Indian Music: Aesthetic Experience and the Individual Way of Liberation (mokṣa)

                                                                by Valentina Di Tommaso                           

In  Sanskrit  the term rasa derives from the root form  verb ras “to taste, to perceive” and it means “juice, taste”. It expresses a fundamental concept of Indian philosophy and music, which can be described as the transcendental aesthetic experience of a complex of emotional sensations.1

It is the ultimate and most significant aim of  Indian art in general.

Experiencing the  rasa in art corresponds to the attainment of a mystical state, that enhances the aesthetic enjoyment. At the same time it is elevate in an ecstatic condition aimed to  a transcendent soteriological realization.  The aesthetic enjoyment becomes the vehicle for achieving a state of total transformation of the individual who experiences it.

So rasa is for India the true soul of art, which focuses not so much on the object, but on the state that arises  from it. An  insight, this one, that may seem very different from the western conception  of art.

However, it should not be forgotten how, even here, a work of  art, especially if it refers to religious representation, has often had a similar purpose, not surprisingly, expressed in the sacred buildings (temples ,cathedrals, private chapels).

The Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta (10th-11th century  AD) has thoroughly investigated the meaning of  the aesthetic experience in his  comment on the yaśāstra (‘Treatise on the Theater’ dated back to a period of time over the rise of the Christian era). He interprets this feeling as ānanda, namely ‘bliss’: ”

When the rasa has been realized and, therefore, its enjoyment is perceived by the listener, it is revealed as  pleasure different from those stored in the memory as a result of the common experience. In fact, it consists of a motion of the soul characterized by effusion and radiance, but also in a feeling of participation and co-essentiality. It is the bliss that is generated by recognizing one’s own identity with the supreme Brahman, in which one rest. In that awareness of the inner nature of  oneself that bliss is obtained.” 2

This principle governs the   Indian art. All the forms of  art  are built in its rules: the relations of architectural proportions and those between sounds; the principles of rhythmic accents in music and colors in painting; the movements of the body in the dance; the overall harmony of the human figure in the sculptural forms.

The concept of rasa was born in the context of literary poetry and scenic representation and from here was applied in the field of music. The Nātyaśāstra of Bharata, listed eight   rasa and sanctified them  by the divine authority of Brahmā, and also associated them with both colors and various deities. The association  rasa-color-divinity becomes canonical and  remains, with slight differences, also in the following treaties.

And here, in order, the eight rasa-s:

  1. śṛṅgāra: It refers to the passionate love and the desire of the union both carnal and transfigured in the deep feeling of spiritual union with the Lord. Its color is green / blue; the deity is Viṣṇu, in the Hindu pantheon protector of the Dharma.
  2. hāsya: Hilarity, joy, fun. Its color is white; the deity is Ardhanārīśvara, Śiva half man and half woman, representing the androgynous fullness, which dissolves and destroys the worlds, but also which regenerates and sustains them.
  3. karuā: Sadness, compassion, empathic union, unconditional love without expectations, service of the other, openness of the heart, and even regret. Its color is gray-dove ; the deity is Yama the Lord of death, who holds things in his grasp.
  4. raudra: Anger, energy and strength. It is the response to injustice, the reaction to offense. Its color is red; the deity is the stormy Vedic god Rudra, identified as ‘screamer’ and precursor of Śiva’s terrifying appearance.
  5. vīra: Heroism, determination, justice. Its color is yellow-ocher; the deity is the Vedic Indra, who presides over the storm and the warlike force.
  6. bhayānaka: Terror. Its color is black; the deity is Kāla, personification of Time and symbol of Death.
  7. bībhatsa: Disgust, hate, repugnance. The color is blue; the deity is Mahākāla, Śiva’s terrifying aspect, beyond time.
  8. adbhuta: Wonder in the face of something unexpected, which leaves one the breathless . The color is yellow; his divinity is Brahmā, creator of the Universe.

A ninth rasa, śānta, Calm, inner peace, was added in the eighth century. It is associated with the jasmine color and with Candra, the lunar divinity and the moon itself, of the male genus, which facilitates the growth of plants and mitigates the solar glow. According to some, the aesthetic experience
leads to the state of śānta, in which the arrest of mental agitation occurs and inner satisfaction is enjoyed.

Currently, it is also considered a tenth rasa, bhakti, which  represents the devotion to the Lord.

However, if in the treaty of Bharata, and in the dramaturgy in general, the rasa are minutely classified, especially for their scenic destination, in music it does not constitute a specific emotional sensation, but it takes substance from  their harmonic complex, as an effect of the musical enjoyment on the listener. It is the change or the reaction, in the body and in the mind , caused by an emotion.3

In music, rasa is generated from the rāga, a term deriving from the root raj, rañj, which means “ to make it colored, dyed” the human mind as a whole, identified with the word citta.
The rāga is a melodic module composed of a grammar of typical movements, emphasis, intonations, and particular inflections. Since they cause an emotional effect they are associated with specific moments of the day, with the seasons and with some recurrences. According to an  Indian definition of rāga  ranjayati iti rāga (“The rāga causes satisfaction, joy”).  the rāga,  must essentially possess aesthetic potentialities.
The binomial rāga-rasa must be understood as the inseparable union between melody and the reaction to the aesthetic stimulus.  While the rāga represents the potentiality of  ‘making it colored’, inherent in a certain musical nucleus, the rasa guarantees its realization and its perception, as a way of manifestation and musical effect at the same time.
The rasa of the emotions, in the Indian classical music, are not to be identified with the primary emotions of the humankind, determined also from other musical traditions, but they are emotions to be understood in pure and abstract sense. These emotional states have no practical and utilitarian basis; in fact, they are marked by an experience of transcendental order, independent of any realization of desire.
The Indian classical music expressed in the rāga, constitutes a way of personal liberation of the  listener, once the effect of rasa acts on his/her overall mind (citta). To make it happens, it is necessary that the musician would be able to stimulate such reaction and the listener would be ready to this experience through a long cultivated  exercise and finally realized.
In conclusion, the binomial rāga-rasa  is quite original in its breed and it doesn’t finds any  equivalence in other musical cultures.

  1. Roberto Perinu, Indian music, theoretical foundations and vocal and musical practices through the times, Edizioni G.Zanibon.
    2. Roberto Perinu, Writings on Indian Music, Vols.1 and 2, 2016 edition, Publisher Acta Bugellae.
    3. Patrizia Saterini, Indian Music. Theory and in depth analysis from a western perspective.
    4. Joshi Barburao, Understanding Indian Music, 1963.

I would like to thank Dr Tiziana Lorenzetti, President of ISAS, Rome, for entrusting me with the Introduction  to today’s Concert of Maestro Metha and of Maestro Nicolas Delaigue.
I would also like to thank Roberto Perinu, Prof. of Theory of Indian Music  at the Conservatory of Vicenza, for his useful advice and discussion with me on Indian Music; and  Fabio Scialpi, Prof. of Indian Philosophy, Religions, and History of the Sapienza University of  Rome, for his suggestions on some points of the present Text.



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