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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Marie-Josée Blanchard, Humanities

Tasting Physical Expression: A Sensorial and Cultural Analysis of the Notion of Rasa in Classical Indian Dance

Thursday, December 3, 2020 (all day)

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Daniela Ferrer



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


This dissertation is a detailed study of the notion of “rasa,” a Sanskrit term that translates as “juice,” “essence,” or, in the performing arts, “aesthetic delight.” The research has two goals: (1) to determine what rasa means within Indian neo-classical dance, especially in Eastern Canada (Quebec and Ontario), by contrasting the classical theory of rasa to its present actualization in the performing arts through foundational moods and emotions (erotic love, mirth, repugnance, terror and so on); (2) to provide a more complex understanding of the senses and emotions in Indian society and beyond through a sensory and affective anthropological analysis of rasa. Data for this project was collected from interviews with Montreal- and Toronto-based professional Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancers as well as participant sensation in India and Canada. The data was complemented by the study of (translated) Sanskrit theory on rasa (Natyashastra, Abhinaya Darpana, works of theorists Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Bhojaraja, Rupa and Jiva Goswamin, etc.).

The research shows that rasa, understood as an experience in the viewer, is not limited to the expert spectator (rasika) as classical theory would have it, but rather expands to the performer and emerges out of the relationship that is built between dancer and audience (including uninitiated spectators). Rasa, in fact, is an aesthetic experience that can be learned by performers and spectators—a process coined as “rasik literacy.” Spectators develop their rasik literacy through the exposure to the aesthetics of Indian performing arts via visual, imaginative, aural and aesthetic savouring. In addition to these, dancers acquire theirs through internal perception such as kinaesthesia, proprioception, equilibroception, (embodied) rhythm and flow, thus forming body memories that are eventually associated with the emotional hues of rasa. Hence, rasa is a rich emotional, sensorial and aesthetic concept that greatly enriches the field of sensory anthropology and demonstrates the inadequacy of the mind-body opposition in the study of cultures. As an “embodied thought” (Michelle Z. Rosaldo), this concept also expands the understanding of the aesthetics reception of emotions in the performing arts by inviting spectators and artists to taste performances, rather than just looking or listening to them.

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