Odissi Dance

by Sreyashi Dey

Viraha Nimagna: immersed in viraha/separation

An Odissi dance performance and an enriching post-performance discussion about the rasa and history of the expression of viraha with Dr. Paroma Chatterjee, distinguished professor of History of Art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

USA: 10am EST

India: 8:30pm IST

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Sreyashi Dey presents a new expressional dance/abhinaya choreographic work based on the rasa or emotion of viraha or separation, based on the fundamental emotion of love, both sringara or romantic love and bhakti, or devotional love. Separation is the corollary of love or union, but interestingly, viraha is a state to be sought by the devotee or the lover, in order to experience the full richness and the variegated rasa of love. 

This work is in two parts, expressing two flavors of viraha. The first part is based on verses from two texts – the Bhagavatam which was likely written sometime around the 8th century CE and contemporary verses of Sri Muralidhar Swami. These verses are a direct expression of bhakti or devotional love for the divine but seeking viraha as an emotional state that heightens the experience of devotion. 

The second part of the piece is based on the 12th century poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam. Sreyashi has used the ashtapadi Nindati Chandanam to represent the rasa of viraha, experienced primarily by Radha, but also by Krishna. 

Choreography and performance: Sreyashi Dey
Music composition and Vocals: Jateen Kumar Sahu
Rhythm composition, Odissi Mardala, Manjira: Rohan Dahale
Flute: Vijay Tambe
Sitar: Aparna Deodhar
Recordist and Sound Mix: Saurabh Kajarekar

A Note on the Rasa and Experience of Separation/Viraha

By Sreyashi Dey

Rasa is the basis of Indian art, with its main being to evoke rasa in the minds of the audience. The concept of rasa is at the heart of Indian artistic expression. Rasa, like the word “essence” has both a concrete and abstract significance. Although the real meaning of rasa denotes flow, essence, joy, elegance, pleasure, etc., it has been used to denote a divine experience accompanied by a sense of supreme delight at the highest level of its culmination.

Historically, sringara rasa has been given the highest honor in Indian poetics. According to Bharata in the Natyashastra, anything which is sacred, pure, placid and worth seeing can be

compared to sringara. Sringara rasa stands out when compared to the other rasas in its sweetness and exhilaration. Sringara is called ‘Rasaraja’ (king of rasas). It contains within it, not merely the erotic element but also the love of a human for the eternal one (bhakti). It denotes three aspects: the anguish of being separated, longing and finally union, thus allowing a range of imaginative expressions and depictions. 

With the rise of devotional schools in the medieval period, the rasa concept acquired a religious interpretation, giving rise to the idea of madhura bhakti or devotional love, which brings one closer to God. The Gaudiya Vaishnava sect of Bengal transformed the poetic emotion of sringara into bhakti, a form of God realization. The specific definition of bhakti or devotion as an emotional aspect of love enabled the acceptance of bhakti as a rasa. 

In this Odissi performance piece, I have worked with the concept and rasa of viraha or separation, which is rooted in the fundamental rasa of sringara (love) and bhakti (devotion). Viraha is the corollary of union. In this abhinaya, I have explored viraha in both bhakti and sringara, based on three underlying texts. The performance is divided into two loose sections: the first expressing viraha in bhakti and the second viraha in sringara. I have chosen three texts for this piece. In the first bhakti section, I have used verses from the Bhagavatam and another one written by a contemporary teacher, Muralidhar Swami. In the second Sringara section, I have worked with one of the ashtapadis of the 12th century poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam.

Although the ultimate aim of bhakti and sringara are purported to be union (with the divine), separation or viraha plays an important role in both. This has been especially highlighted in Bhakti/Vaishnava sects such as the Pushti Marga and Gaudiya Vaishnavism. 

The Radha-Krishna legends became fascinating themes for poets to convey the concept of viraha. Radha came to occupy an important position and her love and bhakti to Krishna has been regarded as the ideal form of bhakti. Viraha-bhakti has imbued the theme of separation with erotic and ecstatic features

Bhakti and sringara are both impossible without the presence of two entities – the lover and the loved. And when there are two, separation is as much a reality as union. It is said that mere human love breaks down with separation and leads to misery and anguish. But the fire of divine love is fanned by separation, and through the intense emotion of viraha, the devotee is led to the experience of oneness with the divine and eternal bliss. 

When separated from Krishna, Radha suffers the anguish of separation, while cherishing it at the same time. The same is true of the devotee who yearns for the divine. In some writings, Radha’s attitude is one where if she has to choose between union and separation, she may even choose separation because in union she has Krishna alone, but in separation, it is as if the entire universe becomes Krishna. 

Chaitanya and other Gaudiya Vaishnava poets write about the mood of viraha/separation in nuanced ways. They speak of finding ultimate union by seeking separation. If the devotee and the divine are united all the time, there is no variegated experience of rasa. This is why the divine/one became two: to give the experience of lila or divine play, and the enjoyment and experience of different rasas to the devotees. since being united is to experience only one rasa. Possession and separation, union and reunion, all evoke different rasas. After separation, going through viraha, the reunion becomes more intense and pleasurable. Thus separation is sought by the devotee. In between union and reunion, there exists the experience of yearning in the state of viraha, creating a multi-dimensional experience of rasa. 

Paroma Chatterjee is an Associate Professor at the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She received her education at JNU, India (B.A.), Cambridge University, England, (B.A.) and at the University of Chicago (Ph.D.)

Although her research interests lie in the art of the middle ages in Europe and the Mediterranean, she is deeply interested in Indian classical dance, music, and cinema. 

She has been invited to lecture in her discipline at various distinguished venues in the United States, Europe, and India.