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Rasa Theory and its application to Indian Music

An overview of aesthetics in Music

The word ‘rasa’ has three primary associations of meaning:

[1] Of being the object of perception by the sense of taste
[2] Of being the essence of any thing or being
[3] Of being something dynamic and not static

To extrapolate this into music, we go back to the Indian tradition wherein the central point of aesthetics is ‘rasa’ or ‘aanand’ [joyful bliss].The concept of rasa originated and developed in the context of dramaturgy, since drama is a dynamic art form combining the audio and visual impact. The Rasa Theory was expounded by Bharata muni in his treatise ‘Natya-Shastra’ [2nd BC- 4th AD] wherein he stated:
‘Vibhaav-anubhaav-vyaabhichaari’ , i.e.: Rasa arises from a combination of the stimulants {vibhaava }, the physical consequents {anubhaava } and the transient emotional states { vyaabhichaari }.
[1] Vibhaava : Determinants or stimulants are comparable to the actual causes which produce a certain emotion in real life
[2] Anubhaava; Consequents comparable to effects produced by affecting causes
[3] Vyaabhichaari: Transient emotional states which accompany and point to a basic mental state [sthaayi-bhaava] comparable to auxiliary causes.
When different emotional states come together, artistic flavour comes through and makes the experience enjoyable [aasvaadniya].

There are different interpretations of this theory: I will touch upon a few of those which were prominent at that time.

[A] The musicologist Abhinavgupta stated that ‘Rasa’ is in the mind of the ‘rasika’ or listener in a dormant state. The stimulus merely awakens the dormant instincts and evokes a response or reaction. In other words, appreciation of music is an instinctive response. The psychology of this theory  recognizes and addresses the role of  the unconscious memory. The forces which form the core of this memory are a combination of racial memory, cultural memory [called samsakaras], input and impact of the environment. All these go into developing the various strata of the ‘ego’ which defines the emotional behaviour and its responses. This theory could provide an explanation to the ‘Raag-Time’ co-relation. By tradition, the Indian ear is conditioned to respond in a certain way. Devotional music seems to have an extra appeal in the early hours of the morning, because in the Indian ethos, our day begins with a ritual of prayer. Morning is a time for meditation and introspection - One looks forward to the new day with renewed faith and hope in the heart. Interestingly, most morning melodies are sombre and devotional in nature.

[B] Bhat Lolat and Shankuka conversely held an opinion which was the exact opposite to that of Abhinavgupta. They propounded the theory that Rasa is not present in the Rasika, but is created by the art form. It occurs on account of the stimulus, which plays a larger and more pro-active role than merely awakening dormant instincts and responses. The former theory however gained wider acceptance on the basis that, responses vary from person to person, depending on their emotional data bank so to speak. This is especially true for an abstract and intangible art form like music. It also explains why it is desirable but definitely not necessary to possess technical knowledge to be able to appreciate music.

[C] The great musicologist Sharangdeva [ 13th century] put forth his interpretation of the Rasa Theory in his magnum opus on music the Sangeet-Ratnakara.

At this point I would like to mention that there are 9 rasaas or navarasa, in dramaturgy. They are:
Shringaara [erotic], Roudra [anger] Haasya [ comic], Bhibhatsa [ludicrous] Jugupsa [disgust], Vismaya or Adhbhuta [wonder], Karuna [pathos], Veera [valour] and Shaantha [tranquility]. In music, one takes into account only four of these, namely: Shringaara, Veera, Karuna and Shaantha.

 Sharangdeva, expounded the theory that each note carries its own emotional cloud around it.
Sa-Ri veeradbhutey raudrey,dha bibhatsa bhayanakey; kaaryo ga-ni tu karunaa haasya shringaaryormapou’

Sa-Ri: Veera , Roudra  and Adhbhuta
Dha- Bhibhatsa, Bhayanaka
Ga-Ni: Karuna
Ma-Pa: Haasya,Shringaara.

This theory’s validity was questionable however, because a ‘raga’ is a combination of notes and phrases, hence the element of ambiguity and in some cases sheer confusion would set in. One may assume that the mood of the raga would be dictated by the dominant notes in it, which would impart their emotional colour to the melody. E.g.: if madhyam was the dominant note it would probably be shringara rasa and so on.

Sharangdeva, however made the first attempt to co-relate rhythm - Laya- a distancing of time points to create a generative pattern, and Rasa. Rhythm is an essential and intrinsic part of music and hence it will play a large role in creating the rasa or aesthetic flavor. It was Sharangdeva, who drew a co-relation between these two factors:
Shaantha and Karuna Rasa – Vilambit Laya-slow tempo
Shringaara-Rasa- Madhya Laya- medium tempo
Veera Rasa- Drut Laya – fast tempo.

He tabulated the fact that it was of the utmost importance to choose the right tempo to convey the desired emotion. E.g : a composition depicting valour  would obviously have to be in a fast tempo and conversely a composition full of tenderness and pathos would have to be in a slow tempo.

[D] Finally, the modern musicologist Shri. V N Bhatkhande was of the opinion that a direct one-one correspondence of raga-rasa was not only difficult but impossible. It was too simplistic a way of looking at something as complex an abstract form like music in relation to an equally abstract and complex parameter like the mind and its emotional states. After all, if Sa-Ri evokes Veera Rasa and Ma-Pa- evokes Shringaara Rasa, then every raga should evoke these two aesthetic responses since these notes are present in almost all the ragas which is obviously not the case.

The theory put forth was that, besides mere notes, laya and rhythm patterns, there are several other factors which combine and interplay to create the phenomenon of Raag-Rasa.

Factors responsible for inducing Rasa:

[1] the most important factor is the ‘Raaga-Time ‘theory. This is the  mystical bond between melody and time in a 24 hour cycle when it is sung or played. Please refer to the article Kaal-Chakra for a detailed exposition of the same.

[2] Consonance and Dissonance in Music:
These are musical effects that produce opposite emotions - they come into play when 2 different notes are sung or played together. The drone provides the base notes of the musical scale. To quote Shri O Gosvami [The Story of Indian Music]-“The tanpura provides a dark background of infinite potentiality against which the music stands out as intricate embroidery”.
Different note-combinations can lead to different effects of consonance and dissonance, which in turn cause different Rasaas to be induced.

[a] Perfect Consonance: Sa-Pa; Sa-Ma
[b] Imperfect Consonance: Sa-Ga;Sa-Dha
[c] Perfect Dissonance: Sa- Re [komal/flat]; Sa-Ni; Teevra Ma-Pa; Pa- Dha][komal/flat]
[d] Imperfect Dissonance: Sa-Re;Sa-Ni [komal/flat]; Sa-Ga [komal/flat]
The musicologist Shri G M Ranade has attempted to draw a co-relation between the tonal intervals and raasa as follows-
Perfect Consonance- Veera rasa
Imperfect Consonance –Shringaara rasa
Perfect Dissonance –Karuna Rasa

Depending on the prominence given to a specific note interval in the development of the raag , the desired rasa will be induced. Raagas like Marwa, Shree and Todi use the tonal intervals of perfect dissonance to create the phenomenon of tension and relief. The sense of the sublime is experienced from the interplay of  conflict and serenity as it were. The combination of Shadaj and Shuddha Gandhaar imparts a tranquility which is the characteristic feature of the ‘sandhiprakaash’ ragas-melodies of dawn and dusk.

The sparkling radiance of  ragas like Durga, Khamaj, and Kedar are highlighted by the tonal intervals of perfect consonance.

[3] Other factors like the artiste’s  mood, the receptivity of the audience, the physical setting of the concert [the venue, ambience etc] are lesser but nonetheless important components playing their role in the overall effect of inducing Rasa.

Without delving deeper into the technicalities  of the raag - rasa theory, I would like to conclude with a few observations:

The theory of raga-rasa attempts to bring about a specific co-relation of music with emotional states.
However, a recital is an outpouring of emotions and is highly subjective and spontaneous in nature. Each artiste interprets and presents the music according to his ideas, techniques , the school of music that he belongs to and his overall understanding of the musical idiom .The whole beauty of this great art is that it says so little and conveys so much. A gentle hint here, a whiff of a long forgotten memory and it thus evokes a pleasant emotion, leaving it to the  listener to analyze his feelings. This degree of abstractness is further experienced in instrumental music which does not have lyrics to convey the meaning.

To quote the poet Shelley:
Music, when soft voices die,
vibrates in the memory

The most important aspect of rasa is that it lingers on long after the stimulus has been removed. We often ruminate over a concert for days and savour the joy of its memory. Thus, although the stimulus is transient, the rasa induced is not. The ultimate rasa is ‘Mahaarasa’ and is equated with ‘Aanand bhaava’ – or one of deep joy. When the artiste and the listener reach out together for a shared moment of joy and discovery, the result is the essence or rasa of music.

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