While many people outside India find the images, sounds, and practices of Indian performing arts compelling and endeavor to incorporate them into the “global” repertoire, few are aware of the central role of religious belief and practice in Indian aesthetics. Completing the trilogy that includes Darsan: Seeing the Divine in India and Mantra: Hearing the Divine in India and America, this volume focuses on how rasa has been applied in a range of Indian performance traditions.
“Rasa” is taste, essence, flavor. How is it possible that a word used to describe a delicious masala can also be used to critique a Bharata natyam performance? Rasa expresses the primary goals of performing arts in Indian in all the major literary, philosophical, and aesthetic texts, and it provides the cornerstone of the oral traditions of transmission. It is also essential to the study and production of sculpture, architecture, and painting. Yet its primary referent is cuisine. This book articulates the religious sensibility underlying the traditional performing arts as well as other applications of rasa and examines the relationships between the arts and religion in India today.
“Rasa’ signifies flavor, taste, and shared aesthetic experience. In this short but far-ranging, thoughtful, and provocative book, Susan Schwartz explores how dancers, actors, musicians, sages, and philosophers have thought about and used rasa over the centuries. She wonders what rasa’s new possibilities might be for the Indian diaspora of the twenty-first century.”
Susan L. Schwartz is associate professor of religion and director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Asian Traditions at Muhlenberg College. She is the coauthor of The Religions of Star Trek.
This study is intended as the third in the series of books currently including Dars’an, by Diana Eck, and Mantra, by Harold Coward and David Goa. Like them, it proposes to introduce readers to basic concepts in India’s long and rich religion and cultural traditions by focusing on a particular theme, in this case the theory and application of the aesthetic principle rasa. Readers should gain an appreciation of a sampling of the historical and textual traditions pertaining to rasa, and of how this principle has been applied in a range of Indian aesthetics in religious belief and practice, to articulate the religious sensibility responsible for those origins, and to begin to chart the difficult waters of change that characterize Indian aesthetics in respect to religion currently.
Within India, the issue of religion’s role in the country’s prolific arts communities is controversial. Elsewhere, the religious roots of these arts are often ignored. While many outside of India find the images, sounds, and practices of Indian performing arts compelling and endeavor to incorporate them into the “global” repertoire, the religious origins and contexts of those traditions often seem to be lost in the process. Misrepresentation is a real and palpable danger in this context. This book attempts to articulate the meaning and significance of rasa in order to provide a perspective from which performance traditions in India, both classical and nonclassical, may be understood.
As is inevitably the case in an effort to distill from a huge library of material a cogent and accessible introductory text, much more has been left out than included. I have designed this volume to serve a variety of interested readers, from students of religion and theater to those with an interest in Indian philosophy, without overloading the text with the jargon of any one of these fields of study or with vocabulary from Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu, or other South Asian languages that would prove difficult for the introductory reader to understand. My purpose is to supply an overview and a taste of the large library of works that offer detailed and complex discussions of this topic, both in print and out of print, in India and abroad. Many of these are found in the bibliography, but readers are cautioned that to provide a complete list would not have been feasible, given the sheer volume of materials. Similarly, I have chosen a limited number of performance traditions to discuss; readers should be aware that there are many forms of theater, dance, and music beyond those included here. I have provided a list of films available for students and teachers who wish to utilize them; again, there are many more, but they are often difficult to obtain. The resources of the World Wide Web in this area seem to multiply daily, and as is often the case, are quite uneven in quality and reliability. A good project for students is to try to ferret out some of the truly excellent ones.
I have found in my own teaching that books designed for the introductory level in this area of expertise are very hard to find, and that books written for experts are too technical for my students. They are also often out of print and therefore difficult to obtain for use in college-level classes. It is my hope that students and teachers of the extraordinary performance traditions of India will find this volume useful as a beginning.
I am grateful for all the scholars, across geographical and disciplinary borders, who have devoted their efforts to exploring this topic. If I have misrepresented their work in any way, I am deeply apologetic. I thank the following for their suggestions and observations: Guy Beck, Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, Julia M. Hardy, and Da’an Pan. Special thanks are due to those who have contributed and posed for the photographs contained in this volume: Jedediah Baker, photographer; Lizabeth Goldsworthy, photographer; Ramya Ramnarayan, dancer and Director of the Nrithyanjali School of Dance; Parul Shah, dancer; Shafaatullah khan, musician; and Phillip Zarrilli. One of the most rewarding moments in a professor’s life is when a former student, now poised to become an important scholar, can assist in an academic project. In keeping with long tradition, I gratefully acknowledge the editorial assistance of Lisa W. Crothers. Most of all, I am indebted to India, whose remarkable insight into the nature of performance provides perpetual inspiration.
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