Emotions and Indian Dramatic Expression

Todi Ragini, from a Ragamala Series — Cleveland Museum of Art

Indian Aesthetics from the Upanishads to Bollywood

“In the beginning, this [reality] was non-existent. Then existence was produced. That [Brahman] created itself by itself. So it is called well-made. That which is well-made is in fact rasa. For bliss arises only having obtained rasa.”

[Taittirīya Upanishad 2.7.1]

“A rasa is produced by combining the base emotion with the vibhāvas (determinants), anubhāvas (consequents) and vyabhicaribhāvas (fleeting moods).”

[Nāṭya Śāstra 6.109; my own translation, following the interpretation of Bhaṭṭa Lollaṭa and D.H.H. Ingalls]

Existence, knowledge and supreme joy are commonly held to be inherently inter-related in the Vedantic philosophy, which is based on the Upanishads. The topic of the Chapter Two of the Taittirīya Upanishad, the Brahmānanda Vallī, is about the existence of Brahman, the knowledge of Brahman and the supreme joy that can be attained by that knowledge. The above quote from that chapter seems to relate this joy of knowing the ultimate nature of reality to the concept of rasa, a concept which was understood in the later tradition as aesthetic experience. Perhaps we can understand that the reality that we experience is most fundamentally not a world of physical matter or of mathematical truth but a word of emotion and feeling.

Analytical aesthetics in the Indian tradition spans a tradition that includes such celebrated texts as the Nāṭya Śāstra of Bharata as well as the Dhvanyāloka of Ᾱnandavardhana together with its equally renowned commentary Locana by Abhinavagupta. The topic of analysis is the aesthetic experience [rasa] or emotional journey that is created for the spectator of any type of artwork or indeed of the beauty of nature. Such artworks could include poetry and plays, as produced and analysed in classical India, or indeed modern film, whether those of Hollywood or Bollywood.

The aesthetic experience [rasa] can be analysed in terms of the several contributions of a range of features that combine to elicit the target combination of emotions in the spectator or audience. Such analysis surveys the whole range of such emotions that could possibly be elicited in the viewer as well as the emotional journey of the spectator, involving the build-up of various forms of dramatic tension followed by the resolution of those tensions, in gradual or in sudden manner.

In a play or movie, the actors would constitute the primary locus determinant of the emotion, or the so-called ālambana-vibhāva. In modern Bollywood films, the character of the male hero is dominant, consciously figured as such a primary determinant. Thus, in his two-volume work on Indian cinema, ‘Hero’, Ashok Raj explains –

“the hero … expresses in an indigenous idiom the people’s aspirations, dreams, their links with the past and their inner turmoil, thus unleashing in them a surge of mass empathy and idolization … the indigenous hero, in his evolution, development and mass acceptance, traces the history of cinema itself. Imbued with a distinct Indian ethos, this frontal figure also provides to cinema its true national identity.”

Indeed, the figure of the hero in modern cinema also may have thematic continuities with the ancient hero tradition including Indra and other such gods.

The secondary locus determinant of the emotion created would be the general background objects or scenery, such as the natural environment, which is the so-called uddīpana-vibhāva. Thus in many modern Bollywood films, a setting of unspoilt countryside or a farming landscape or mountain scenery may typically be used to strengthen a romantic theme in the main plot of the film.

In addition to the locus determinants of the emotion, there is also the manner in which actors give expression to the emotion through their performance, thus bringing the spectator too to experience the like emotion through sympathetic communion. This is termed anubhāva. In Bollywood films, as indeed in the entire Indian classical aesthetic tradition since earliest times, the supreme means to bring about such emotional resonance is through music and dance.

For classical Indian theorists, understanding and theorising the nature of the aesthetic experience that is produced was the subject of a long and complex debate, with the 11th century philosopher Abhinavagupta finally providing a compelling and convincing account of aesthetic experience in his work Abhinava-bharati, a commentary on the Nāṭya Śāstra of Bharata Muni. Earlier theorists had characterised aesthetic experience as a stronger form of emotion (per Bhaṭṭa Lollaṭa) or as the reflection or imitation of an emotion (per Śankuka) or as a universalisation of an emotion (per Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka) and so on. It is interesting to note how many of these second wave of theorists were from Kashmir. Abhinavagupta himself references the beauty of the natural environment in Kashmir as a source of aesthetic delight, and it is likely that these other theorists too were inspired by the scenic beauty of Kashmir.

Rejecting the earlier theories, Abhinavagupta was able to provide a new answer to the question of how aesthetic experiences related to ordinary emotions, and one that is psychologically consistent with the fact that we typically enjoy the thrill of both negative emotions, such as horror, fear and worry, as well as positive emotions during a film, whereas in our own first-person experience we seek to avoid negative emotions as far as possible. Specifically, Abhinavagupta held that aesthetic experiences were like ordinary emotions in which the sense of self, and hence the attribution to the first person, was sublimated. The spectator felt the emotion without attributing it to himself or herself and indeed the normal feeling of self-awareness is much-diminished during the experience of watching a play or movie or of contemplating the beauty of art or nature.

Recent technology advances have attempted to detect emotions from facial expressions through Artificial Intelligence algorithms, but have also come under criticism for using simplifying assumptions about a limited set of universal emotions which are always transparently expressed. According to recent research by Professor Thomas Dixon on European intellectual history –

“The 18th century saw a proliferation of new ideas about sentiments and sensibility, as well as about passions and affections … in common usage the word “passion” was often applied to “the evil propensities,” while “affection” was used for the “virtuous propensities; as the social, friendly, parental, filial affections” … … This more differentiated typology was lost with the rise of the capacious new category of “emotion” during the 19th century.”

Engagement with the Indian tradition may perhaps reveal particularist aspects to the expression of emotion in different contexts and by different individuals, and alternative models for conceptualising our emotional lives and their relation to our actions.

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