Discover more from From Prathyush
On Navarasa — The Anthology & Aesthetic Theory
The nine-part anthology, a consummate dud, did not even attempt a contemporizing, or a complication of the 2000 year old Rasa theory of aesthetics
My editor and I did a patchwork profile of the very elusive director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and his movies on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his debut film Khamoshi (1996). The format is experimental but gave us a lot of wiggle room to showcase the visual extravagance of his films. Read and let me know what you thought? Subscribe to this newsletter, too, if you haven’t already?
Dr. Kapil Kapoor, the Indian scholar on Indian intellectual traditions, argues that India never had a strong tradition of aesthetic philosophy — what is beauty? what is sentiment? what is sentiment vis-a-vis beauty? how to evaluate art and beauty?
This is because aesthetics is the science of perceptible forms, and Indian Culture — generalized, canonized, capitalized — believes that what is visible is only a small part of reality, that our five senses are not absolute parameters, and so there was no point delving into the aesthetics of perceptible forms rigorously.
But this doesn’t mean they didn’t think of beauty at all, because that would be a kind of willful ignorance. Every culture, and every subsequent generation within a culture, has thought of beauty and of its parameters differently — the Greeks sometimes seeing beauty in proportion and design, or sometimes seeing beauty in utility, or the Christians seeing beauty in ethics, and post-Renaissance in scientific precision, or the European critics seeing beauty in realism, and the subsequent generation gushing over the irreal impressionist strokes of abandon, where a starry night doesn’t look like a starry night but feels like one.
Similarly, in India, there is the notion of soundarya — beauty, or elegance, or grace — and there is sahridaya — the person who experiences, who has, and who holds this beauty, this elegance, this grace. When watching a work of art, if your feelings are aligned with those of the protagonist, you become a sahridaya. As Sheldon Pollock notes in the introduction of A Rasa Reader: Indian Classical Aesthetics, while attention was directed towards soundarya, it never became “an object of abstract consideration” i.e. it was never philosophized, dealing with, instead, the description, texture, and emotional register of beauty. It never asked what beauty is, how it is produced, and how it can be evaluated.
Dr. Kapil Kapoor notes that this aesthetic experience in India is considered sacred — that beauty in art does not belong to the perceptible form that we appreciate, but the visceral essence within us that is tapped into when we see something. In this context the Natyashastra, written perhaps between 200 BCE-200 CE, outlined 8 rasas, or emotions that can be elicited from art. (While it was mostly written in the context of drama, it was later used and re-formulated with respect to poetry)
Shringaram, love, which has also been interpreted as the erotic
Hasya, laughter or amusement
Veeram, valour or determination
Later, a ninth Rasa, Shantam, or peace was added. This is to say that these constructions aren’t stable, and thus we shouldn’t consider it sacrosanct, leaving in our study of it some doubt, some resistance. Besides as we should know better — the process of including something in lists always involves the process of excluding things from it too. The notion here is that these 8-9 emotions are the ones that can be communicated through drama, “literature meant to be seen.” Later, Bhakti rasa, or devotion, which was in neither Bharata’s nor Abhinavagupta’s treatises, but was extremely important in the arts of the medieval period, emerged as a primary rasa.
I want to spend a moment discussing the notion of rasa itself, which I find very useful even in my day job as a critic. Bijoy H Boruah, Professor of Philosophy at IIT, Kanpur gives the following definition:
Rasa is a colonized emotional state of mind when the subject’s sense of self is neither completely displaced/dissolved nor prominently referenced. It is unlike ‘ananda’, which is a complete dissolution of the self.
Thus, it is not just about seeing a certain emotion being performed, but feeling that emotion. It’s not about seeing a character afraid on stage, but feeling that fear, and so on for all the rasas. But the feeling of this emotion has to be universal, cutting across the audience — “the heart universal”. Everyone must feel that fear the character on stage is feeling because it isn’t coming from any specific psychological identification with a character; it is a “mass feeling”. This is something old Indian films do really well. For example, Mani Ratnam's Bombay makes us feel the initial burst of love in 'Kannala, ’, and the anxiety of awaiting a lover's response in 'Uyire' without really establishing these emotions through dialogue. It's almost sudden – the convenient and contrived love at first sight that seals both the affections and the longings. But we feel what these characters are feeling because of the thronging expressionism with which the songs are performed – the compelling close ups of emotions expressed without space for doubt. There's nothing specific that we can relate to here, a generic but emotionally propulsive ballad. I am using Bombay as an example only because it's perhaps the only film I have seen which has elicited in me all possible emotions from rage to love to peace to humour, its emotionally manipulative fingers always on my pulse.
This universal feeling, in the dramas, was aided by the lack of knowledge of the author in the text. For example, we cannot from Kalidasa’s plays find out anything about him, not even his name. In the prologue of Kalidasa’s plays, he merely styles himself as “Kalidasa”, the dasa or servant of Kali, like a pen-name. Similarly Vyasa and Valmiki — the authors of Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively — are merely descriptive names, Vyasa meaning the compiler, and Valmiki meaning the one who emerged from the anthill. (Valmiki, a highway robber decides to turn over a new leaf and perform such harsh penance, not moving his body for so many years, that an anthill forms around him) There is something very effacing about this — that the primary object of discussion in a work of art, should be the work of art.
This helps look at a literary text purely in literary terms, without engaging with the identity and thus the politics of the author. The poet, the writer is now merely a medium and not the source of the text. I find this more and more relevant these days, given how I intuitively crinkle my nose at actors or directors who align with fascist politics. Given how, as critics, we are trying to establish individual credentials of actors and directors, calling them auteurs, delineating their specific characteristics. This “mass” feeling can no longer be elicited from a contemporary production, given how each of us aligns differently with the artist, and thus, sub-consciously whether we like it or not, the art.
But there is also something possibly sinister about this rasa theory, if pushed to its logical end. When we watch a film, or read a novel, and are moved by it, moved by this irreal creation of an irreal story, we tap into the question of aesthetics — what makes us forget who we are, not entirely, but for that one second. That aesthetic lift, that narrative compulsion to forget your worries, if only for a moment, sweeping it under the rug of a binge.
This is, I hate to say this, the very question the tech-bros are asking. In the earnings call of Facebook last week, Mark Zuckerberg insisted that the next goal of Facebook is to help build the “metaverse”, which as New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka notes, has become a Silicon Valley buzzword. Zuckerberg describes this metaverse as “an embodied Internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile Internet… You’re basically going to be able to do everything that you can on the Internet today as well as some things that don’t make sense on the Internet today, like dancing.”
Which means that the emotion produced during dancing can be replicated without your body dancing, the same way the emotion of fear can be felt by you, even if you are just watching another character being afraid. This disembodied reaction to life — something that makes us human — is now going to be used to create a world where human actions and interactions can be delegated, and the body just becomes a shell.
“Facebook may, indeed, create virtual real estate that online small businesses will have to rent in order to sell their wares, or build an in-game meeting space where an impressive, expensive avatar will be key to networking, like the equivalent of a fancy Zoom background… The more immersive [the metaverse] is, the more inescapable it becomes, like an all-encompassing social-media feed, with all the problems thereof.” — Kyle Chayka
I panicked after reading this article, maybe more than necessary, and did what any rational person would do — delete my Pinterest account, after already having heaved my Instagram into the guillotine.
Navarasa, The Anthology
Writer-Director Mani Ratnam decided to put his weight behind Netflix’s Navarasa anthology — a collection of 9 films, ranging from 30 to 45 minutes — each film tackling one of the Nine rasas. There was good intention behind it — none of the actors, directors, technicians took money, and whatever profits they got from the film, would be distributed, though of course the very idea of profits in streaming is a black-box. But 12,000 workers from the film industry were indeed helped by this.
That’s the intention. But there’s the craft too. The idea of the anthology was fascinating because the Navarasa as a theory was created with literary arts in mind. For example, why and how we respond emotionally to good music, good architecture, good painting was not considered. The scope of the Navarasa theory was about dramatic arts, which was, then, performed without many props, in small halls where the audience had the ability to partake in the emotional acrobatics of the face, and the generalized, glazed feeling that emanated from the stage. So, the idea of interpreting the Navarasa theory with contemporary art forms — music, set design, costume — in a contemporary medium — streaming — was so effectively seductive, everyone was holding their breath. The teaser, directed by Bharat Bala (whose Virtual Bharat series on YouTube is a burnished tome, the logical and stylistic godfather of the Incredible India campaign), was so effective, in not just expressing but transporting. One couldn’t wait.
The anthology was, alas, a consummate, collective dud. I wrote a 2,900 word rage-thesis overnight to vent constructively, if that’s a thing. One of the primary flaws of the anthology is its usage of the Navarasa umbrella as this lazy, hazy collective of emotions. It’s a gimmick. The Navarasa is not a collection of abstract nouns, but ways for the audience to get inside a story. It’s a pathway, not a destination. Here, in this anthology we were mute spectators as the title credits told us what emotion to expect.
The thing about rasas, which for some reason is completely ignored here, is that they are not just about the representation of emotions, but more importantly, they are about the invocation of those emotions in the audience. So, anger must not just be shown by the protagonist, but felt by the viewer — to make us feel a torrent of nine rasas, an emotional manipulation we willfully submit to, an audio-visual invocation of all the human dimensions. I wanted to, at the end of the five-hour collective run-time, feel emotionally exhausted, not emotionally numb. But here, in trying to invoke that feeling in the character, the filmmakers did not even consider its reception. For example, in Rathindran Prasad’s Inmay to depict ‘bhaya’ or fear, the short is entirely content showing its characters as afraid, sealed with flared eyes, and close-up shots. But not for a moment did I feel this fear as much as acknowledge its existence in the character.
Even the best short of the lot, that was meant to evoke or express disgust, etched its characters so well, that the main character, the grumpy 77 year old played by Delhi Ganesh, evoked only our compassion, our sympathy. Would that be a success or failure given that a film in an anthology isn't just a film but part of a string of films.
After the review came out I asked a few of my friends if I sounded hysterical, and some asked what if? The films were bad, and there is no point sitting and pin-pointing to a “good performance” in a bad film. Besides, I never understood how that works. My primary emotional reaction is always a composite whole. So when Revathi is crying in one of the shorts of the anthology, I am seeing her crying, but the dialogues, her characterization in the script is so weak, so thin, I can’t feel anything for her. But to say her performance in the bad film was great, is to say that had the film been good, I would have bought into the her crying as organic, as necessary, as moving. How to do that? I used to do the adjectival acrobatics to describe performances in my earlier writing because it seemed like something that needed to be there in a work of criticism. I am growing comfortable with leaving it out entirely now, building my criticism around that composite feeling one has after watching a film. To rage and then ravage through a draft. That is enough for writing, I think.