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  • Rasa: Performing the Divine in India
  • Mythili Kumar
Rasa: Performing the Divine in India. By Susan L. Schwartz. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. 160 pp. 32 illus. Cloth $59.50; paper $22.50.

The purpose of the book is to introduce readers to the basic concepts of India's cultural tradition and the aesthetic principle of rasa. To do this Susan Schwartz has focused on the tradition of classical dance in India. This book is clear and accessible for the introductory reader, It gives an understanding of the Indian student-teacher relationship and rasa's application in dance, and shows how art is part of the contemporary Indian diaspora. To make the material accessible to beginners, words in original Sanskrit and other Indian languages are rarely used. Several important verses with reference to the dance and rasa are also quoted. The first preface on transliteration, which explains some of the common ways of writing the words, irrespective of the actual pronunciation, will help the reader if he/she encounters these terms in the context of an Indian dance or music performance.

In chapter 1, the author fittingly uses the term Sanathana Dharma (the eternal order of the universe) to refer to the religion now known as Hinduism and states that the religion of India has infused every aspect of its performing arts, so religious ideas can be studied through close examination of performance. The guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student relationship), where the disciple lives with the guru or master and the arts are imbibed through an oral tradition is described. This tradition internalizes the learning experience for the student, making it an active process that also paves the way for the performance goal of rasa to be achieved. This tradition of study is described with relation to the different styles of classical dance later in the book. Schwartz states in this introductory chapter, "Where taste, sound, image, movement, rhythm and transformation meet, therefore the experience of rasa is possible." (p. 5) The objective of the book is thus clearly stated by Schwartz, [End Page 220] and the rest of the chapters discuss how this experience of rasa can be realized with an insight into the background, transmission and evolution of the performing arts in India.

In chapter 2, the author gives a detailed description of the term rasa and its association with food, ayurvedic medicine, and the performing arts. The word rasa is traced from simple usage to its employment as a religious term to express gnosis. In every context, rasa connotes the perfect combination of differing substances. Schwartz lists the eight basic rasas of the performing arts, with the ninth of shanta (peace) added later. She draws from the ancient Natya Shastra and commentaries following it.

In chapter three, rasa in practice of dance, drama, and music is described. From ancient times acting, dancing, and instrumental and vocal music were intertwined. Schwartz tells how the expression of emotion (bhava) when refined leads to rasa. We learn the role of Indian dramatists such as Kalidasa in dealing with the usual themes of human weakness being overcome by might. The themes conclude with conflicts resolved, thus reestablishing emotional harmony. This balance provides the intense experience of rasa. The reader will be fascinated, as this reviewer was, to learn about this theory of emotional harmony and balance, which comes from ancient Indian drama, and its relation to the experience of rasa.

Many deities are dancers and others are musicians: pictures of these deities are seen in the book. A discussion of Shiva as the dancing Nataraja (God of Dance) includes good quotes from various sources on his dancing in relation to his cosmic acts of creation, illusion, and destruction. The styles and technique of Indian dance with its various classifications such as nritta (abstract dance), nritya (movement with bhava), natya (dramatic dance), tandava (strong, male), lasya (soft, female), abhinaya (dramatic representation), etc. are presented. The author details the evolution of the dance from the devadasi (temple dancer) system, talks about the guru-kula system of training, and the depiction of sringara (erotic love) in poetry (such as in Jayadeva's Gita Govinda (Love Song of the Dark Lord...


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pp. 220-222
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