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The cause and effect of Rasa

(This article is taken from Dancer Sangeeta Ishwaran’s research paper “Abhinaya in Dance –Theatre forms of south east asia”)

What I felt would be relevant for the readers here is the relation between Sthayi bhava, Vibhava and the Anubhava. This is a part of the advanced theory in classical dance. In this paper, three concepts defined in the Natyasastra are of interest to us: the first is abhinaya; the second is bhava or emotion; and the third, and most important, is rasa or aesthetic pleasure.

Abhinaya is the art of communicating bhava (emotion) to produce rasa (aesthetic enjoyment). The rasa theory of the Natyasastra is considered one of its most important contributions, with several scholars over the centuries until today analyzing it extensively. The famous rasa sutra or basic “formula” to invoke rasa, as stated in the Natyasastra, is as follows:

vibhava anubhava vyabhicari samyogat rasa nishpattih.

Vibhava determines or causes bhava while anubhava is the physical result or the performance of the bhava that is communicated through the abhinaya. The most important vibhava and anubhava are those that invoke the sthayi bhava, or the principal emotion at the moment. Thus, the rasa sutra states that the vibhava, anubhava, and vyabhicari bhavas together produce rasa, i.e., good bhava vibhava and anubhava imply the strong invocation and expression of a bhava, especially the sthayi. Appropriate vyabhicari bhavas enhance the sthayi bhava so that the satvika bhavas are invoked, resulting in rasa.

There are four kinds of abhinaya:

Angika abhinaya—communication using different parts of the body.

Vacika abhinaya—communication using the voice in song, dialogue, chanting, among others.

Aharya Abhinaya—communication through costume, stage properties, among others.

Satvika abhinaya—communication made more potent by evoking the quality of inner involvement that raises the art above the mundane level.

What does the abhinaya express? The fundamental yet most important unit of expression is emotion or bhava. The Natyasastra divides the bhava into three categories:

1. Sthayi bhava, the principal emotion;

2. Vyabhicari or sancari bhava, the transient emotion; and

3. Satvika bhava, the involuntary emotion.

There are eight sthayi bhavas while there are 33 vyabhicari bhavas. They are used to reinforce the sthayi. Moreover, there are eight satvika bhavas, which are the involuntary reactions manifested in the body, such as the falling of tears or temporary paralysis, when one invokes successfully the sthayi in the deepest manner possible, i.e., when the satvika abhinaya is invoked.

Finally, the Natyasastra states that the goal of any art form is to invoke rasa. Rasa, which literally means taste, can be loosely translated as aesthetic appreciation or enjoyment of an art. However, that is a superficial definition that does not do justice to the spiritual and philosophical implications of this term. When at a given moment no other reality exists but that of the art, when the spectator and the artist have become one in spirit, then one experiences fully the rasa. The Natyasastra lists eight rasas but scholars in later centuries added a ninth one (Shanta rasa) to create the concept of the nava rasas or the nine rasas.

For example, if the principal emotion or sthayi bhava is anger, Krodha. Let us say the cause of anger, vibhava, is betrayal by a friend. The anger will be more potent if the vibhava is strongly established. If the sthayi bhava is deeply felt, then it will result in the physical manifestation of anger such as burning eyes and heaving chest, which is the anubhava. But in anger, one can make fun of and laugh sarcastically at the object of one’s anger. One can feel sorrow when thinking of the happy times spent together earlier. One can feel disgust for the other person’s behavior or be amazed at the change in him now. Through all this, the fundamental thread of anger must be maintained. But the transient emotions—the vyabhicari bhavas of laughter, sorrow, disgust and amazement—enhance the present angry state. If performed with appropriate angika, vacika, aharya and above all, true satvika abhinaya, it will invoke the rasa of raudra or anger in the spectator whose mind is completely in accordance with the performer.

In the study of abhinaya, there is also a need for a basic analysis of character types. Bharata defines three major character types:

1. Uttama or character of high moral fiber;

2. Madhyama or character that is neither noble nor base; and

3. Adhama, or evil or low-character type. The style of abhinaya used to convey a bhava in order to evoke rasa changes according to the type of character.

According to the Natyasastra, the style of attitude and behavior varies sharply from the uttama to the adhama. The uttama uses the natya dharmi style or refined way of movement and expression characterized by complete self-control, while the adhama uses the loka dharmi style or the casual, natural style of behavior with less self-restraint. The Madhyama character uses a mixture of both styles. The type of character and the style of movement and expression play a major role in determining the techniques of abhinaya used. For example, the technique of expressing laughter according to the Natyasastra manifests itself in an uttama as a controlled smile and in an adhama as an open-mouthed loud sound, accompanied by the shaking of the shoulders, and sometimes with the hands slapping the thighs.

Thus the rasa-sutra or the technique to invoke the esthetic pleasure in dance is a exhaustive art in itself. One gains perfection only through practice and observation.


  1. siddhi

    hey this information was good for people starting bharatanatyam and would help them understand its origin and emotions which will help to display youre dance beautifully.Thnx from all those who have benefitted from you!

  2. deon

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who really knows what he/she is talking about. You truly know how to bring an dilemma to light and make it important. More people have to read this and understand this side of the story. I can think you are not more well-liked mainly because you really have the gift.

  3. Chandra Anand

    vyabhicharibhava is not sancharibhava. the different ways of projecting the vyabhichari bhavas or the transient emotions are called the sanchari bhavas. In how many different ways can one emotion can be analysed and presented and the sthayi bhava present in the vibhava and anubhava conveyed are called the sanchari bhavas.

  4. mrs ruthkin

    sir , i just wanted to know how the rasa theory implies on indian music?jenerally we know it evokes emotions ,is there any resemblance with dvani theory (poetry)?

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