Democratising Rasa (or the pleasure of the lay rasika)

by Elena Catalano

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

It is a common practice in the West to introduce an Odissi performance with brief descriptions of the items presented by the dancer. These introductions normally provide basic information about the rhythmic and melodic accompaniment of the dance or, in the case of abhinaya, about the text the dance interprets through gestures, movements or facial expressions. However, they are, more often than not, clichéd descriptions that dispense scant hints in support of the dance’s appreciation. While certainly satisfying a few who are already familiar with the aesthetics of Odissi, these introductions are nevertheless either too brief or too technical to substantially add to the reception of the performance by the wider audience. When not by the presenter, these descriptions may be uttered by the performer herself, hidden behind the scenes, as if coming on stage to talk to the audience would compromise her aura of immaculate and speechless apsara unable to communicate with her body and her voice at once.

These and similar practices, ruling the reception of Odissi nowadays, certainly contribute to the experience of the performance as an extraordinary event carved out of the pity of everyday life, and reproduce an exoteric image of the dance as a mysterious, almost masonic practice. However, they also risk creating a gap between the dancer and the majority of the audience. On the one hand, they restrict the dancer into an ivory tower of silky fabrics and glittering silver from where she is expected to dispense an aesthetic experience charged of rather obscure meaning and symbolism and, on the other hand, they position the audience in the stalls area from where this strives to grasp as much as possible from the overflow of visual, aural and symbolic beauty that the performance offers. If a few among the spectators will be able to de-code the aesthetic subtleties of the choreographic vocabulary, the majority of them will not.[1] What prevents most people from appreciating the dance – those who instead ‘truly’ understand its aesthetic contend – is the fact they are not familiar with the intricate, refined and symbolic language of the movement vocabulary and in general with the aesthetics, religious mythology and cultural values underpinning this vocabulary. If this argument is particularly strong in the case of western audiences, it is often used to jeopardise the reception of a performance among Indian audiences as well. Taking this argument as a starting point, in this article I discuss the politics that underpin the reception of Odissi, moving from a critique of the concept of rasika, as it is widely understood nowadays, to a practical proposal for the ‘democratization of rasa’.

The concepts of rasa and rasika are by definition closely related. For the advantage of those who are not yet familiar with these culturally specific concepts and, in any case, for the sake of clarity, it is worth reminding that the term rasa is often intended and translated in terms of ‘aesthetic fulfilment’,[2] while the term rasika is used to identify whoever has the privilege of experiencing rasa. The rasa theory was first formulated in the Natyasastra, but has gone through century-long philosophical quarrels, which have attempted to establish what rasa actually is, how it is produced and who is able, or perhaps entitled, to experience it.[3] According to the Natyasastra, rasa is the ultimate goal of a performing artist and, in fact, of the performance itself.

The aesthetic principle of rasa underpins the reception of Indian classical dances, Odissi included, still nowadays. Many Odissi dancers have described this experience to me in terms of ‘connectivity’ between the performer and the audience. In fact, most of the practitioners I had the chance to converse with during my fieldwork in India intended rasa as the fulfilment of an aesthetic and essentially communicative process between the dancer and the audience, taking place during a performance. According to most practitioners, rasa is truly experienced only by the expert connoisseurs or the rasikas.

The term rasika is normally translated as the ‘knowledgeable audience’, against what is described, sometimes with a slight derogatory tone, as the ‘lay audience’. The official discourse argues that the lay audience is attracted by the visual, more superficial and spectacular aspects of the dance, but cannot go beyond that. On the contrary, the knowledgeable audience is able to understand the subtleties of the dance, appreciate its cult for the detail, its emphasis on deep rather than shallow meanings. In short, the knowledgeable audience, or rasikas, is able to de-code the cultural symbolism interwoven with the aesthetics of the dance. Therefore, rasikas are those who, due to a natural artistic sensitivity, or more often by being already initiated into the aesthetics of the dance, are able to connect with what the dancer is representing and embodying in her dance, and consequently achieve a feeling of aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction by attending to the performance.

The aesthetic appreciation, which the experience of rasa implies, is made often dependent on a sort of literary exegesis of the choreographic piece: the dance is treated by the expert connoisseur as a text would be treated by a literary scholar, and the reception of the performance is conflated with the analytical apprehension of the choreographic vocabulary and of its kinetic and musical subtleties. However, the concept of rasika and the experience of rasa as they are widely understood nowadays have created an elitist and exclusive understanding of the relationship between the performer and the audience and have conflated the appreciation of a performance with a specialised understanding of its technicality. This elitist way of intending rasa as an aesthetic experience and rasikas as the subjects claiming the exclusive access to this experience, on the ground of their understanding of the formal and conceptual intricacies of the dance vocabulary, risks of choking the reception and appreciation of Indian performing arts in the global context.

If the performance is a communicative act between the dancer and the audience, and this is even more so in the case of Indian classical dance, which often aims to convey specific meanings, characters and stories, it is the aesthetic responsibility of the performer to facilitate this communicative act and not just give for granted that some in the audience will understand what is portrayed in the dance, while most of them will not. The practice of introducing the items with short descriptions is meant to facilitate the reception of the dance in a context, which is not familiar with its aesthetics. However, with their technicalities, rather than reducing, these introductions often increase the distance between the performer and the majority of the audience.

In order to guarantee the survival and appreciation of Odissi on a wider context, the dancer has to act as a sort of transcultural translator between the dance aesthetics and the audience. This makes possible a process of democratization of the experience of rasa. To democratise rasa means first of all to accept and support the fact that different people may enjoy and appreciate a performance in different ways. Consequently, the aesthetic fulfilment that a dance performance may offer to its audience must not be limited to the exegesis of the choreographic items and to the understanding of its technical aspects. To democratise rasa also means reaching new unexpected audiences, by taking the dance outside of its ivory tower and bringing it in places which are more accessible to a wider majority of people, such as museums, schools, community centres and other educational environments. To democratise rasa means to talk to, dialogue with and respond to the questions of the audience. To democratise rasa is to provide the audience with the tools for travelling with the performer in the imaginary and fabulous world of Indian classical dance, by giving them more hints into the symbolism of the dance. This requires the identification of occasions and settings for the production and reception of the dance, which are more informal than the classical setting offered by dark auditoriums. To democratise rasa also means to be committed towards the understanding of the people the dancer is performing for. To democratise rasa therefore also implies having different audiences and tailoring performances to them, making the dance relevant to their life, aesthetic needs and sensitivity. In other words, to democratise rasa implies understanding why audiences should watch the dance and like it, not simply giving this for granted.

The vocabulary of Odissi, and indeed of Indian classical dance, is rich enough to provides the performer with a huge pool of material to work with in order to reach different and wider audiences and to promote the appreciation of these forms of art, on the ground that they have a universal value beyond their cultural idiosyncrasies and that this universal value may benefit many more than it already does nowadays. The point is to translate this aesthetics, and translating it means reducing the gap between the production and the reception, by making the dance relevant, familiar and accessible to all its diverse audiences.

If a complex item of abhinaya can have an audience of 100 primary school children watching with their eyes wide open, trying to catch the movements of animals, demons, heroes and heroines the dancer has previously described, what make their rasa less valuable than that of the knowledgeable spectator, whose appreciation is conflated with the literal exegesis of the piece?


Haberman, D. L. (2001). Acting as a Way of Salvation: A Study of Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. [1988]

Vatsyayan, K. (1968). Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts, New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi.

[1] Reproducing the discourse about the gap between the performer and audience, Vatsyayan (1968) suggests that ‘even the accomplished dancer, in spite of his mastery of technique, may sometimes only be partially initiated in the essential qualities of the dance form and its aesthetic significance. But, in the case of the audience, only the exceptional spectator is acquainted with the language of symbols through which the artist achieves the transformation into the realm of art.’ (p. 2)

[2] For some people this aesthetic fulfillment may also have a spiritual value and be identified with an experience of self-forgetfulness during performance.

[3] See for example Haberman (2001) for a discussion on different philosophical approaches to the experience of rasa and its relation to spiritual goals.

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