This may be treated as a sequel to my earlier blog Abhinavagupta wherein I presented a brief life sketch of the great scholar and mystic. I made, therein, a passing reference to his monumental work Abhinavabharati (a commentary on Bharata’s Natyasastra) but could not discuss its salient features as the blog was already getting lengthy. I propose to talk here about a few aspects of Abhinavabharati. It would not be a review or a commentary on the great work, because such a task is beyond my capabilities. I shall try to avoid as many technical terms as possible.
1. Abhinavagupta (11th century) was a visionary endowed with incisive intellectual powers of a philosopher who combined in himself the experiences of a mystic and a tantric. He was equipped with extraordinary skills of a commentator and an art critic. His work Abhinavabharati though famed as a commentary on Bharata’s Natyasastra is, for all purposes, an independent treatise on aesthetics in Indian dance, poetry, music and art. Abhinavabharati along with his other two works Isvara pratyabhijna Vimarshini and Dhvanyaloka Lochana are important works in the field of Indian aesthetics. They help in understanding Bharata and also a number of other scholars and the concepts they put forth.
2. There are only a handful of commentaries that are as celebrated, if not more, as the texts on which they commented upon. Abhinavabharati is one such rare commentary. Abhinavagupta illumines and interprets the text of the Bharata at many levels: conceptual, structural and technical. He comments, practically, on its every aspect; and his commentary is a companion volume to Bharata’s text.
3. There are a number of reasons why Abhinavabharati is considered a landmark work and why it is regarded important for the study of Natyasastra. Just to name a few, briefly:
(i).The Natyasastra is dated around second century BCE. The scholars surmise that the text was reduced to writing several centuries after it was articulated. Until then, the text was preserved and transmitted in oral form. The written text facilitated reaching it to different parts of the country and to the neighbouring states as well. But, that development of turning a highly systematized oral text in to a written tome, strangely, gave rise to some complex issues, including the one of determining the authenticity of the written texts. Because, each part of the country, where the text became popular, produced its own version of Natyasastra and in its own script.
For instance, Natyasastra spread to Nepal, Almora to Ujjain, Darbhanga, Maharashtra, Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The earliest known manuscripts which come from Nepal are in Newari script. The text also became available in many other scripts – Devanagari, Grantha, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam. There were some regional variations as well. It became rather difficult for the later-day scholars, to evolve criteria for determining the authenticity and purity of the text particularly with the grammatical mistakes and scribes errors that crept in during the protracted process of transliterations. Therefore, written texts as they have comedown to us through manuscripts merely represent the residual record or an approximation to the original; but not the exact communication of the oral tradition that originated from Bharata. [Similar situation obtains in most other Indian texts/traditions.]
His commentary Abhinavabharati dated around tenth or the eleventh century predates all the known manuscripts of the Natyasastra, which number about fifty-two; and all belong to the period between twelfth and eighteenth century. The text of Natyasastra that Abhinavagupta followed and commented upon thus gained a sort of benchmark status.
(ii). Because Natyasastra was, originally, transmitted in oral form, it was in cryptic aphoristic verses –sutras that might have served as “memory-aid” to the teachers and pupils, with each Sutra acting as pointer to an elaborate discussion on a theme. The Sutras, by their very nature, are terse, crisp and often inscrutable. Abhinavabharati, on the other, hand is a monumental work largely in prose; and it illumines and interprets the text of the Bharata at many levels, and comments on practically every aspect of Natyasastra. Abhinava’s commentary is therefore an invaluable guide and a companion volume to Bharata’s text.
(iii).Abhinavabharati is the oldest commentary available on Natyasastra. All the other previous commentaries are now totally lost. The fact such commentaries once existed came to light only because Abhinavagupta referred to them in his work and discussed their views. Abhinava is the only source for discerning the nature of debate of his predecessors such as Bhatta Lollata, Srisankuka, Bhatta Nayaka and his Guru Bhatta Tauta. The works of all those masters can only be partially reconstructed through references to them in Abhinavabhrati. Further, Abhinavagupta also brought to light and breathed life into ancient and forgotten scholarship of fine rhetoricians Bhamaha, Dandin and Rajashekhara.
What was interesting was that each of those scholars was evaluating Bharata’s exposition of the concepts of rasa and Sthayibhava against the background of the tacit assumptions of their particular school of thought such as Samkhya, yoga and others. Abhinavagupta presented the views of his predecessors and then went on to expound and improve upon Bharata’s concepts in the light of his own school –Kashmiri Shaivism.
(iv).Abhinavaguta’s influence has been profound and pervasive. Succeeding generations of writers on Natya have been guided by his concepts and theories of rasa, bhava, aesthetics and dramaturgy. No succeeding writer or commentator could ignore Abhinavaguta’s commentary and the discussions on two crucial chapters of the Natyasastra namely VI and VII on Rasa and Bhava.
Abhinavabharati is thus a bridge between the world of the ancient and forgotten wisdom and the scholarship of the succeeding generations.
(v).The publication of Abhinavabharati brought in to focus and opened up a whole new debate on Bharata’s theories on rasa the aesthetic experience. Abhinava extended the eight rasas categorized by Bharata, by adding one more to the list, the Shanta rasa. Abhinava considered Shantha rasa(peace, tranquillity) as not merely an additional rasa but the summun bonum of all rasas. It is one attribute, he said, that permeates all else and in to which everything else moves to reside (hridaya_vishranthi). Since then, almost everyone goes by the concept of Navarasa, the nine-rasas.
(v). Abhinavagupta turned the attention away from the linguistic and related abstractions; instead, brought focus on the human mind, specifically the mind of the reader or viewer or the spectator. He tried to understand the way people respond to a work of art or a play. He called it rasadhvani.According to which the spectator is central to the appreciation of a play.
He placed the spectator at the centre of the aesthetic experience. He said the object of any work of art is Ananda. He emphasized that the Sahrudaya, the initiated spectator/audience/receptor, the one of attuned heart, is central to that experience. Without his hearty participation the expressions of all art forms are rendered pointless. An educated appreciation is vital to the manifestation and development of art forms. . And, an artistic expression finds its fulfillment in the heart of the recipient.
The aim of a play might be to provide pleasure; that pleasure must not, however, bind but must liberate the spectator.
4. Abhinavabharati just as Natyasastra is also a bridge between the realms of philosophy and aesthetics, and between aesthetic of mysticism. Abhinava did not consider aesthetics and philosophy as mutually exclusive. On the other hand, his concepts of aesthetics grew out of the philosophies he admired and practiced – the Shiva siddantha.
Interestingly, while Abhinavagupta extended and applied philosophical schools of thought to understand and to explain concepts such as rasa, bhava etc, the latter-day exponents of aesthetics such as the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, reversed the process. They strove to derive a school of philosophy by lending interpretations to poetic compositions and to the characters portrayed in them. For instance. The Vaishnavas interpreted poet Jayadeva’s most adorable poetry Gita_Govinda; and its characters of Krishna and Radha in their own light; and derived from that, a new and a vibrant philosophy of divine love based in Bhakthi rasa.
The two approaches have become so closely intertwined that it is now rather difficult to view them separately. In any case, they enrich and deepen the understanding of each other.
6. The aesthetics and philosophy, in his view, both aim to attain supreme bliss and freedom from the mundane. Along their journey towards that common goal, the two, at times, confluence as in a pilgrimage; interact or even interchange their positions.
Abhinava’s view, in a way, explains the thin and almost invisible dividing line between the sacred and profane art; religious and secular art; or between religion and art in the Indian context.
8. Abhinava begins by explaining his view of aesthetics and its nature. Then goes on to state how that aesthetic experience is created. During the process, he comments on Bharata’s concepts and categories of rasa and sthayibhava, the dominant emotive states. He also examines Bharata’s other concepts of Vibhava, Anubhava and vyabhichari (Sanchari) bhavas and their subcategories Uddipana (stimulant) and aalambana (ancillaries). Abhinava examines these concepts in the light of Shaiva philosophy; and explains the process of One becoming many and returning to the state of repose (vishranthi). [I would not be discussing here most of those concepts.]
For Abhinavagupta, soaked in sublime principles of Shaivism, the aesthetic experience is Ananda the unique bliss.He regards such aesthetic experience as different from any ordinary experience and as a subjective realization. It is alukika (out of the ordinary world), he said, and is akin to mystic experience. That experience occurs in a flash as of a lightening; it is a Chamatkara .It is free from earthly limitations and isself luminous (svaprakasha). It is Ananda.
9. Abhinava makes a distinction between the world of drama and the real but ordinary life. In the artistic process, we are moving from the gross to more subtle forms of expressions and experiences; we move from individualized experiences to general representations; and from multiplicity to unity.
He says that the feeling that might cause pain in real life is capable of providing pleasure in an art form. He explains, while viewing a performance on stage one might appreciate and enjoy the display of sorrow, separation, cruelty, violence and even the grotesque; and one may even relish it as aesthetic experience. But, in real life no one would like to be associated with such experiences.
A true connoisseur of arts has to learn to detach the work of art from its surroundings and happenings; and view it independently.
He asserts, the “wilful suspension of disbelief” is a prerequisite for enjoying any art expression. The moment one starts questioning it or doubting it and looking at it objectively; the experience loses its aesthetic charm and it becomes same as a mundane object.
One enjoys a play only when one can identify the character as character from the drama and not as ones friend or associate. The spectator should also learn to disassociate the actor from the character he portrays.
He says the theatrical experience is quite unlike the experience in the mundane and the real world; it is alaukika.
In summary; he draws a theory that the artistic creation is the expression of a feeling that is freed from localized distinctions; it is the generalization of a particular feeling. It comes in to being through the creative genius (prathibha) of the artist. It finally bears fruit in the spectator who derives Ananda, the joy of aesthetic experience. That, he says, is Rasa – the ultimate emotional experience created in the heart of the sahrudaya.
He illustrates his position through the analogy of a tree and its fruit. Here, the play is the tree; performance is the flower; and spectator’s experience is the fruit.
Rasa, the relish of the spectator, is the ultimate product (phala) of a dramatic performance, as that of a fruit borne by a tree : “the play is born in the heart of the poet; it flowers as it were in the actor; and, it bears fruit in the delight (ananda) experienced by the spectator.” .. ”And, if the artist or poet has inner force of creative intuition (prathibha)…that should elevate the spectator to blissful state of pure joy ananda.”
According to Abhinavagupta, the object of the entire exercise is to provide pure joy to the spectator. Without his participation all art expressions are pointless.
Thus, he brought the spectator from the edge of the stage into the very heart of the dramatic performance and its experience.
Let’s talk a little more about rasa.
10. Rasa–roughly translated as artistic enjoyment or emotive aesthetics –is one of the most important concepts in classical Indian aesthetics, having pervasive influence in theories of painting, sculpture, dance, poetry and drama. It is hard to find a corresponding term in the English language. In its aesthetic employment, the word rasa has been translated as mood, emotional tone, or sentiment or more literally, as flavour, taste, or juice.
The chapters VI and VII in Bharata’s Natyasastra have been the mainstay of the rasa concept in all traditional literature, dance and theatre arts in India. Bharata says that which can be relished – like the taste of food – is rasa – Rasyate anena iti rasaha (asvadayatva) .Though the term is associated with palate, it is equally well applicable to the delight afforded by all forms of art; and the pleasure that people derive from their art experience. It is literally the activity of savouring an emotion in its full flavour. The term might also be taken to mean the essence of human feelings.
If rasa is that which can be tasted or enjoyed; then Rasika is the connoisseur.
Dhananjaya, the author or the treatise called Dasrupaka says,” Anything be it beautiful or ugly, dignified or despicable, dreadful or of a pleasing appearance, deep or deformed, object or non-object, whatever it be, could be transformed in to rasa by poets’ imagination”
11. According to Bharata, the principal human feelings are eight: delight, laughter, sorrow, anger, energy, fear, disgust, heroism, and astonishment. These correspond to eight rasas: erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, odious, and marvelous. These rasas comprise the components of aesthetic experience.
Abhinavagupta interpreted rasa as a “stream of consciousness”. He then went on to expand the scope and content of the rasa spectrum by adding the ninth rasa: the Shantha rasa, the one of tranquillity and peace.
Abhinava explained that Shantha rasa underlies all the other mundane rasas as their common denominator. All the other rasas emanate from the Shantha rasa and resolve in to it. Shantha rasa is a state where the mind is at rest, in a state of tranquility.The other rasas are more transitory in character than is shanta rasa. The Shanta Rasa is the ultimate rasa the summum bonum.
Following Abhinavagupta, the theory of nine-rasas, the navarasa, became universally acceptable in all branches of Indian aesthetics. And, shantha rasa has come to be regarded as the rasa of rasas.
Abhinavagupta mentioned Bhakti as an important component of the Shantha rasa. Following which, the later poetic traditions reckoned Bhakthi (devotion) and Vathsalya (affection) as being among the navarasa. The magnificent epic Srimad Bhagavatha was hailed as the classic example of portrayal ofBhakthi, Vathsalya, and Shantha rasas. The poets and the divine inspired singers, notably after 11thcentury, provided a tremendous impetus to the Bhakthi movement.
12. Rasa is conveyed to the enjoyer– the Rasika or Sahrudaya – through words, music, colors, forms, bodily expressions, gestures etc. These modes of expressions are called bhavas. For example, in order for the audience to experience srngara (the erotic rasa), the playwright, actors and musician work together employing appropriate words, music, gestures and props to produce the bhava called rati (love).
The term bhava means both existence and a mental state, and in aesthetic contexts it has been variously translated as feelings, psychological states, and emotions. In the context of the drama, they are the emotions represented in the performance.
According to Bharata, the playwright experiences a certain emotion, which then is expressed on the stage by the performers through words, music, gestures and actions. The portrayal of emotions is termed bhavas. Rasa, in contrast, is the emotional response the bhavas inspire in the spectator. Rasais thus an aesthetically transformed emotional state experienced, with enjoyment, by the spectator.
While rasas are created by bhavas, the bhavas by themselves carry no meaning in the absence of Rasa (Nahi rasadyate kashid_apyarthah pravattate). Their forms and manifestations are defined by the rasa.
13. Abhinavagupta argues that a play could be a judicious mix of several rasas, but should be dominated by one single rasa that defines the tone and texture of the play. He cites Nagananda of Sri Harsha and explains though the play had to deal with the horrific killing of the hapless Nagas; it underplays scenes of violence, and radiates the message of peaceful coexistence and compassion. It is that aesthetic experience of peace and compassion towards the fellow beings that the spectator carries home.
Similarly, Abhinava explains, a character in the play might display several rasas; but its inner core or essence is meant to convey a single dominant rasa. The bhava – the modes of expressions, the facial and bodily gestures – would be colored or delineated by the dominant rasa meant to be conveyed by that character.
For instance, Rama is regarded the personification of grace, dignity, courage and valour. He conveys a sense of peace and nobility .That does not mean Rama should perpetually be looking dull and stiff like a starched scarf. He too has his moments of humour, anger, frustration, rage, helplessness, sorrow, dejection and even boredom. The modes of expression of those emotions (bhavas) through his gesture and words have to find a form to contribute to the overall rasa that Rama conveys – the shantha. Therefore , his smile is gentle and beatific, his laugh is like peels of temple bells, his love is graceful , he does not lose composure while in sorrow , his anger is like a white-hot flame with no smoke of haltered, and his treatment of the enemy is dignified and has an undercurrent of compassion.
While in the portrayal of Ravana, the smile is sardonic, the laughter is bellowing and thunderous , the expressions of love are heavily tinted with greed and passion, his anger is grotesque and full of hate, his treatment of his followers is laced with contempt , he is intolerant of any dissent and shows no mercy to the vanquished. Raudra, the fearsome aspect is conveyed through his bhavas.
The gestures – smile, laughter, love, anger etc. – in either case are the similar; but the manner they are enacted, the personality they radiate and the character they help to portray are different. But all such bhavas contribute to conveying the intended rasa.
It is therefore said, bhava is that which becomes (bhoo, bhav, i.e., to become); and bhava becomes rasa. And, it is not the other way. Rasa is the essence of art conveyed.
14. There is a very interesting discussion about the progression in the development of a character, from the playwright’s desk (or even prior) to the theatrical stage. . Abhinava discusses the arguments, in this regard, of his predecessors (such as Sankuka, Lollota, and Bhattanayaka) and then puts forth his own views.
Let’s, for instance, take a character from history or mythology (say, Rama).No one, really, was privy to the mental process of that person. Yet, the playwright tries to grasp the essence of the character; and strives to give a concrete form to the abstract idea of Rama, in his own way. The director, the sutradara, tries to interpret the spirit and substance of the play, and the intentions of the playwright, as he understands it. The actor in turn absorbs the inputs provided by both the playwright and the director. In addition, the actor brings in his own creative genius, skill, his experience on the stage, and his own understanding of the character in order to recreate the “idea” of Rama. All the while, the actor is also aware that he is just an actor on stage trying to portray a character.
The actor’s emotional experience while enacting the character might possibly be similar to what the playwright and /or the director had visualized; but it certainly would not be identical.
The actor as a true connoisseur and a skilled performer has an identity of his own; he does not merely imitate (anukarana) the character as if he were its mold (paratikrirti); but, he projects the possible responses of the character (anukirtana) to the situations depicted in the play-text, in his own way, through the portals of the character’s stated disposition (bhava) and its essential nature (svabhava) , as he has understands it (aropita-svarupa).
What is presented on stage is the amalgam, in varying proportions, of experiences and impressions derived from diverse sources. The actor’s inspiration finds its roots in several soils. His performance on stage, thus , resembles the mythical inverted tree, bearing fruits of the dedication and efforts of many – seen and unseen.
In so far as the spectator is concerned, he, of course, would not be aware of the contributions of either the playwright or the director; or even of the mental process of the actor in producing the artistic creation. His experience is derived, entirely, from the performance presented on the stage.
There is absolutely no way an actor or a spectator could feel and experience in exactly the same way as the “original “- on whom the character was modelled. The spectator does not obviously receive the original; instead he infers from the forms of created artistic imitations of the original presented on the stage, sieved through the combined efforts and experiences of the playwright, the director and the actor.
Abhinava remarks, the question whether the idea of the character as received by the spectator through the performance on the stage , was identical to its “original “ historical personage, is not quite relevant. What matters, he says, is the emotional experience (rasa) inspired in the shahrudaya the goodhearted – cultured spectator. How did it impact him? That, in fact, is the essence and fulfilment of any art.
Another illustration discussed in this context is that of Chitra_turaga, a pictorial horse. Abhinava said he got it from his predecessor Sri Sankuka, .A painting of a horse is not a horse; but it is an idea or the representation of a horse. One doesn’t mistake the painting for the horse. The artistic creation though not real can arouse in the mind of the spectator, the experience of the original object. Art cannot reproduce all the qualities of the original subject. The process of artistic creation is, therefore, inferential and indirect; rather than direct perception.
Mammata, an eleventh century Kashmiri aesthete, endorsed Abhinava’s views by stressing that the object in art is a virtual and not physical.
According to Abhinavagupta a real work of art, in addition to possessing emotive charge carries a strong sense of suggestion and the potential to produce various meanings. It can communicate through suggestions and evoke layers of meanings and emotions.
A true aesthetic object, Abhinava declares, not merely stimulates the senses but also ignites the imagination of the viewer. With that, the spectator is transported to a world of his own creation. That experience sets the individual free from the confines of place, time and ego (self); and elevates him to the level of universal experience. Thus art is not mundane; it is Alaukika in its nature.
Bharata: The Natyasastra by Kapila Vatsayan
Introduction to Bharata’s Natyasastra by Adya Rangacharya