Rawson’s Rasa: handling the taste of emotion

Chris Dorsett, Janaki Sasidharan Nair

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The authors of this paper, a British sculptor and a Kathakali dancer, reflect on the language-like signals of the hand (mudra) in Indian sculptural and theatrical traditions. As time-honoured symbolic gestures, mudras tell stories and express feelings. However, despite the significance of the multi-sensory body in India’s cultural history, the authors observe that no mudra seem to directly represent the sensory register of ‘taste’. Is this, following Serres (2009), a version of language despising gustatory sensations?

One way of exploring this question is through the publications of Rawson (1963,1966, 1971, 1975), a British museum curator specializing in Indian Art who wrote extensively on the relationship between sculpture and dance in temples. He was particularly interested in Abhinavagupta’s influential interpretation of the Sanskrit verb “to taste” (rasa). In conversation Rawson likened the Kashmiri philosopher’s aesthetics to the enhanced ‘savouring” of wine on the tongue, explaining that this type of connoisseurship seeks sensory arousal, not bodily engrossment. Thus, in the same way that the taste of wine disappears as it enters the digestive system, rasa falters once a particular emotion dominates. Accordingly, rasa was cultivated, or so Rawson claimed, in order to savour (that is, range freely across) unfixed sensations and feelings.

More recently, performance techniques such as rasaboxes have reversed this analogy, suggesting that the sensual capacities of the mouth are circumscribed by the embodied power of gut feelings (Schechner 2001). As a result, the authors revisit Rawson’s thinking to consider the independent metaphorical force of the word ‘taste’’. Of particular interest here is Violi’s (2012) discussion of semiotized gustatory stimuli in the communicative skills of sommeliers. Consequently, this paper explores how practitioners working across the visual and performing arts could finally ‘handle the taste of emotion’ through a utilization of traditional art forms within experimental practice-based research.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventPresenting the Theatrical Past. Interplays of Artefacts, Discourses and Practice - Stockholm, Sweden
Duration: 13 Jun 201617 Jun 2016


ConferencePresenting the Theatrical Past. Interplays of Artefacts, Discourses and Practice
Abbreviated titleIFTR 2016


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