Rasa as an Ecologically Sustainable Aesthetic Theory

Erin B. Mee*

Abstract

If theatre is going to fundamentally change the way we think about climate crisis – and the way we relate to our planet and other species on it – we must embrace aesthetic theories that embody modes of sustainable thinking. Aesthetic theories reflect and constitute ways of thinking, being, and interacting; they are not, then, politically neutral. If aesthetic theories are political, can we think about them in terms of their impact on climate crisis? Are certain aesthetic theories “more sustainable” than others? In this essay, I examine the Sanskrit theory of rasa and propose that rasa embodies and offers a model of sustainability on which to base our theatre.

Κeywords: rasa, climate crisis, experiential theatre,  interactive theatre, tasting theatre, aesthetic theory, immersive theatre, site-specific theatre

What Is Rasa?

Rasa has been variously translated as juice, flavour, taste, extract and essence; it is the “aesthetic flavor or sentiment” savored in and through performance. In fact, according to the Nātyashāstra (The Science of Drama) the Sanskrit aesthetic treatise attributed to Bharata, “There is no drama without rasa” (54). Bharata tells us that when foods and spices are mixed together in different ways, they create different flavors; similarly, the mixing of different emotions and feelings arising from different situations, when expressed through the performer, gives rise to an experience or “taste” in the partaker, which is rasa (55).

The goal of Sanskrit drama was to create rasa, and rasa remains central to genres such as kutiyattam (a particular way of performing Sanskrit drama in Kerala, South India) and kathakali (a genre of classical dance-drama in Kerala). Rasa exists only as and when it is experienced: “the existence of rasa and the experience of rasa are identical” (qtd in Deutsch, 215). Similarly, rasa exists always and only as the result of an interaction between performer and partaker. For Abhinavagupta (ce 950–1025), who commented extensively on the Nātyashāstra, rasa is not a gift bestowed upon a passive spectator or a commodity bought by a consumer, but an attainment, an accomplishment: someone who wants to experience rasa has to be an active participant – or, to use the dining metaphor, partaker – in the work.

Because Bharata has taken his metaphor from food, I refer to the spectator or audience member as a partaker: someone who has to choose to take in a performance, who has to actively put it in the “mouth,” chew on it, break it down and roll it around on the “tongue” to relish it; who has to “ingest” and “digest” the performance, incorporating it into the self. Abhinavagupta refers to rasa as an “act of relishing” (Deshpande 85), and as such, rasa is both a noun and a verb: the relishing of the flavor and the flavor that is itself relished. Ultimately, rasa is a theory of embodied response to a performance – a theory of partakership – that can be understood as an act of participatory sense-making.

Dear Reader, I am going to ask you to experience this essay by performing the Dance of Chocolate. Stop reading this essay and find a piece of chocolate, a caramel, a cough drop, or something delicious that will melt in your mouth. Once you have your chocolate, type this link into a device: https://on.soundcloud.com/Afw2n. Find a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and press play. Really close your eyes. Relish your performance. After your Dance of Chocolate, resume reading.

Many people who choreograph Dance of Chocolate for the first time have never thought about the possibility that a dance can take place in the mouth, or that the tongue can be a choreographer. They have never thought about tasting a dance.

The metaphor of taste and tasting is important: this relishing is multisensory in that taste always involves touch and smell and is internal and embodied: to taste something you have to put it in your body-mouth – or at least on your tongue. Eventually, as you digest, what you put in your mouth becomes part of you. So the metaphor of “tasting” performance posits aesthetic experience as active, participatory, interactive, social, experiential, sensual, tactile, multi-sensory, internal, emotional, intellectual, embodied and an attainment. It allows us to think about becoming one with what is around us, with our experiences, rather than remaining separate. If we want to save the planet, this cognitive shift is crucial, and rasa can help us make it.

Co-Creation
Dinner guests toast character Henri Rousseau at a rehearsal of A Serious Banquet. Photo: Courtesy of This Is Not A Theatre Company

Rasa posits the interactive audience as co-creator of the event. As one example of how this works in performance, partakers in This Is Not A Theatre Company’s[1] A Serious Banquet (2014) – a cubist dinner structured around the party Pablo Picasso threw for the painter Henri Rousseau in 1908 Paris that invited partakers to experience the world from many angles at once – were welcomed into Picasso’s world by his overly-perfumed and somewhat flustered mistress Fernande Olivier. They were asked to deliver a rose to Gertrude Stein on behalf of Alice B. Toklas; they were invited to converse with a guitar programmed to respond to speech with music; they were asked to answer a phone that recited poetry; they were invited to listen to a still life (a bottle and vase that had a scene with each other); they entered a discussion with Georges Braque on Picasso’s latest painting Demoiselles D’Avignon (played by three women set in a frame); they were asked to introduce Apollinaire (played by a glass of absinthe containing a speaker that recited his poems) to other guests; they stood in a room filled with the smells of garlic and rosemary to whet their appetite for dinner; and they were served wine and water in cups they decorated themselves. Partakers could not sit outside the event looking in; they entered the world and engaged with it – bringing parts of that world into their mouths. Dinner guests, as both performers and partakers, co-created the event. After all the guests had arrived, and after audiences had participated in individual “salon” moments during which they painted with Picasso, were fed grapes and cheese by the three Demoiselles D’Avignon (who, having escaped from their frame, were exploring the world of touch, smell, and taste for the first time), composed a poem with Max Jacob, composed a song with Andre Salmon, and had Gertrude Stein paint a word-portrait of them, everyone sat down to dinner. Guests drew their own dinner plates on a paper tablecloth, and three-dimensional food was served on their two-dimensional plates. During dinner, characters offered their birthday gifts to Rousseau in the form of a sculpture made of posed dinner guests by Picasso; a silent dance by Ida Rubenstein; a cabaret song by the Demoiselles D’Avignon; and poetry by Max Jacob, Andre Salmon, and Gertrude Stein. Critic Colin McConnell described his experience co-creating the piece in this way:

[…] I was asked to discuss Picasso’s latest painting, and to draw myself my dinner plate, and…

[…] Often I was asked to help create. My friend got to make miniature paintings while I listened for what I might find within a conversation between a vase and a bottle […]. I was handed markers, and […] convinced a painting to draw with me. I was invited to an evening of joy.

This ‘play’ isn’t a play at all. It is an invitation to experience celebration. Yes, it is about art and history, but these things were not handed to me in a dusty book, or put upon a stage where it could judge me for not knowing enough. I was allowed instead to play and grapple with the work, not as a spectator but as a creator myself – not from the outside peering in, but from within itself.

McConnell

Partakers and their experiences became an integral and essential part of the evening; in fact they became what Gareth White calls “the work’s aesthetic material” (White 9-10). One audience member said that the event “made [her] think of the experience of creation as a liminal space between the individual experience and decisions of the artist [which is rasa]… but at the same time art creation as a collective experience in which we shared a space and a moment [which is also rasa]” (Audience A).

Character Andre Salmon dines with two audience members in a rehearsal of A Serious Banquet. Photo: Courtesy This Is Not A Theatre Company
Making Meaning

Jacques Ranciere claims that the audience-performance relationship in conventional proscenium theatre is designed to bring audiences into “our” (playwrights, directors, actors, designers, dramaturgs) superior understanding (see Ranciere 2009). The politics of a rasic experience are quite different: instead of having two distinct groups – one acting and another acted upon – everyone in participatory performance has agency to co-create the event, to make their own meaning, and to have their experiences and understandings matter. Production and reception are intertwined, and theatre that embodies this mode of engagement models ways of interacting with other living beings on our planet: working with them, rather than conquering, subduing, and asking them to serve our “superior” vision.

Ashley Wren Collins in Versailles 2015. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki

This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Versailles 2015, an immersive cocktail party focused on income inequality and privilege, was set in an actual New York City apartment. Partakers, welcomed to the apartment as partygoers, drank wine and ate hors d’oeuvres during a scene about gentrification in the living room; they ate cake in the kitchen as a drunk woman discussed the various kinds of food one can afford to consume as a member of the 1%. Eating cake (an obvious reference to Marie Antoinette) positioned guests as members of the 1%, and asked them to think about how they use their privilege as they literally internalized and became “a party to” the message through their participation. One of my students commented to me that, as she was taking three subways to get to the play, she decided she was not part of the 1% and questioned whether the play would have any relevance for her. After the play she realized that, simply by virtue of being a student at New York University, living in a dorm, and interacting with other privileged people at this cocktail party, she was a member of the global 1%. One reviewer wrote: “The overall tone […] helps the show maintain a sort of ‘whistling past the guillotine’ balance between the obvious (yeah, we’re privileged, so what) and the unsettling (but we – us in this room – not just the bankers – are actually living the kind of life that can bring about a revolution from its underclass, which should perhaps cause us more concern than it does)” (O’Neil 2016). In addition to being cast in the play, guests were divided into five groups and saw the scenes in a different order: we noticed that guests who had started in the kitchen and finished in the bathroom where a young woman’s monologue about her health care raised the question of whether some of the privileged should not have to interrogate their privilege if they are suffering from (for example) serious health issues, came to different conclusions than those who started in the bathroom and ended in the kitchen. While all guests partook in the same scenes and came to the same overall conclusions about privilege, the nuances of their understandings were affected by the order of scenes. This is to say that guests were invited to practice critical thinking and to come to their own conclusions rather than simply absorbing what the artists told them to think.

Jonathan Matthews-Guzman in Versailles 2015. Photo: Deb Wasser
Ways of Seeing

Ways of seeing rasic productions are connected – through the history of performing in temples as offerings to deities — to darshan. “Darshan,” which literally means “seeing,” refers to the “visual perception of the sacred”, and, more specifically, to the contact between devotee and deity that takes place through the eye. Since “the deity is present in the image, the visual apprehension of the image is charged with religious meaning. Beholding the image is an act of worship, and through the eyes one gains the blessings of the divine” (Eck 3, 7). Darshan is a gift: the deity “gives darshan” and the devotee “takes darshan”, or “receives darshan”. In this context “seeing […] is not an act which is initiated by the worshipper. Rather, the deity presents itself to be seen in its image” (Eck 6).

Darshan, like rasa, is an exchange: the devotee goes not only to see but also to be seen by the deity. The devotee unites his or her sight with the deity’s sight in order to take in another, superior, perspective. In darshan, human sight mixes with divine insight to dispel maya, or illusion. In other words, darshan helps people to “see,” or understand, more clearly: seeing, being seen, and coming to see are conflated (Babb 397–98). Sight becomes insight, a revelation occurs, and the spectator is transformed into a seer. Darshan offers a way of seeing and a mode of engagement that is about partnership, and co-creation. No one dominates; it is about growth. This way of seeing is more useful for theatre that seeks to address the causes of climate crisis and shift our ways of interacting with our planet.

The central metaphor of rasa (taste) connects us to the world around us. In contradistinction, catharsis occurs in the teatron, or place of seeing, and its central metaphor – sight – distances us from the world around us and can put us in a position of dominance. Ways of seeing are also deeply political because they embody and construct modes of engagement. If seeing “requires distance (objectivity) to reach understanding (to gain insight and to become a seer)” then an aesthetic founded on the notion of ingesting, tasting, and relishing – rasa – is fundamentally different […] than one founded on the ‘theatron’, the rationally ordered, analytically distanced panoptic” (Schechner 116). Highly Impractical Theatre’s[2]Three Sisters (A House in Brooklyn, 2014) offers a way to understand this difference by having provided several ways to experience Irina’s birthday party. I went once as a serf, helping Anfisa pour “vodka” [actually water] for the guests and serve food to the aristocrats at table. I went a second time as an aristocrat and, because I was allowed to wander upstairs, encountered scenes I had not seen the first time, sat in places I did not sit the first time (I never sat as a serf), actually ate the birthday dinner, and had a very different experience of Irina’s party; I felt I had actually been invited. I have seen many productions of Three Sisters, but this is the first one that asked me to think so deeply about the class divisions in Chekhov’s plays, because I had to embody rather than observing them. My role dictated my status, which in turn dictated my behaviour, the spaces I inhabited, the information I was privy to, what I ate and drank (or did not), whom I spoke to, and how I viewed the action around me. Admittedly, I had to re-read the play before I went. Otherwise, I would have been lost without a reminder of the plot and characters because I did not see “the whole play”, rather, I only saw the parts of it that my character had access to. I was not an “objective observer”. I entered the world of the play. One of my students described her experience with the character Masha:

She signaled that I should follow her after we locked eyes. Sirens sounded, and I […] trailed her through a maze of hallways and staircases that seemed to muffle her troubled life. Up a final staircase, and we were safe, alone. I bent my knees and slid next to a small collection of curios that sat on the landing. She gazed at these love notes, pictures, and candles; I felt as if I had access to her memories. She was silent. The sounds of the house had faded away, and after a few long moments, my guide held out her hand. “Masha,” she said. “Sam,” I said. “Look,” and she pointed to the open skylight that I hadn’t noticed above my head. A breeze blew through, and it seemed as if the turmoil going on below us had dematerialized. Masha was quiet as she looked at the sky, and I sensed her deep sadness as voices called out her name from below, and she led me back downstairs […] In my time with Masha, I was allowed to live with her in a private moment of fear and confusion. I empathized with her. I understood her […] I was implicated in her personal drama, and lost my ability to remain [critically] removed from the play.

Silbiger

My student was discomfited by the fact that she lost what she referred to as her “objectivity” and her “ability to remain [critically] removed from the play”. But losing one’s objectivity is in fact the point. Rasic theatre reveals the falseness in the very idea of objectivity (which is always already subjective), and revels in partial perceptions: unlike the proscenium where the spectator believes she can see everything, rasic theatre is set up in such a way that the partaker cannot possibly see everything – and is aware of that. The partial view is celebrated. Objectivity is not the point. Subjectivity, in all aspects, is.

Dramaturgical Structures

Sanskrit drama was designed to elicit a rasic experience; kutiyattam is a particular way of performing Sanskrit drama in Kerala, South India, and its dramaturgical structure is designed to evoke rasa. Many of the plays in the contemporary kutiyattam repertoire are based on stories from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and other familiar sources. These stories are well known to the kutiyattam spectator. Consequently, the emphasis of a performance is on how a particular performer interprets the text and embodies the narrative rather than on simply telling the story itself. Kutiyattam does not present an entire play in a single night. The elaboration of the drama is so complex that a kutiyattam performance of what becomes a six-play play when in print can take anywhere from five to thirty-five nights to complete—the better the actors, the longer it can take; a kutiyattam performance is not the presentation of a text but an elaboration on it. Each scene of the play has its own title and is meant to be performed as its own entity. Within each scene, a performer may spend up to three hours illuminating three lines of text by making political and social analogies, exploring emotional associations, and telling related or background stories.

On the first night of a kutiyattam performance a character enters, introduces himself by narrating his personal history and some important details from his own life, presents some of the important events leading up to the play, and expands on details found in the first few lines of text. On the second and third nights the same character (possibly played by a different actor) tells stories connected to, but not found in, the main story of the play. On the fourth night a second character introduces himself, presents personal background leading up to the moment the play begins, and tells the story from his point of view. On each successive night another character appears until all the characters have been introduced, each offering his own history and version of the story. On other nights the vidushaka appears. His job is to translate the Sanskrit text of the play into Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala) and to make political and social analogies between events in the play and events in the real world. In this way the story is told and retold from many points of view, the background to the story is fully explored, and the story is made relevant to the audience. This process is known as nirvahanam.[3] On the final night of kutiyattam, “the play” is performed. “The play” – the text sans elaborations – is only a minute fraction of the total experience.

Kutiyattam spectators do not have a “horizontal” experience: they do not follow the plot in a linear fashion across time; instead, they have a series of “vertical” experiences in which they follow the actor as he delves into each moment, exploring it fully at many levels and in many modes. The responsibility for thorough interpretation and elaboration is handed over to the performers, whose improvisations are based on guidelines set out in the attaprakaram,[4] the acting manuals passed from teacher to student. Because the elaborations take precedence over the text, the attaprakarams are even more important to the performers than the text of the play.

The Sanskrit play Urubhangam by Bhasa (dates uncertain) dramatizes an episode from the Mahabharata in which a key Kaurava leader, Duryodhana, dies because of a crushing blow to his thigh inflicted unfairly and brutally in battle by Bhima, one of the Pandava brothers. In the first act Bhasa describes the battlefield carnage in gory detail. Act two focuses on the death of Duryodhana, the grief of his family, the futility of heroism, and the vain arrogance that was the cause of the catastrophic Mahabharata war. There is no plot as such: the play opens with a group of soldiers describing the battle; we then see the injured Duryodhana on the battlefield; his parents, two wives, and son come to say goodbye; he dies; and then the hot-headed teenage warrior Ashwatthama vows revenge on the sons of the Pandava brothers who are responsible for Duryodhana’s death. Director Kavalam Narayana Panikkar’s (1928-2016) 1989 production focuses on Duryodhana’s sudden change in personality: “Here is a hero who stood for adharma [evil and injustice, the opposite of dharma] all his life, but the moment he faced the inevitable, dharma [duty, law, righteousness, virtue, honor] dawned on him” (Panikkar in SNA 1989,18). But the production also focuses on the false pride that causes the war and the warriors’ desire for heroic immortality, which motivates them in battle and leads to Duryodhana’s death, transforming the spectators’ perspective on heroism.

In act two when Duryodhana’s parents, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, enter the battlefield with Duryodhana’s wives and his son Durjaya, the two lines of text they speak and the 40 or so feet they have to cross, take them four minutes. Their entrance is a modern version of the kathakali purappattu—the first entrance of an important character from behind the tirassila (a multicolored, hand-held, rectangular curtain). The purappattu “involves the formal, stylistically rendered, symbolic presentation of the [character…] through dance in four stages” (Nair and Paniker 76). In other words, the plot stops while the moral characteristics of the character are laid out for the spectators through dance rather than dialogue; then the tirassila is dropped or pulled away, the character joins the scene, and the plot continues forward.

Kavalam Narayana Panikkar’s production of Urubhangam. Photo: Courtesy Sopanam

In Panikkar’s production, the elongated entrance of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari establishes who they are but most importantly (and unlike the kathakali entrance), how they feel. Durjaya leads his grandparents onto an upstage walkway where they move slowly to the accompaniment of a dirgelike drumbeat, which unrelentingly pulls them forward to the place where they confront the death of their last remaining son. Dhritarashtra and Gandhari take three faltering steps and rest, three more stumbles and recover, three more steps forward and stop. They are so distraught—and so old, feeble, and blind—that they can hardly walk, and they weave from side to side. Every so often they wail: “My son, where are you?” and “Where are you, my child?” (Bhasa 109). Their vocal delivery is modeled after the kutiyattam performer’s swarathil cholluka, a form of vocalization that comes from vedic chanting (Rajagopalan n.d.:113). As Panikkar uses it in Urubhangam, the swarathil cholluka has the quality of keening and is its own “vocal act,” which is to say that the quality of the sound itself rather than the meaning of the text that accompanies it conveys the emotional depth of the moment. Through their keening, the actors give the sense that Duryodhana is already dead and that his parents are already in mourning. When they step onto the main playing area they collapse with their heads in their hands, groaning for the third and final time:

Dhritarashtra: My son, where are you?
Gandhari: Where are you, my child?

Bhasa 109

Spectators are immersed for four minutes in this expression of grief. This type of extended elaboration is known as anukirthanam, which Panikkar defines as a “celebration of mood by stretching it out to enhance the ultimate rasa” (1995:61). Panikkar’s goal was to create a rasic experience for the partaker of Urubhangam.

This is one example of the ways in which rasa requires a nonlinear, flexible dramaturgical structure that allows the partaker to linger in/with particular moments and to “wander around” exploring numerous sensorial stimuli that give rise to emotions that can be savored. To return to the metaphor of food: an amuse bouche is an experience to relish in and of itself; it is not a prerequisite for the appetizer. Nor is the appetizer a prerequisite for the main course. Although my mother considered vegetables to be a prerequisite for dessert, dessert was never the “goal” of a meal. A meal has things that come before and things that come after, and certain tastes complement or interact with each other, but D does not depend on C or B or A: you can still understand and appreciate a main course if you have not had an appetizer.

Cafe Play. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki

Immersive and participatory productions consciously create non-linear structures to give partakers opportunities to relish an environment, a scene, a character, a prop, a smell, a texture, a taste, and/or a sound, in their own way and time in order to heighten the partaker’s emotions. In This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Café Play (2018)– performed in the back room of the historic Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, NYC – partakers were made aware of having been cast as restaurant customers by being seated at tables and being fed salad, risotto, and dessert at various points during the production – which also served to literalize the notion of “tasting the play.” Café Play asked us to think about the ways we treat other human beings: do we assume the African-American woman entering the café is a waitress (as one character and more than one partaker did)? Do we think about the slavery that is embedded in the sugar we stir into our coffee? Do we think about the politics of the coffee itself – where, how, and by whom it is grown, and how it makes its way to our cup? Do we think about the class structures embedded in the ways we use our silverware? Do we think about our species-ist responses to the cockroach talking to us? Do we behave with a sense of entitlement toward the waitstaff? On several occasions I was treated poorly when audiences assumed I was a member of the waitstaff, but treated better when they discovered I was the director of the production they had come to see. Therefore, towards the end of the play, during a scene regarding how waitresses feel when they are mistreated, partakers had to come to terms with their very real behavior. As partakers looked around at other partakers as well as actors, they both received and gave information, and became aware that they were, with their presence and their visible behavior, co-creating the message both for themselves and for others in a shared network of information. The dramaturgical structure had to lead partakers from one mode of engagement to the other. TINATC members spent hours debating the order of scenes not in terms of plot or character development, but in terms of the way modes of engagement and sensorial experiences developed from one scene to the next. For example, early on, one of the company members performed a dance at one of the tables; then company members led partakers in a Dance of Crayons (it so happened that the restaurant covered their tablecloths in paper and put out crayons, so TINATC decided to create a Dance of Crayons) in which they all danced their crayons across the paper to music. Finally, they choreographed the Dance of Chocolate. In this case, partakers did not watch someone else dance; they were given instructions and music to create the dance themselves, simultaneously playing the roles of choreographer, dancer, and experiencer in an internal dance of flavor, smell, and mouth-feel. The dances developed from one partakers watched to one they participated in to one they created themselves; their dance partner developed from appetizer to main course to dessert. This shift in focus – from external to internal, and observation to experience – and back again, had to be carefully choreographed throughout the evening.

Dance of Crayons in This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Cafe Play. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki
Agon and Transformation

Plays that conform to Aristotle’s model of catharsis and the dramaturgical structure necessary to achieve it often involve agon, translated most often as “contest” (which was the context for classical Greek drama), or “conflict” or “struggle” between characters. In contradistinction, Sanskrit drama is based on transformation rather than agon. The only event in Urubhangam is that Duryodhana dies: there is no suspense, no secret to uncover, no need to find out what happens in the end, no conflict to drive the plot forward. All the conflict occurs before the play starts. The engine of the play is transformation. Panikkar says: “while looking at the whole picture of theatre […] I started getting the idea that our theatre is basically not conflict-oriented, as is generally understood; it is definitely transformation oriented” (61).

In Panikkar’s production, after Duryodhana dies, he transforms into a theyyam – a deity. What drives Urubhangam forward is the transformation of Duryodhana (dur, meaning bad) into Suyodhana (su, meaning good or fair). In Bhasa’s play these two aspects of Duryodhana’s character are combined in one persona, but Panikkar splits them: he has an actor play Suyodhana, the theyyam of Duryodhana, who emerges when Duryodhana says, “We are finished. And so is the war and the enmity” (Bhasa 108). Suyodhana is an embodiment of Duryodhana’s realization that the war has been terrible, and should stop; he is Duryodhana’s conscience. Of course, Suyodhana is not an actual theyyam, nor is he meant to be understood as such. Panikkar uses Suyodhana to reference theyyattam and the practice of deification. Through Suyodhana, Panikkar illustrates how the horrors of war come from our quest to become godlike, from our desire for immortality. Through Suyodhana, Panikkar also questions what kind of society chooses to glorify people like Duryodhana. Panikkar gives one of the lines Bhasa wrote for Duryodhana to Suyodhana in a conversation Suyodhana has with Durjaya: “Look, my son! Duryodhana was your father. He was splendid and glorious. His heart was fired with pride. He fell in battle facing an equal adversary” (Bhasa 113). In this speech Suyodhana tells Durjaya about Duryodhana’s fame and bravery, and begins to function as the creator, caretaker, and embodiment of Duryodhana’s image. In the last moments of the production, Duryodhana says: “Now my life is going. […] Death has sent a warrior’s cart […] to fetch me. I come” (115). As he speaks these lines, Suyodhana reaches out with two bamboo poles to form a cart; he and Duryodhana circle around each other at an ever-increasing speed until the rhythm reaches its climax and Suyodhana ends up in front of Duryodhana –effectively blocking him out and essentially replacing him (see figure 3.6). Duryodhana has been replaced by his theyyam. Suyodhana is the image of Duryodhana that lives on after his death: he represents Duryodhana’s fame in battle, embodies Durjaya’s memory of his father, and is the manifestation of Duryodhana in the contemporary imagination – he is the way we have come to see Duryodhana. In short, he is Duryodhana’s immortality, the god Duryodhana is becoming. At another level, Suyodhana is the lesson we learn from following Duryodhana’s story. As such, he is an embodiment of the goodness that emerges from Duryodhana’s deathbed: Duryodhana dies leaving good Suyodhana in his stead, asserting that good things can emerge from (the death of) a bad person. These are the transformations that drive the production forward.

Modes of Interaction and Engagement

Experiential performances take place in and on the partaker’s body. In This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Play… In Your Bathtub 2.0 (2022), partakers sat in the tub and were submerged – or literally immersed — in the subject-matter of the play. Water served both as the sensory frame and the literal dramatic text. Partakers felt the temperature and movement of the water as they danced their fingers and toes across the surface of the bath, inhaled air perfumed by scented candles and/or bath oil, tasted the tea or wine they had been asked to bring to the bath, and felt the texture of the washcloth they put over their eyes. Partakers literally touched and were touched by the production as they sat in the tub: they felt it affect them in and on their bodies.

Dear Reader, I am going to ask you to experience this essay by performing an excerpt of Play…In Your Bathtub 2.0 titled the Dance of Fingers on the Surface of the Water. You can run a bath (in which case we urge you to use some scented bath oil or a bath bomb, a candle) or you can fill a large bowl with scented water. Once you have gathered your props, type this link into a device: https://on.soundcloud.com/VmU71. Close your eyes, and press play. Really close your eyes. Relish your performance. After your Dance of Fingers on the Surface of the Water, resume reading.

As with the Dance of Chocolate, the partaker is choreographer, dancer, and experiencer. As with TINATC’s other pieces, the dramaturgical structure of Play.. In Your Bathtub 2.0 was developed with modes of engagement in mind: more vigorous dances were followed by poetry using ASMR techniques to allow the water to settle while continuing to engage the body, and scents and tastes were layered onto textures to create a sensory build. The length of the piece was determined by the length of time it takes the average bath of water to cool. The goal of catharsis is immediate effect; the goal of rasa is lingering affect – a dramaturgy of the senses is required to create rasa.

Jonathan Matthews-Guzman in Cafe Play. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki

A production that includes the smell of bath oil, the taste of sugared coffee, the temperature of the air or water, and the movement of one’s body through space as an integral part of its meaning, privileges the feeling body. Not only did partakers’ actions and experiences become “the work’s aesthetic material” in Café Play and Play In Your Bathtub 2.0 – the word “play” in each title being an invitation to play as verb – but their play, their physical and emotional responses, shaped and became the event: “The feeling body,” as Erin Hurley claims, is “the vehicle for [experiential] theatre’s images and execution. The feeling body is both the basis and the means of theatre” (36). The feeling body is an affected and affecting body. Affect can be “found in those intensities that pass body to body […] in those resonances that circulate” about and between bodies. These are also the affective interactions in which rasa can be found. Both affect and rasa “arise in the midst of in-between-ness [and] in the capacities to act and be acted upon.” If “the capacity of a body is never defined by a body alone, but by […] the context of its force-relations,” and “affect is integral to a body’s perpetual becoming” (Gregg and Seigworth 2010, Kindle locations 50, 51, 72) then rasa is a mechanism for privileging the constant becoming of the affected body. This, in turn, positions experiential theatre as a force of affective change. The constant becoming of affected and affecting bodies interacting in a restaurant allows for a fluid subjectivity that is “assembled and re-assembled through” encounters with others (and with different tastes, smells, textures, props, and situations) during the course of the performance (White 2013:24). Giovanna Colombetti articulates a theory of embodied sense-making that parallels Bharata’s articulation of rasa. She argues that skills such as imitation, along with a responsiveness to others’ facial expressions and physical gestures, “embody […] a pragmatic form of understanding others” (172) that is not based on internal simulation or mentalising, but constitutes an embodied practice. She refers to this as “participatory sense making, which is enacted in the concrete interaction between two or more autonomous agents coupled via reciprocity and coordination” (172). These skills, present in daily life and in partakers of performance, create rasa – an emotional taste – through pragmatic, participatory and embodied sense-making in the coordinated and reciprocal interaction between performer and partaker.

An understanding between self and other involves empathy, which is, in Colombetti’s view, “an experiential access to the other’s subjectivity,” a “feeling in” (174). She stresses the “sensual nature of our experience of others,” and refers to empathy as a process of sensing-in (174). For example,

I do not experience the other’s bodily sensation [as my own]. Hence when I see a hand tensely contracted in a fist, I do not experience this tenseness in my own hand, as if my hand were itself tensely contracted in a fist. At the same time, however, I do not just see the other’s hand and judge that it is tense [or mentalize about its tenseness]; rather, I experience the tenseness in the other’s hand.

174

Crucially, for a discussion of rasa as partakership, this direct body-to-body empathy occurs in the relationship between self and other: “I neither ‘lose myself’ in the others nor incorporate the others’ experience into mine in a sort of extended awareness of myself” (181). Empathy, then, is not self-referential: I do not convert the other person’s experience into my own in order to understand it (e.g., “I feel your pain”). “Rather, I retain an awareness of myself and the others as distinct subjects. At the same time, however, I am also aware, via basic empathy, that the others’ feeling is the same as mine” (181). Colombetti’s analysis of empathy functions as a description of rasa as sensual and experiential, as a relationship between performer and partaker and as a process of sensing-in. This opens up an understanding of rasa as a practice of empathy in performance. Colombetti points out that “one need not be able to name the emotion that one empathizes in the expression – even though, arguably, one’s emotional vocabulary can affect how one perceives expression” (177). In other words, this connection is often, even usually, “prereflective” (181). Colombetti also points out that there can be a “mismatch between the feeling that is empathized and the one that the observed person actually experiences” (177). For example, an actor portraying anger may evoke fear; an actor portraying fear may evoke pity. Nonetheless, the partaker experiences the performer “as a source of feeling” (181).

If rasa is a way of experiencing another’s emotions through the embodied relationship between self and other, and if rasa is an affective dimension of intersubjectivity, it is an act of empathy, a practice of empathy and an empathetic response. Colombetti argues that the awareness of sharing a feeling (which is different from empathy) leads to a “higher unity” between self and other (181). Rasa, which is an awareness of a shared feeling in that the partaker attends a performance to have a shared feeling and to be aware of that shared feeling – is then a mode of social bonding. Although rasa is most often discussed as an exchange between performer and partaker, performers partake of each other’s performances, and partakers experience each other’s responses, meaning that rasa becomes a flow of intersubjectivity between performer and partaker, partaker and partaker, and performer and performer. As a fundamental mode of existence, as embodied sense-making, as a way of responding to others (whether fictional or real), as a response to performance and as an act or performance in and of itself, rasa is incorporated in(to) the self. This is to say that it participates in constituting the constantly becoming self. Crucially, rasa constitutes the constantly becoming social self.

Taking the Metaphor Literally in Experiential Performance

What happens when theatre-makers take the metaphor of rasa literally? What happens when partakers experience a piece entirely through taste, smell, and texture? When taste leads the experience rather than following, or supporting, text? In This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Theatre In The Dark: Carpe Diem (2019), partakers were blindfolded, led into a room with a clock ticking, and seated at a table with a velvet tablecloth. There they experienced an episodic piece that evoked the exquisite beauty of life through tastes and their pairings with sound, poetry, scent, and texture. There was no story; the piece was designed to evoke a desire to relish life while we can. Salt was paired with an “ocean breeze” created by fans and the scent of green tea; oranges were paired with a feather caressing the hand, a snippet of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” and French perfume; sage was paired with the smell of damp earth after rain and a love sonnet to the planet; the Dance of Chocolate was augmented by the scent of vanilla.

Dear Reader, I am going to ask you to experience this essay through an excerpt of Theatre In The Dark: Carpe Diem. First, gather your props: you will need the smell of sunscreen on your hands and arms and several small pieces of watermelon to eat while listening to the audio — or some watermelon juice to sip. Once you have gathered your props, type this link into a device: https://on.soundcloud.com/kzv2k. Close your eyes, and press play. Really close your eyes. Relish your performance. After you experience this moment, resume reading.

As partaker Ana Monfared commented on Theatre In The Dark: Carpe Diem: “It was exhilarating to be experiencing a show in which every moment was as important as the last, and I wasn’t chasing a catharsis but rather learning to be present moment to moment and allowing each stimuli to affect me to the fullest degree possible” (Monfared 2019). Critic Emily Cordes noted that “the absence of visuals [allowed] us to go within and witness our personal responses to, and associations with, the piece’s elements” creating a situation in which “one’s own mind […] shapes the journey”. Her individual associations, interacting with the material in each scene, created the dramaturgical structure and ultimate meaning of the piece. This, along with “individual tendencies to analyze what we encounter, guess what comes next, or simply absorb the experience can give the piece a different trajectory for each participant” (Cordes 2019). Cordes emphasized the way in which each partaker shaped their own internal journey, applying their own frames of analysis and their own experiences to create an individual trajectory. Monfared noted that the relationship between taste and personal memory allowed her to “immediately, without trying, be taken back to different points in my life, moments with different people, and [they] even [allowed] me to create new scenarios and stories in my mind” (Monfared 2019).

This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Theatre In The Dark. Photo: Erin B. Mee

For both Cordes and Monfared, individual associations, interacting with the material in each scene, created the dramaturgical structure and ultimate meaning of the piece, articulated by Cordes as “the ephemerality of all we perceive” (Cordes 2019). Samuel Greenspan connected the dramaturgical structure to the theme, writing about Theatre In The Dark: Carpe Diem as a piece “about heightening our awareness and experience of the present moment. It seemed to reflect a yogic principle of being completely present, but not trapped in stasis, and maintaining an eye (or in this case, ear, nose, and tongue) to the future” (Greenspan 2019). Does taste as a mode of understanding matter? If so, how? For Diego Ignacio Blanc Zoco,

Theatre in the Dark was about sensory experience. Rather than using a linear narrative, Theatre in the Dark employed my senses as actors in creating emotional responses within my body. […] Taste triggered memory, while hearing created a context to frame my memory as a scene in the play. I was tasting/hearing the play as well as participating in it. […]  In comparison to seeing a play, I think tasting a play and having your senses fully immersed in the acting of the show creates a fuller, instinctual emotional response. With watching theatre (or any visual performance), I worry about the possibility of not have an emotional reaction. I think visual theatre depends on the actors performance visually and vocally, as well as the aesthetics of the world and our ability to suspend disbelief. However, with a blindfold on and only your ear, nose, and tongue to guide you, the experience of the theatre becomes entirely linked to your neurology. The sounds and tastes will affect and trigger memories, creating an immediate personal context for the performance. Taste theatre, as opposed to visual theatre, invites your self to become integral to their performance […] ‘taste theatre’ manages to involve our entire sensory experience to create theatre.

2019

The dramaturgical structure for Theatre In The Dark: Carpe Diem was designed to give partakers the growing sense – or, more accurately, sensibility – that time is short: the development of a feeling, and of tastes, rather than plot or character; the development or build of sensibility through experience. Audiences were at a loss to describe what the piece was “about”, but they agreed it invited them to relish the present moment – which means they experienced what it was about rather than thinking about what it was about. One of the common conversation-starters after a theatrical piece is: “so, what did you think?”. Theatre In the Dark replaced this question with “how did it make you feel?’ and, even more importantly, “how did the piece taste,” “what was its flavour,” “what did it do to you?” and “what did it evoke in you?”, which invites a very different response.

Rasa eschews the distant, commodified, competitive approach to theatre that allows us to dominate the planet and other species, to take what we want, and to discard the rest. In contradistinction, it offers a more sustainable approach to theatre, to ways of seeing, to modes of engagement, to each other, and to our planet.


Endnotes

[1] Named one of the Top 5 Immersive Companies in NYC by Jonathan Mandell of tdf.org, This Is Not a Theatre Company (founded in 2013 and based in New York City) creates site-based, immersive, multi-sensory, participatory dance-theatre that can be smelled, touched, and tasted as well as seen and heard. This theatre is not something to passively consume, but to co-create. With each production, This Is Not a Theatre Company asks the audience to perceive the world in new ways, to empathize in new ways, and to practice creativity. Visit www.ThisIsNotaTheatreCompany.com.  

[2] Highly Impractical Theatre was a Brooklyn-based company staging immersive experiences for the few years that it existed.

[3] G. Venu, in Production of Play in Kutiyattam, defines nirvahanam: It is not the original text as it is, that is presented in Kutiyattam. One act of the original drama is selected and adding numerous details not entirely irrelevant, but drawing from a fertile imagination, the presentation of that single act is lengthened for days and days! This lengthening device is called “Nirvahanam.” In terms of this technique one character of the drama describes in detail the biodata of his own or that of another important character in the story. As all the characters of Kutiyattam are puranic ones, details of their lives given in other puranas than the one used by the dramatist are garnered and included in Nirvahanam. All the verses used for the Nirvahanam are recited by the Nangiar. The actor enact[s] the roles of various characters during the Nirvahana  (100–101).

[4] “The attaprakaram is concerned with the roles of the individual actors; it prescribes the ways in which each actor should perform his part and the important points that he has to remember while acting his part” (Venu 24). The attaprakaram also details the gestures to be used, and discusses the “various modes of acting such as vachyarttha (denoted sense), vyangyarttha (connoted sense), [and] slesharttha (wordplay)” (P.K. Nambiar n.d.:102). There are also staging manuals, known as kramadipika, which lay out “the method of production of the play concerned, giving close attention to minor details” such as makeup and costume, and the mode of entrances and exits (Venu 1989:24; and Nambiar n.d.:102). For a complete attaprakaram and kramadipika of the first act of Bhasa’s Abhishekanatakam, known as Balivadham when performed in kutiyattam, see G. Venu’s book Production of Play in Kutiyattam (1989). 

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*Erin B. Mee is the author of Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage, co-editor of Antigone on the Contemporary World Stage, editor of Drama Contemporary: India, and co-editor of Modern Asian Theatre and Performance 1900-2000. She has written numerous articles for TDRTheatre JournalPerformance ResearchNatarang, and others. Her born-digital Scalar article “Hearing the Music of the Hemispheres” won the ATHE-ASTR Award for Best Digital Article in 2016. She has lectured and taught in India, Bangladesh, China, Argentina, Nepal, England, Italy, and Spain. She is Founding Artistic Director of This Is Not A Theatre Company, with whom she has conceived and directed numerous productions that have been performed in the US, Canada, Argentina, India, Australia, England, Scotland, Italy, France, Russia, China, and elsewhere. She is Assistant Arts Professor, Department of Drama, Tisch, NYU. www.erinbmee.com.

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