A Brief Preface to Reading: The act of reading itself is something quite old fashioned these days! Let alone the art of reading. These are two things. Anyone who loves reading would vouch for the tremendous sense of fulfilment and pleasure that reading would afford. The feel of the book the smell of the book, the crackle of the pages as we turn them one by one and live perhaps through centuries and beyond. That extraordinary feeling of the true the vast the beautiful—satyam, ritam, brihat—as we stand amidst the rows and rows of books in a library. The incorrigible beatitude of discovering a book that you never thought existed, when like serendipity it drops from above and lands at your feet! The exultation of re-examining a book you had read with so much involvement years ago. The pleasures of reading are certainly untold. And as with everything else, it remains for one to explore for oneself: no amount of retelling can induce the same feeling. Whether it is a mere act or an art: one should know it for oneself. After all, in the final analysis one can experience only one’s self. The art of reading is not a mere exercise in linguistic entertainment but one of “soul-making,” of “antas-chamatkara” as the ancient Indian aestheticians would phrase it. If it so happens that we have forfeited our souls somewhere in our haste of living, it is about time we reinvented our human soul. Especially after the gruesome happenings that mark off our century with its self-deceptive double-think that we all are adept at practicing, the presence of militancy and terrorism in the very midst of our everyday living, the very paradoxes and contradictions of our everyday life…
To examine the relevance of books in one’s life might at the outset appear to be a simple task: but it is also deceptive. Should I here choose to dwell at length on those great works of the master story teller, Dostoevsky—the amazing Brothers Karamazov or that heart rending Crime and Punishment, or those by Thomas Mann or Frantz Kafka, or any of those by that man from my part of the world—OV Vijayan, whose KazakkinteIthihaasam—The Legends of Khazak—or several such which have left deep and profound wounds in my insides? Books are so very present at almost any time in the avid reader’s mind that it is a difficult task to separate the past from the present. What you might have read many years ago might still ring as relevant and significant as anything you just read yesterday. The list of books that have changed one’s life at many points could be pretty long indeed. Thus the choice becomes a lot difficult. But here I am discussing a recent book that I read, of multiple dimension and extraordinary significance.
Canonical texts of Sanskrit aesthetics interrogated cardinal issues in an endeavour to close-examine the interplay of the created text, its creator, and the role and nature of the reader/spectator in the aesthetic process, several years before such debates were engendered by the rise of modernism and theory in the west, and there has been acontinuous almost unbroken practice of an argumentative tradition charged with theory and counter theory exploring each aspect in a hair-splitting manner.It is worth highlighting that at no point have these thinkers made any final or concluding remarks which would close off their texts and debates.Concepts like rasa, dhvani, pratibhaor vakrokti function as keystones in the architectonics of these aesthetic theories; their very conceptual inexhaustibility would reveal their continued relevance and possibilities for us today. Literature and the literary were identified as a source of rasa, or aesthetic relish, or as Bhatta Nayaka has put it: The purpose of literature is Rasa, which is an experience consisting of savouring; it may be said to be “manifested” only by way of a manifestation called awareness, and its domain is the highest consciousness. (The Mirror of the Heart) and this conceptual term has undergone many changes: in its extension and exclusion alike.
Sheldon Pollock is a scholar of international eminence who has done pioneering work in the field of Sanskrit studies, and the book under review is in a class by itself alongside his magnum opus The Language of Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (2006). It 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 genuine reader is exposed to a brilliant compendium of comparative aesthetic scholarship set forth in elegance and refined grace. The book is no doubt arduous, taxing, demanding to the non-initiatebut absorbing and above all a pleasure and a feast to the 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, every scholar had certainly always felt a severe lacuna when it came to tracing the history of the concept and idea in comprehensive terms.
From the Stage to the Text
Granted there have been insightful contributions from Indian scholars like S.K.De,P.V.Kane, K. Krishnamoorthy,V. Raghavanand others in this context, but Shelden Pollock has foregrounded many key elements which sort out the situation and 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 makeup) to music, dance and stage design, clearly addressed to those who create and perform drama. 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. Explaining this compact statement, says Pollock, remained for a full millennium and a half what it meant to explain aesthetic experience. Now 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 as Pollock points out. “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 and not the earlier performative, 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.
Pollock gratefully acknowledges the insight of K Krishnamoorthy, who drew attention to the theatrical context of rasa, in its inception as invariably located in the performative and the actor rather than in the text. However, soon enough the metaphorical dimension of taste evolved to include the phenomenology of aesthetic transaction and reception.
A subject does not expand the heart/so powerfully when we see it portrayed
As when it flashes forth from the words/of great poets declaimed with art…
Such was the power of expression through imagination that was attributed to the vision and words of the poet. Poetry of course was seen to offer a radically different aesthetic experience from the dramatic. However, the telling and showing of emotion in art was thus to expand the very domain of psychological complexity.
Aesthetics as an academic discipline in the west begins formally with Alexander Baumgarten in 1735, though philosophical aesthetics has its origins a decade earlier in Francis Hutcheson’s An Inquiry Concerning Beauty (1725).Through the classical work of Immanuel Kant and Hans-Georg Gadamer the aesthetic was to remain as 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. To take up one such instance would be the configuration of the problem of emotion in literature. Western theory juxtaposes concerns with the author’s emotion in the creation of the literary artwork (as in Romantic/ expressive theories) with the emotion embedded in the text (its formal properties, as in Formalist or New Critical terms) and with the reader’s emotional engagement with the text (reception or reader response). As Pollock maintains, 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 the ur-poet, adikavi, Valmiki, and thereon through the Natyasastra onwards there has been a long period of intense textual analysis, until in the tenth century Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta foregrounded the aesthetic subject. And once rasa is 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 historical texts of Classical Sanskrit aesthetics. We have the foundational texts and theorists from the early centuries, the great synthesis effected by Bhoja, and such keystone texts, like Bhatta Nayaka’s Hrdayadarpana, Mirror of the Heart(effectively lost but surviving through direct and possible citations in others), and the most enterprising contributions from the eleventh century Kashmiri thinker Abhinavagupta (c.1000), and the discourses on aesthetics that continues beyond the contexts of Kashmir into the modern era—all these delectably translated, chronologically arranged, explained, and contextually interrogated in A Rasa Reader. As has been mentioned, 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, coming from a master craftsman and an extraordinary scholar who transcends regional and linguistic boundaries. It is a treatise in classical and comparative scholarship.
Now, it is hardly unlikely that such conceptual issues in aesthetics like Rasa and Dhvani, engendered through centuries of scholarly hair-splitting debates and discussions in terms of the guru-sishyaparampara of Sanskrit lineage, would nothave made their presence felt down the line of thinking in our own regional literatures; perhaps it has been merely swept under the rubble in the contexts of a classic-vs-vernacular sort of debate; or in the rising currents of a different social order they may be found wanting in terms of continued social relevance. Granted in the hegemonial history of Sanskrit aesthetics the social and moral judgements might have been overlapping, but an equally notable factor is that the ancient Indians were not averse to seeing the world through one another’s eyes and to evolve a solidarity with the other in his/her suffering expressed through art and literature.This notwithstanding, in our present day critical situation when the imaginative and creative are called to order by the powers that be, and when literature and art are reduced to being mere handmaidens of entertainment in the grand march of technocracy and market capitalism, aesthetic values are marginalised and practically invisible. Those grand debates in philosophical hermeneutics and conceptual clarifications of a miniscule level are mislaid or simply shelved as curios from a bygone era.
What now remains is for the regional scholars to take up and continue the debate on why and how the aesthetic came to be subjugated to or dominated by knowledge—this could help us understand ourselves a little better through coming to terms with art and literature and reintegrate with the world at large.
A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics
Translated and Edited by Sheldon Pollock.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Pp. 442.
Prof. Murali Sivaramakrishnan
Professor, Department of English,
Pondicherry Central University Pondicherry.