- A Rasa Reader by Sheldon Pollock
The study of theatre and performance revels in theoretical terminology, from alienation to yūgen. Except in sadly superficial reiterations, rasa remains outside of parlance that is not expressly concerned with South Asian art and performance. In early 2018, Columbia University Press issued an affordable paperback edition of Sheldon Pollock's A Rasa Reader, reducing the room for excuses that performance studies scholars offer for not knowing anything of rasa and its history.
Rasa could contribute significantly to performance theory, given the way in which performance studies, as a discipline, has turned its attention to the body. But the first paragraph of Pollock's introduction to the book indicates just how significant—how broadly significant—rasa as a theory might be. In South Asia's rumination on rasa, Pollock notes, the theatre experience provides the ground of human being, and "few people have meditated as deeply and systematically on the questions it raises as thinkers in India, who … carried on an intense conversation about the emotional world of the story and its complex relationships to the world of the audience" (p. 1). The translated texts in this volume show that rasa's reach beyond the body's senses to the nature of conscious identity marks theatre—not the discursive content of any particular play or performance, but the phenomenon of theatre, per se—as the crucible of existence.
Rasa appears in the Natyashastra, written prior to the fifth century ce. Most of the Natyashastra concerns theatre's practical matters. A small portion of the text offers a performance theory, founded on some troublesome—perhaps opaque—terminology, including the word rasa, which is often (unfortunately, I think) translated as taste. As arcane as it is, the theory of performance that the Natyashastra stuffs into rasa arises from the difficulty in rationalizing the sensible and emotional effects of performance. How the Natyashastra attends to the bodies of theatre audiences not only as the sites but as the mechanisms of theatre experience inspired several centuries of religio-philosophical wrangling. By the early modern period, rasa provided the premise for widespread [End Page 521] religious practice that was expected to transform practitioners at the most fundamental level of selfhood.
Pollock has translated and edited portions of the theoretical writing on rasa from the Natyashastra through the seventeenth century, adding nearly fifty pages of introduction to the concept and its history. He also provides substantial commentary for each of the six chapters that he organizes according to discrete periods in rasa's intellectual history. The book's daunting English-Sanskrit glossary contributes to sorting out the Natyashastra's theory, which tries to identify relationships between what actors perform and what audiences experience, and which depends on potentially mind-numbing distinctions between varieties of sensations and feelings. Pollock makes it eminently possible for someone with no access to Sanskrit to overcome the intractability of a term like vyabhicâribhâvana, by seeing the word as belonging to a category, having a relationship to other categories, and coordinating with a whole vocabulary to support a grasp of what a theatre audience's aesthetic experience entails.
Most important, perhaps, Pollock charts the movement that rasa makes, from the Natyashastra's exclusive concern with theatrical performance, to formalist literary theory in the eighth and ninth centuries, to the reassertion in the tenth century of the reader/audience's own creativity. The earliest attempts to explain what the Natyashastra intended with the term rasa insisted that rasa must be a quality or a consequence of the written text. As the thinking went, literary devices and the manner in which a poet arranges them bear whatever might appear to a reader/audience as feeling or emotion. Drawing on established hermeneutics, subsequent commentaries challenge this view, asserting, "the rasa experience must be an action on the part of the viewing subject, not a formal feature of the text" (p. 147). By 1100 CE, this approach culminates in the philosopher-sage Abhinavagupta, who characterizes a dramatic text as facilitating "re-narration"—not Aristotelian mimesis, but a...