Reviews 2008

The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense

The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense. Edited by Michael Heyman, Sumanyu Satpathy and Anushka Ravishankar. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2007. 219 pages. $10 (paperback).

Indian literary criticism considers rasa (sap/juice/taste/supreme joy/mental feeling/aesthetic enjoyment) as the soul of all literature. Sage Bharata has propounded the elaborate theory of rasa realization in his treatise entitled Natyasastra (c. 200 A.D), and he lists eight types of rasas: the erotic, comic, pathetic, heroic, frightful, furious, odious and the marvelous. The number of rasas was a point of contention from the beginning, G.N. Devy observes in Indian Literary Criticism. Later critics added a ninth rasa, the tranquil. Indian aestheticians frequently link the theory of rasa with spirituality, and finding inspiration in the Advaida Vedanta philosophy of monism, they have tried to “synthesize all rasas into a single rasa” (Thampi 318). But they were not as bold as the editors of this anthology, to look for a tenth rasa!

Compiling an anthology of Indian nonsense literature is not an easy task. Although nonsense has a rich history in India in its oral or folk forms, as a literary form it is not popular beyond the regions of West Bengal, Orissa and Maharashtra. For various reasons Indian literary criticism has marginalized, if not excluded, nonsense from the sphere of elite art. Traditionally, great literature must be built around the principles of Indian aesthetics. The editors of this anthology justify their consideration of nonsense as true literature by referring to historical, scientific, philosophical, mystical, pragmatic and artistic reasons. As a messianic effort to canonize nonsense The Tenth Rasa deserves serious attention.

The introduction provides a series of arguments to bring nonsense to the canon and reveals the nuances of nonsense literature in the Indian languages. According to Michael Heyman, nonsense is an eclectic and most appealing art form that is rooted in sophisticated aesthetics, linguistics and play with logic. We laugh at the absurd creations in the text and our inability to escape our fundamental nature as meaning-making machines. If we look at nonsense literature more broadly and positively, it can be a force for social change, political satire, and philosophical enquiry. After his attempts to define nonsense, Heyman traces its origin to the great mystical texts of India like the Vedas and the Upanishads. The folk tradition also has a great influence on literary nonsense. Nonsense reveals the rich connections between Indian regions and cultures, along with striking differences. Heyman identifies unique themes that expose Indian identity in these writings: anti-colonial, Indian use of language and the presence of distinct Indian obsessions like large families, Indian food, extreme weather conditions, and indigenous flora and fauna. As the Indian literary tradition accepts sublimity in art only if the work of art possesses rasa (emotional effect), Heyman draws support from Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet-critic, and Sukumar Ray, an eminent Indian exponent of nonsense writings. While Tagore considered nonsense as Baalrasa (children’s rasa), Sukumar Ray has attempted to raise nonsense to the adult sphere by calling it the Tenth Rasa. To read and enjoy nonsense, one is expected to have a spirit of whimsy. Heyman recollects his visit to Mangesh Padgavkar, according to whom nonsense is intuitive, not intellectual. Nonsense verse works quite naturally and spiritually, like the relationship between mother and child. The response to nonsense is with our “being” (bhava).

Sumanyu Satpathy looks into the philosophic and mystic nature of nonsense. The Indian perception of reality is based on maya, which means illusion or appearance. Nonsense seems to illustrate this philosophic vision of truth, revealing everything as both real and unreal. Sumanyu links nonsense with the philosophic and folk traditions in India. It prompts him to reinterpret Sankaracharya’s dictum “Artham anartham bhabaya nityam,” which is commonly explained as “artham (wealth) is the source of all anartham (calamity).” According to Sumanyu, “artham (meaning) is the source of all anartham (non-meaning)” and meaning is contrary to its own self. It is said that nonsense is part of India’s traditional epistemology and nonsense, like parody, functions both through authorial intention and readerly intervention.

In the final part of the introduction Anushka Ravishankar leads us to the pragmatic and artistic reasons for appreciating nonsense. She argues that if we excluded nonsense, life as we know would cease to subsist. We find nonsense all around us, and it is the real gift of the artist to pick it and present it through a work of art. And such rare gifts we see in this anthology of nonsense. It contains prose and poetry translations from eighteen Indian languages. The rich, ancient tradition is represented through the writings of Sant Namdev, Kabir, and Tenali Ramalinga. It includes the works of great masters like Rabindranath Tagore, and Sukumar Ray, the touchstones of this genre in the Indian context. Nonsense in the regional languages of India is represented in the contributions of Vinda karandikar, J.P. Das, Sri Prasad, Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer, K. Ayyappa Panicker, and others. Leading examples from the contemporary period like Mangesh Padgavkar, Anushka Ravishankar and Sampurna Chatterji receive generous space. Their adventurous and eclectic spirit enables the editors to compile nonsense from all spheres. We find stories, songs, lullabies, and folk tales, lyrics and court verse. Peculiar characters and fantastical creatures populate these writings, which present imaginative worlds where only nonsense makes perfect sense. The anthology is divided into sections including Literary Nonsense, Nonsense in Hindi Film, Folk Nonsense (Nursery & Folk Rhymes, Folk Drama, Folktale, Never-ending tales and Chain Verses), Game Rymes, Festival and ceremony verse, lullaby and folk song, Thorn texts, and so forth. Unlike other Indian anthologies that offer no space for upcoming artists, The Tenth Rasa includes the new developments in the genre, offering a continuity that leads to greater hopes of an established canon in the future. The section entitled “The Rising Stars” contains the writings of participants of Nonsense Workshops conducted by Michael Heyman and Sampurna Chattarji. The anthology is rounded off with an appendix: Edward Lear’s Indian Nonsense.

The translators excel in communicating what has been expressed in different languages for the perfect understanding of an international community. They have been able to go into the inner circles of various regional Indian cultures and articulate even the spiritual yearnings of these groups. However excellent these translations may be, the quintessential charm of the original can only be enjoyed by native speakers. Anushka Ravishankar’s and Sampurna Chattarji’s nonsense written in English compensates for this loss.

The test of true art is in the wideness of its appeal. The editors’ plea to universalize the Indian experience in nonsense literature is perhaps indicative of certain drastic changes imminent in the static Indian literary context. The Indian scholarly world is slow to accept children’s literature as an arena for adult intervention in literary reading and criticism. Although enriched with an excellent oral tradition, children’s literature in India is usually considered as mainly having a moralistic and didactic function. Only in the last decade does this seem to be changing. Since nonsense literature is often linked with children’s literature, The Tenth Rasa may therefore be a forerunner to the changing perception of children’s literature in India.

Works Cited

Devy, G. N. ed. Indian Literary Criticism: Theory and Interpretation. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2002.

Thampi, Mohan. “Rasa as Aesthetic Experience.” Indian Aesthetics: An Introduction. Ed. V.S. Seturaman. Chennai: Macmillan, 1992. 310-321.

Anto Thomas
St. Thomas College, Trichur, India