Navarasa and Dance – A Primer


Reproducing the article published in “Nava Anubhava” Youth festival’s brochure of the Classical Arts Society of Houston, November 10th 2013.

“तत्रविभावानुभाव  व्यभिचारि  संयोगाद्  रसनिष्पत्तिः” –Natyasastra, Chapter 6, verse 33

In the Natyasastra, Bharata says, “the sentiment is produced (rasa-nispattih) from a combination (samyoga) of determinants (vibhava), consequents (anubhava) and transitory states (vyabhichari bhava)” [1]. Realizing that such a definition could lead to confusion for dance practitioners of his time, he proceeds further by giving an analogy with a gourmet cuisine. Like a cuisine prepared with different ingredients gives an enriching experience of six tastes to the recipient; Rasa in dance achieves the same goal of giving an enriching experience with three ingredients. They are the object invoking the bhava; the reaction to this object or anubhava; and the in-between states or vyabhichari bhava.

For the sake of clarity let me list the navarasas, even though it seems trite: Shringaram (Love), Hasyam (Humor), Karunyam (Pathos), Raudram (Anger), Veeram (Valor), Bhayanakam (Fear), Bibhatsam (Disgust), Adbhutam (Wonder), and Shantam (Peace). Natyasastra lists only eight rasas and does not explicitly list Shantam, as Shantam is implied as the state of an unperturbed mind. It was Abhinavagupta in the 10th-11th century AD, who wrote the commentary on Natyasastra called as Abhinavabharati, mentions Shantam as the ninth rasa. But, the buck doesn’t stop there. Another commentator Rupa Goswami in the 15th century AD listed twelve rasas! According to the scholar Dr. V. Raghavan the Shanta rasa was probably made popular under Buddhist and Jaina influences [2].

Similar to a court, where the King rules his courtiers; Shringaram is aptly called the Raja Rasa. The English translation of Shringaram as erotic or love gives only half of the picture. It is more than erotic. Shringaram is a mix of sensual, love, attractiveness, passion, and delight. A dancer’s abhinaya training is not complete unless Shringaram is mastered. It is one of the difficult rasa to evoke. The other rasa that is difficult to evoke among audiences is Hasyam. In my opinion, if you depict comic scenes in choreography that evoke laughter among audiences, you have the audience on your side!

If I tabulate each rasa, then probably this article will look like a chapter from a dance textbook. It would be interesting to illustrate navarasa that dancers can relate to with examples. In the 51st sloka from the Soundarya Lahiri composed by Adi Shankara he describes the Goddess as [3],

शिवे शृङ्गारार्द्रा तदितरजने कुत्सनपरा
सरोषा गङ्गायां गिरिशचरिते विस्मयवती |
हराहिभ्यो भीता सरसिरुहसौभाग्यजयिनी
सखीषु स्मेरा ते मयि जननी दृष्टिः सकरुणा ||

The English translation is as follows:

O Mother! Thy look is soft with love towards Shiva (Shringaram); scornful towards other folk (Bhibatsam); spiteful towards Ganga (Raudram); expressive of wonder at Girisa’s life (Adbhutam); full of dread (when confronted) with the snakes (ornaments) of Hara (Bhayanakam); eclipses the beautiful color of the lotus (Veeram); smiles on Thy comrades (Hasyam); and is full of grace towards me (Karunyam and Shantam) [4]

From the translation, a dancer can clearly see that this sloka is quite apt for choreography either as solely abhinaya or as abhinaya interspersed with nritta. Depending on the creativity of the dancer there can be sancharis (expanding into a story) weaved in the choreography corresponding to each rasa.

A common perception is that each of the navarasa is separate and compartmentalized, in reality they are interconnected to each other. The interconnectedness is on display in dance, specifically in the Padams and Javalis. Let me illustrate this interplay of rasa with the description given by the doyen of abhinaya Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan. In the telugu padam “Indendu Vachiti Vira” the nayika bheda is Khandita. Sarcasm (Hasyam) is the Sthayi or permanent bhava that needs to be depicted; however, depending on the choreography the pallavi can be interpreted in all the nine rasas, says Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan [5]. For example, the nayika can show plain anger “How dare you come here?” or mockingly say “You must be intoxicated to knock on my door!” or show disgust “I don’t want to see your face!” or depict fear “Don’t be angry, this is not her house” and so on and so forth.

In this padam for the main rasa to be perceived, the nayaka causes the nayika to develop the various bhavas and she uses transitory sentiments to complete the picture. So, the dancer has a rich palate to depict the rasa and stimulate the rasanispattih among the audiences.

In conclusion, what Bharata spoke in the Natyasastra is the framework using with the nine sentiments can be expanded. “Sky is the Limit” for the exact method by which the dancer could expand and invoke the appropriate rasa! Taking the same analogy of a cuisine, we could say that a cuisine can be prepared in a tasteful manner with the all the tastes intact and in appropriate proportions. It is up to the cook to use the ingredients in a creative manner!


  1. Ghosh M. The Natyasastra, Calcutta: The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal; Volume I; 1950, Page 105.
  2. Raghavan V. The Number of Rasas, Adyar Library and Research Centre, Madras: 1940
  3. Saundaryalahari. Sanskrit Documents. September 1997. Accessed on October 2013.
  4. Sastri S S, Ayyangar T R S. Saundarya-Lahiri (The Ocean of Beauty) of Sri Samkara-Bhagavat-Pada. Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House; 1948, Page 178.
  5. Narayanan K. Aspects of Abhinaya. Chennai: The Alliance Company; 1998

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