Natalie Savelyeva

Expression of rasa via sruti, svara and jati

In India in the days of Natyasastra, scholars already developed a system in which human emotions were codified and associated with clearly defined musical characteristics.

The ancient Indian theatre as described in Natyasastra was a form of drama which we may call "total theatre", that is to say, a theatre in which acting, dancing and music were equally important.

The technical terms applying to the three art forms employed in this total theatre not only bear superficial similarity, but are also closely related. Musicological terminology runs parallel to poetic and dramatic terminology (e.g. alamkara meaning "melodic figure" as well as "poetic figure"), not so much because the music accompanied the drama, but because the music of the ancient Indian theatre was "a drama by itself", running parallel to the drama enacted on the stage.

According to Natyasastra, the main aim of the ancient Indian theatre was to convert human emotions into an aesthetic form, i.e. dramatic expression (bhava, lit. "manifestation, appearance") that was enjoyable to those who attended the performance. The emotional response of the audience, the relishable state of the emotion was called "rasa" (lit. "taste").

Abhinavagupta, the great medieval Hindu commentator of the Natyasastra, explained the aesthetic experience (rasa) as a religious experience by stating that the enjoyment (bhukti) of art was leading to final emancipation (mukti) of the individual human soul (atman), which in this way was re-unified with the universal soul (brahman).

The personages figuring in the ancient Indian plays were stereotyped characters, abstractions of divine and human characters of the ancient Indian world. In the nataka, the royal type of play, the main characters are the king and the queen, while the other characters are prominent personages, such as ministers, etc. In the prakarana, the bourgeois type of play, the hero may be a minister, a priest, a merchant, an army leader, etc. and among the female characters we may also find courtesans.

In conformity with musical styles (vritti) the instrumental music performed on various types of harp, flutes and drums could have a accompanying function, could be equally important as the vocal music, or could even be predominant. To describe the music that was appropriate to the play enacted on the stage the theoreticians devised a musicological terminology based on the same kind of universals as dramatic terminology.

The author of Natyasastra compared the two types of plays, nataka and prakarana, with the two main tone-systems, sadja and madhyama gramas.

The effect of the music on the listener is determined by assigning a particular rasa experience to each of the seven notes of the octave.

Just as he distinguishes between predominant (sthayin) and complementary (sancarin) modes of dramatic expression (bhava), he distinguishes, in the case of musical expression, between dominant central notes (amsa-vadin) and consonant notes (samvadin) with these central notes, i.e. notes having perfect fourth or fifth interval.

Dissonant (vivadin), i.e. minor seconds or major sevenths of amsa, can be compared with vibhava (dramatic stimuli).

The secondary consonants (anuvadin), i.e. having all other tonal relations with amsa, can be compared with anubhava (dramatic consequences).

Emotional tension in the four main types of dramatic expression (bhava) has its counterpart in the musical tension of the intervals between the notes, determined by the consonance and dissonance principle.

Natyasastra classifies the dramatic personages according to certain stereotyped characters. In the same way it classifies the melodies according to modes (jati), containing all melodic characteristics that might be important, such as initial note (graha), dominant (amsa), final note (nyasa), secondary final (apanyasa), omissible notes, frequent notes (bahu), rare notes (alpa). The emotional expression of these modes (jati) is in the first place determined by the emotional effect (rasa) of their dominant (amsa), initial note (graha) and final note (nyasa). It is reinforced by consonance (samvadin) relationships between these predominant notes and the other notes in the mode.

Rasa aspect expressed via variation of sruti intervals

According to (4), in the textbook on chanting (Naradiya Siksa) we find types of sruti which might have been microtonal variations of the main notes, called pathetic (karuna), low (mridvi), middle (madhya), high (dipta) and stretched (ayata). Madhya must have been the normal intonation of a note, mridvi a lower intonation and dipta a higher one.

The other two sruti, karuna and ayata which probably represent the lowest and the highest intonation respectively, are not clearly defined in this text.

Nanyadeva informs that according to Bharata the five classes or main types of sruti used in connection with particular aesthetic sentiments (rasa), i.e:

  • the dipta intonation in the case of the comic and the erotic sentiment,
  • the ayata intonation in the case of the heroic, the furious and the marvelous sentiment,
  • the karuna intonation in the case of feelings of disgust and terror, and finally,
  • the mridvi and madhya intonations in all sentiments.

Application of Jati to rasa as described in Natya Sastra

In ancient Indian theater contemporary songs (gana) were associated with particular modes (jati), containing melodic characteristics (lakshana) that were supposed to evoke aesthetically codified emotional responses (rasa) in the audience. Every mode (jati) and every melodic form (raga) had its specific samvadin relationships.

Jati (jati means class or type) are logical classifications , that is to say, a series if melodic abstractions devised by theoreticians to classify contemporary melodies in conformity with the rules of dramatic art.

Natya Sastra, Chapter XXIX, Slokas 1-6

Since madhyama in Sadjodicyavati and pancama in Sadjamadhya are strong, there two jati can be applied to Sringara and Hasya rasa-s. (Which means that songs in these rasa-s should have accompanying instruments playing in these Jati-s.)

Giving sadja graha to Sadji and risabha graha to Arisabhi, these Jati should be applied to Vira, Raudra and Adbhuta rasa-s.

Experienced singers will apply Naisadi jati with nisada amsa and Sadjakaisiki with gandhara amsa to Karuna rasa.

Dhaivati jati with dhaivata amsa should be applied to Bibhatsa and Bhayanaka rasa-s. Dhaivati may be applied to Karuna rasa as well. In the same way, Sadjamadhya jati can be applied to Unmada (madness).

Knowledgeable singers, when singing dhruva songs, should apply these jati of sadja grama after suitable consideration.

Now I shell speak of the jati of madhyama grama.

When Gandhari jati has gandhara amsa and Raktagandhari jati has nisada amsa (or if both have these two amsas), these two jati can be applied to Karuna rasa.

Madhyama, Pancami, Nandayanti, Gandharapancami and Madhyodicyavati jati-s with madhyama and pancama svaras strengthened, should be applied to Sringara and Hasya rasa-s.

Karmaravi, Andhri, Gandharodicyavati jati-s with sadja and risabha amsas, should be applied to Vira, Raudra and Adbhuta rasas.

Kaisiki jati with dhaivata amsa is to be applied to Bibhatsa and Bhayanaka rasa-s.

The one jati that can be applied to all the rasa-s is Sadjamadhya, because all swaras are the amsas.

When singing a song (or playing) if any svara of a jati is strong, the producer should apply it to a suitable rasa. For example, songs in Sringara and Hasya rasa-s should have mostly madhyama and pancama svaras; in Vira, Roudra, and Adbhuta rasa-s there should be mostly sadja and risabha svaras; In Karuna rasa, gandhara and nisada svaras and in Bibhatsa and Bhayanaka rasa-s, dhaivata svara should be mostly used (or strengthened.)

Rasa and Jati
Rasa Sadja Grama Jati Graha/Amsa/Bahutva Madhyama Grama Jati Graha/Amsa/Bahutva
Sringara, Hasya Sadjocyavati ma bahutva Madhyama ma, pa bahutva
Sadjamadhya pa bahutva Pancami ma, pa bahutva
Nandayanti ma, pa bahutva
Gandharapancami ma, pa bahutva
Madhyamodicyava ma, pa bahutva
Vira, Roudra, Adbhuta Sadji sa graha Karmaravi sa, ri amsa
Arisabhi ri graha Andhri sa, ri amsa
Gandharodicyava sa, ri amsa
Karuna Naisadi ni amsa Gandhari ga, ni amsa
Sadjakaisiki ga amsa Raktagandhari ga, ni amsa
Dhaivati ga amsa
Bhibatsa, Bhayanaka Dhaivati dha amsa Kaisiki dha amsa
Unmada (madness) Sadjamadhya


  1. The Natyasastra. English translation with critical Notes by Adya Rangacharya, Munishiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2010.
  2. Dattilam by Mukund Lath, Motilal Banarsidass Pvt. Ltd., 1990.
  3. A Study of Dattilam : a treatise on the sacred music of ancient India /Mukund Lath, Impex India, New Delhi, 1978.
  4. Sangitasiromani: A Medieval Handbook of Indian Music edited by Emmie Te Nijenhuis, E.J.Brill, Netherlands, 1992