The Rasa experience in Indian dance
Rasa is the heart of Indian dance theatre. It is often translated as emotion or feeling in English but it is much more than that. The Rasa theory in dance is about a combination of philosophical, physical, archetypal and emotional factors, that are evoked as a constellation, to create an intense experience. It is suggested that this experience is not a personal, ordinary ‘feeling’ but that it is expansive in that it connects one to mythical narratives and characters. The aim of Rasa is not to express individual states of being but to access archetypal spaces that connect rather than individuate experiences.
Rasa in Sanskrit is also the word for ‘taste’ but Rasa is the tasting of food that combines multiple flavours or a constellation of flavours the combination of which results in the intense experience. The transcendent nature of Rasa is not an out of body experience, indeed it is intensely of the body. For example in the Natya Sastra it is said that one should feel Rasa as fire burns a dry branch. It is not a sublimation but a feelingful state that suggests that it is only through the chaos, intensity and turbulence of our feelings that we can expand into spaces of connection and insight.
Commentators have often speculated about reasons for the discussion on Rasa preceding the chapters on the physical techniques in the Natya Sastra, the ancient theoretical text on Indian dance theatre. I suggest that this is no accident. It is the Rasa theory that frames the practice of Indian dance theatre, just as the Samadhi experience frames Yoga practice. It is the Rasa lens that shapes the dance practice into a contemplative practice or sadhana. The physicality makes no meaning without the Rasa understanding.
Today we think that it is the narratives of deities, etc that make Indian dance contemplative. I think that this is far from the truth. It is not the content but the structures of Rasa which are so clearly set out in the text that infuse the technique with its contemplative intent.