

When a theory that is exclusively developed for literature ‘seen’ is adapted to discussions on literature ‘heard’, there is bound to be a conceptual expansion, and this process of appropriation was transparent to the early theoreticians, says Pollock. “Generally speaking,” wrote Rudra Bhatta, in Srngaratilaka (early 9th century), “the nature of rasa has been discussed by Bharata and others in reference to drama. I shall examine it here, according to my own lights, in reference to poetry.”

The consequences of this expansion of rasa theory, according to Pollock, can be charted principally in three domains; the discursive, where the concept was fused with the rhetorical; the conceptual, where the narrative required a new linguistic analysis; and the categorical, for the defining condition of rasa as something actually visible on the stage no longer constrained the understanding of what emotions could count as rasa. In all three domains, however, the discourse on rasa remained formal, and attention was squarely focused on the text.

Aesthetics as an academic discipline in the West begins formally with Alexander Baumgarten in 1735. Through the works of Kant and Gadamer, aesthetics remained a domain of sensory experience, holding little consequence to the world of knowledge. Now, as we translate the word rasa as taste, it ushers in a problematic when placed alongside the history of Western ideas. For instance, the configuration of the problem of emotion in literature. Western theory juxtaposes concerns with the author’s emotion in the creation of literary artwork (as in Romantic/ expressive theories) with the emotion embedded in the text (its formal properties) and with the reader’s emotional engagement with the text. As Pollock says, a strikingly analogous set of concerns can be found in India, but here the ideas take on the contours of a sharp historical development. The earliest element of rasa (as the tragic) is visualised by Valmiki. Then from Natyasastra onwards, there was a long period of intense textual analysis, until the 10th century when Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta foregrounded the aesthetic subject. And once rasawas seen as engendering emotions in the reader, the entire discourse shifted gear and the inquiry focused on its conceptual transformation.

It is a pleasure to follow the various streams of argument that Pollock traces through the classical texts. A poet does not pour forth rasa until he himself overflows with it, so it is with this insightful scholar. This is indeed a source book for rasa. What now remains is for regional scholars to take up and continue the debate on why and how aesthetics came to be subjugated to or dominated by knowledge. This could help us understand ourselves a little better by coming to terms with art and literature and reintegrating with the world at large.

A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics; trs & ed Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University Press, $80.

Murali Sivaramakrishnan is professor of English at Pondicherry University.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 8:17:43 AM |

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