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Priyadarshi Patnaik

Priyadarshi Patnaik: An Overview of Indian Aesthetics

Painting by Priyadarshi Patnaik; Aswamedha Series


Indian aesthetics is a vast field. Any attempt to discuss it in such a brief space as this can only be sketchy and deal with the broad tendencies. Hence, here I have only attempted to give its brief overview with reference to major trends. I begin with a few queries about the term “Indian Aesthetics” in the light of our Western orientation. Next I attempt to look at the grand text of Indian aesthetics–Nâtya Sâstra–and briefly discuss its contribution to an understanding of various art forms. From that point onwards, the focus is on Indian aesthetics with special focus on poetics, its important concepts and commentators – since many of the aesthetic issues dealt with in poetics are significant to dance, music, painting and sculpture. I manage only to touch upon a few points about other art forms; and neglect dance in the process. This is partly due to my orientation in poetics and partly due to my ignorance. But I hope that this brief discussion will encourage others to rectify this shortcoming and extend the discussion of Indian aesthetics in a more balanced and integrated manner. 

Defining Indian Aesthetics

Aesthetics or the branch of philosophy dealing with beauty and taste has a rich tradition in the West, with many major philosophers exploring the concept of “beauty” and its relation to “good.” But each culture has its own configurations, ways of categorizing objects and concepts; and ways of doing things. As Professor M. Hiriyanna points out: 

It is usual for every prominent philosopher in the West to regard the question of beauty as a part of the problem he is attempting to solve. Hence aesthetics has come to be recognized as a regular part of philosophy. The intrinsic relation implied in this between aesthetics and philosophy is not denied in India; but the former of these studies is carried on by a distinct class of thinkers – alamkârikas, as they are called or literary critics – who are not, generally speaking, professional philosophers. (Hiriyanna 48)

Besides, when we use the English word “Aesthetics,” we hardly mean alamkârasâstras per se. Our way of traditionally categorizing things is distinctively different and all I wish to say is that this difference has to be kept in mind when one wishes to explore theorizations about the Indian concept of beauty and taste. I shall try to illustrate this point with a slightly more concrete word – art.

What I wish to say is that what ‘art’ covers in the context of the English language may not be covered by kalâ in the Indian context. The Saivatantras and later the Kâmasutra list 64 kalâs which include the following:

1. Singing (Gitam), 2. Playing on musical instruments (Vâdyam), 3. Dancing (Nrutyam), 4. The union of the three (Nâtya), 5. Writing and drawing (Alekhyam), 6. Playing on musical glasses filled with water (Udakavâdyam), 7. Picture making, trimming and decorating, 8. Culinary skills, 9. Making birds and other shapes out of yarn or thread, 10. Mimicry or imitating, 11.Reading including chanting and intoning, 12. Architecture, 13. Colouring jewels, 14. Composing poems, 15. Making clay figures.1 

I take these fifteen categories out of the 64 for discussion since they have a distinct relation to kalâ or art (since we often use them interchangeably) the way we use it today in India. Coming to the categories, an interesting element is the distinction between playing musical instruments and playing on musical glasses – which is not considered as a subset of the category “musical instruments.”  Architecture is considered an art form,  modelling is included as a category, but there is no mention of sculpture in the Kâmasutra. On the other hand, what we consider craft (and not art) today – folk traditions (pallikalâ, lokokalâ) like colouring jewels, making shapes out of hemp or rope, making clay figures etc – is included. It is thus with aesthetics. In any modern exploration of Indian tradition in the light of aesthetics, we are inadvertently using a western way of classifying things – which we have incorporated during our colonization – upon material Indian. This is all the more so since what we understand by “literature” today does not necessarily fit the Indian way of classifying sâhitya. For instance, is Mahâbhârata a dharmasâstra or a literary composition? – till Ânandavardhana (9th century) it does not figure in any discussion of poetics. Is Vishnudharmottara Purâna a work of aesthetics since it includes a significant portion on various art forms? 

The other point I would like to emphasize is that the most detailed and finely constructed theories about beauty and taste (aesthetics) centre on literature – one often finds that most 19th and 20th century English works in the field use the terms “Indian Poetics” and “Indian Aesthetics” interchangeably. Often, it is assumed that what is discussed in the context of poetics, in general, applies to aesthetics. We find this tendency in Ananda Coomaraswamy, M. Hiriyanna and K. C. Pandey, to name a few. This emphasis by modern scholars is only a reflection of what has happened in our tradition, since most philosophical exploration of the concept of beauty, taste, author and perceiver in our tradition is in the field of poetics or by alamkârikas. However, such a view is not entirely true. There are two sides to the coin and the reader must decide how to resolve them. On the one hand most of the theorists in our tradition have written about a number of things – music, painting, performance, along with poetics. The first extant example is Nâtya Sâstra. And we know of at least four significant commentators of Bharata’s Nâtya Sâstra – Sankuka, Lollota, Bhattanayaka and Abhinavagupta. Only Abhinavabhârti survives while the other works are lost. Similarly, many of the other writers on poetics also wrote on other art forms – unfortunately these works are lost. Finally, even in the works of poetics, in our tradition, there is discussion (in passing or as illustrations) of fine art, music, dance and performance. The interrelationship among the various art forms is also illustrated in Vishnudharmottara where it is pointed out that fine art comes from dance and dance from music 2:

Mârkandeya said: Lord of men, he who does not know properly the rules of chitra can, by no means, be able to discern the characteristics of image. . . . Without a knowledge of the art of dancing, the rules of painting are very difficult to be understood. . . . The practice of dancing is difficult to be understood by one who is not acquainted with music. . . . without singing music cannot be understood.3 

Professor Bharat Gupt also specifically mentions this point in his paper “Indian Aesthetics and its Present Day Problems.”

But one must also look at the other side of the coin. Looking from a distance, across centuries, a power hierarchy is discernable. Although high respect was given to the various kalâs, one finds strict social divisions as well as unequal power relation. Sankara referes to silpa in Saundaryalahari as pujabidhâna or the path to worship4. But such comments are more in the way of exceptions than the general rule. And this, in spite of Bharata’s emphasis in the Nâtya Sâstra (Chapter 1) that nâtya takes into consideration dharma and can lead to moksha, as well as his calling it the fifth Veda. A possible reason for this can be located in the persons who practiced these kalâs as professionals. 

Distinguished silpis were given special place in courts, shown respect, rewards, etc., but their social position was not high although their art was appreciated at the highest level5. They belonged to guilds, and often, their work was directed not so much by an individual pursuit of beauty or truth as by custom and directives6. In spite of what the Kâmasutra might say, Manu forbids the householder to dance or sing or play on musical instruments. He considers architects, actors and singers as unworthy men who are not to be invited to ceremony of offerings to the dead. Chânakya groups musicians and actors with courtesans while tolerating them.7 In spite of the fact that according to Kâmasutra, paints, brushes and drawing board were essential accessories of a citizen, in reality there existed two kinds of painters – the professional and the non-professional. The same goes for the other art forms as well, with one exception. Literature, kâvya, along with literary theory and darshna, and other written forms, belonged to the higher strata and were practiced by the upper class chiefly – King Harsavardhana, the royal Visâkhadatta, King Mahendravikrama, King Bhoja, as well as many Brahmins8. This is also illustrated by the fact that according to legends, Kâlidâsa married a princess. 

To sum up, although some reflection is available in Indian tradition on all the fields covered by aesthetics, it is primarily poetics that dominates, not so much as texts (we have abundant texts on each art form) but they are neglected by the power structure that has persisted to this day. Secondly, most literary theorists discuss the other art forms as well – especially music, painting and dance. Thirdly, theories applied to poetics – especially the rasa theory – later finds application to other fields of art as well. The ground is prepared by Nâtya Sâstra and its focus on communicating aesthetic emotion (rasa). Fourthly, a point that is of significance in looking at Indian aesthetics is that in many cases, the distinction between the spiritual and the secular is very thin. This point is highlighted by Dr. Ranjan Ghosh in his paper “Indian Art: Some Philosophical Musings.” If Abhinavgupta uses concepts from Shaiva-Tantra to aesthetics, Rupa Goswâmi uses aesthetic concepts when looking at Bhakti. Finally, Indian aesthetics as we know it today is primarily “Hindu Aesthetics” – and even here, dominantly Sanskrit aesthetics. It is true that classical music after the 15th century has strong Muslim influence; so also is the case with fine arts and architecture. But these elements are sadly under-explored in aesthetic studies; and it is only recently that the Tamil Tolkappiyam is getting critical attention.

Jain tradition talks of six blind men who went to perceive an elephant. They touched different parts of the animal and came up with different definitions of the elephant – viewpoints. When we look at our tradition across time, and across culture, we can never experience what each author on poetics experienced in his milieu. In fact each one of them was bound to the perspective of his time and wrote and interpreted within it. We are chained by ours. But even here, one will come across different viewpoints, diverse critical awareness. The purpose of this discussion is to develop a critical attitude towards all that we read in the field of “Indian aesthetics.” Without doubt, the categories created by Indologists and modern theorists are useful, but one must be careful of too much dependence on Western paradigms and simplistic one-to-one equations. This is a point that comes up both in Professor Gupt’s paper on problems facing Indian aesthetics and in Dr. Binda Paranjape’s paper on “Colonial Context and Aesthetic Identity Formation.” Modern texts on Indian aesthetics are many, by Western scholars and by Indians, and even among Indians there are scholars who are trained in tradition or in Western philosophy and literature. Professor Radhavallabh Tripathi’s paper “Indian Aesthetics on Crossroads” beautifully reviews the different phases in the study of Indian aesthetics in modern times. But diverse approaches, attitudes, translations (even transformations) can make the field confusing. So, while there is no one standard way of looking at Indian aesthetics, a critical and cautious reading is always to be appreciated. The rest is left to the reader’s good judgement.

The Nâtya Sâstra and its Grand Tradition

An exploration of the concept of aesthetics can be done in two different ways, as Coomoraswamy points out in The Dance of Shiva. One can look at the internal evidence of art (in which case one can explore beautiful passages in Rig Veda and the various Upanishads to begin with); one can also search for explicit theorization about what is the purpose of art, its implications and methods. The first extant work of that kind which has come down to us is Bharata’s Nâtya Sâstra.

Here, for the first time and perhaps the last time, one is exposed to almost all the elements of theorization one has about aesthetics. This exhaustive encyclopaedic work, which is meant to be a manual for the actors and directors in a performance, covers almost all there is in the field. In discussing vâcikâbhinaya (where enactment is through words) Bharata discusses different aspects of literary writing. He mentions that good diction must fulfill ten conditions of good writing (gunas), abstain from ten faults (dosas) and maintain certain literary characters (laksanas). He lists thirty-six of these characters. He also discusses the use of literary figures (alamkâras), which separate literary from other kinds of writing. But over and above all, he says that the central purpose of dramatic performance, as a work of art, is rasa (aesthetic emotion), which is its soul.

But it doesn’t stop at that. This text also discusses music, dance, different styles of enactment –the whole gamut of aesthetic experience which can be perceived by the eye and the ear. In this sense, it is the only grand text on aesthetics in the Indian tradition. All else flow from it and can be considered its bhâsyas or commentaries. 

Nâtya Sâstra discusses many things – but the focus in on performance. Among them it discusses how stages are to be constructed, moral precepts to be kept in mind while writing a play and in enacting it, the very nature of enactment, the different styles of acting (which include speech, voluntary and involuntary gestures, costumes to be used), and accompaniments to the enactment like songs, dance, musical instruments and drums. It talks of the different styles of verbal communication, plot construction and division of a play into different subsections, of what they should constitute and how they should develop. It also looks at the aesthetic and moral purpose of such enactments and tells us that a performance should teach, but through entertainment and delight. In trying to answer the question, what is the essence of a successful performance, it suggests – the communication of aesthetic emotions or rasa; and then goes on to look at the mechanism of communication of aesthetic emotion briefly.

Which component can be considered aesthetics here? In a narrow sense, if one is searching for answers to questions like – What is the nature of beauty? What is the essence of a work of art? – one might say the answer lies in the rasasutra of Nâtya Sâstra (Chapter VI). But in a broad context, it pervades the entire work as it touches upon a range of fields like music, dance, enactment, literary speech, poetry, plot and story and gives us precepts in terms of aptness of use with only one purpose in mind – successful and aesthetically satisfying work of art. 

From this point onwards, the arts branch off. Aesthetics is never again explored in its totality in a single work, unless of course it is a commentary on Nâtya Sâstra. Poetics develops its long array of texts and commentaries (and some believe has already developed in its own way by the time of Nâtya Sâstra). Music has its own seminal texts. Dance develops its own pedagogy and critical codes. So does painting where it is linked closely to vastu or architecture. Hierarchies also develop. Not all these elements of aesthetics are treated at par. Poetry belongs to the court and to the intellectuals. Music comes next in the hierarchy. Dance prevails in the realms of the courtesans and temple devdâsis and visual arts belong to the artisans. After the grand text comes the grand divide9

Some Important Aesthetic Concepts

As I have already discussed earlier, my task is a difficult one. If one looks at most books on aesthetic theories of India, poetic theories dominate. True, many of these theorists discuss other art forms, either in the same text or elsewhere, but there primary focus is literature. Important aesthetic concepts do figure in treatises that deal with music, fine arts or dance, but they are not applied to literature. On the other hand, theories discussed in relation to literature are sometimes extended to these art forms. We shall try to keep this in mind as we proceed and look at important concepts. It is true that art theory has its significance – especially much of the symbolism involved in religious art (and the processes involved in achieving them) have great aesthetic relevance. Dr. Ranjan Ghosh discusses some of them in his paper “Indian Aesthetics: Some Philosophical Musings”. But the unfortunate trend has been, as I pointed out earlier, not to look at them in an integrated manner (especially by modern critics of poetics). A detailed discussion of these is both beyond this brief sketch and my competence, but I sincerely hope that more such work flow which look at the relation between poetics and other aesthetic writings and attempt to integrate them – no doubt a difficult task, as it would require mastering treatises on music, painting, dance and architecture, but well worth the effort. 

Rasa theory

Among the various aesthetic concepts propounded, rasa appears to be both the most popular and most pervasive. When Bharta summarily states in his Nâtya Sâstra that without rasa there can be no work of art (performance), it becomes evident that this concept not only applies to literature, but to the totality of performance with all its elements. 

Rasa can be roughly translated as aesthetic emotion or relish which is contained in a work of art and which gets communicated to the competent reader or viewer. This view assumes that the ultimate aim of any work of art is to provide aesthetic delight to the perceiver, a delight which is communicated through the aesthetic emotions presented in a work. Aesthetic emotions are distinctively different from ordinary emotions since they do not have a cause in our world (why does one feel delighted at the hero’s happiness or sad at the hero’s suffering?) and are pleasurable (else why do we relish tragedy which we shun in our real life?). This experience is neither illusion nor a part of reality. And in order to take delight, we must, for sometime, forget ourselves and our worlds (achieving aesthetic distance) and get totally involved in the experience of aesthetic emotion (aesthetic identification with the work of art). Finally, such an experience, even if short lived, comes close to spiritual delight (ânanda) and has neither a beginning nor an end. 

Rasas are considered to be nine in number – sringâra (erotic), hâsya (comic), karuna (tragic), vira (heroic), raudra (furious), bibhatsa (disgusting), bhayânaka (terrifying), adbhuta (wondorous) and sânta (quietitude) which was added later. According to Bharata, it is from a combination of bibhâvas (antecedents or causes within the work of art), anubhâvas (consequents or the effect of those causes in the work) and sanâcaribhâvas (diverse emotions that are indirectly communicated through various physical manifestations) that some single emotion persists (sthâyibhâva) in the work and gets communicated to the perceiver. This aesthetic emotion is called rasa. The theory is fairly complex and long debates have continued about its subtle nuances – does it reside in the work or in the perceiver, is sthâyibhâva the rasa, and so on. Space does not permit discussions about them. 

What needs to be briefly mentioned here is that rasa theory pervades almost all the arts. To begin with, though it did not form a part of poetics till the 9th century (Ânandavardhana), from then on it became the most important theory. It also formed a significant part of dance theories (especially with their focus on the evocation of nava-rasas), and of music where it was felt (even by Bharata and later by Sârangadeva) that different notes have relation to different rasas and can help evoke them. More important, according to Sâranga, words form a vital component of music (in music, it is vocal music with lyrics that is considered the highest form) and without them rasa evocation was considered incomplete. Nritya  (dance where meaning is conveyed as opposed to Nritta where gestures convey no comprehensive meaning) with its angikâvinaya (communication through stylized gestures) overcame this problem of communicating meaning comprehensively. 

While not being applied to the fine arts and spatial arts per se, it is felt to have potentials there as well, the supreme aim of all arts being the communication of delight. 


Strongly influenced by the sphota theory of the grammarians, developed systematically by Ânandavardhana, it holds that different elements of a composition, in combination, reveal a deeper meaning unexpressed by the original parts. Thus, it has much in common with modern Gestalt. Its central thesis is that words or combination of words perform three functions in conveying senses – the denotative function (abidhâ), the indicative function (laksnâ) and the suggestive function (vyanjanâ). These points are elaborated in Professor Tandra Patnaik’s paper, “The Logic of Emotion”. Here, I would like to briefly mention that Ânanda linked dhvani to rasa and pointed out that as meaning is suggested, emotions can be suggested (in fact, emotions can only be suggested and cannot be communicated directly, being mental qualities and hence invisible). This was taken further by Abhinava who developed it further in terms of the concept of rasa-dhvani. The significance of this theory for all art forms lies in the fact that visual arts (including gestural arts like theatrics and dance) also communicate through suggestion and can suggest both meanings and emotions. 

Alamkâra Theory

Alamkâras or poetic embellishments figure first in the Nâtya Sâstra. Later, in the hands of Bhâmaha, they attain great importance and are considered the essence of poetry. It is important to note that rasa theory does not figure in early poetics in any significant way and the focus of these theorists is on differentiating ordinary language from poetic language. The object of literary art is beauty, and it can be best expressed through adornment – alamkâras. Poetry is thought of as having a body that requires adornment. The exploration is remarkable extending to hundreds of figures of speech (sabdalamkâra) and figures of sense (arthalamkâra). A notable theory, primarily in the context of poetry, later it gets extended to certain other art forms as well. “Adornment” or embellishment forms an important part of music and its rendition. In fine arts (chitrakalâ), sculpture (silpa) and architecture (vâstu), the form needs adornment. Thus, the essence of alamkâra can be said to pervade most art forms. In a still wider sense a building is adorned by painting and sculpture.

Dosas and Gunas

In literary theory dosas (flaws to be avoided) and gunas (qualities of good writing) figure since the time of Bharata. Later aestheticians also discuss them. What is significant here is that dosas and gunas are relative to contexts and different ages and are rephrased differently by different theorists. While primarily discussed in the context of literature, they stand on solid foundations for applicability of all art forms. A work of art, in order to be successful must avoid certain defects and display certain positive qualities. This applies to fine arts as well as to the other art forms. 


Riti or style (not necessarily in the modern sense) is first discussed implicitly in Nâtya Sâstra when different kinds of vâcikâbhinay are discussed and can be linked to the theory of dosa-guna. It depends on the way different gunas are combined in a composition. Different aesthetic emotions require different treatments – some soothing, while some bold or harsh. While elaborated in the context of poetry by Vâmana, it logically extends itself to use in all forms of arts. For instance, the very enactment of nava-rasas in dance would require different styles of presentation for each rasa. Appropriateness of style to theme is its essential point, (its relative nature recognized by Dândin), and thus it pervades all art forms, consciously or unconsciously.


According to Bhâmaha, all poetic speech is marked by round about turn of expression or vakrokti as opposed to straightforward expression of everyday language. It seems, these theorists were obsessed with the problem of differentiating poetic language from ordinary language. In the hands of Kuntaka, the term become enlarged in import.


Aucitya or appropriateness is another such concept which needs a brief mention here. Bharata recognizes it in the context of performance (say, aptness of acting to the context, social stature of the hero, etc). Ânanda discusses it and so does Kuntaka. But it gets central focus in the hands of Ksemendra who highlights the fit among the elements, the subject, and the contexts and so on. Again, here is a concept that can extend without much modification to the various art forms. In simple words, there must be a fit between theme and form and this is so in all aesthetic fields. 

The Artist

The artist and his or her genius (pratibhâ) is given a high place in Indian aesthetics. Yet, this alone is not sufficient. One must have training and skill. At its highest level, the artist is expected to achieve a certain degree of purity and to aim at spiritual transcendence. This aspect, interestingly, is highlighted more in the traditions of music, fine art, sculpture and architecture than in literature. Meditation and visualization through meditation play a very important role for the visual artist as well as the musician. This is a point which is highlighted in Dr. Ranjan Ghosh’s paper and need not be elaborated here. But it is both interesting and relevant in the context of the nature of work done by these artists – which is very often of a religious nature. 

The Ideal Perceiver

The concept of the ideal perceiver is another very important concept in Indian aesthetics. Bharata talks of stylization (nâtyadharmi) and it is important that the rasika (connoisseur), sumana or the sahridaya (the empathetic perceiver) should understand the artistic conventions, have sufficient detachment and a balanced state of mind; as well as deep inclination to share what is being communicated. A work must be competently executed and hence the artist’s genius comes into the picture. But it cannot be appreciated by the novice. Training and inclination are very necessary. In fact Abhinava makes a list of obstructions that can disturb the perceiver’s apt appreciation of art. In his hands, the ideal perceiver’s role becomes very significant and she comes to be attributed with the potentials of achieving supreme bliss or ânanda through her deep relish of a work of art which takes her to a higher plane. It is also important to note that in chitrakalâ (fine art), dance (nritya) and music (sangita), the role of the perceiver is considered very important. A common expectation runs through all the art forms – the necessary competence and inclination in the perceiver.

The Arts and their Interrelationship

Professor Pandey points out that in Indian tradition only three art forms were considered independent – poetry, music and architecture (Pandey 603). The other forms depend upon them or are derived from them. Thus panting and sculpture are for adornment of the building. Even so his work, Comparative Aesthetics, devotes only two very short sections to music and architecture and discusses poetics in the rest. While it is felt that the three forms hold the potential for achieving sublime experience (ânanda) through a realization of rasa-brahman, nâda-brahman and vâstu-brahman respectively, it is pointed out that a hierarchy exists. In poetic experience, all things are internalized and external mediums are eliminated; in music the materiality of sound persists and in vâstu, the materiality of tangible objects is at the base – hence the hierarchy with poetry at the top. 

While we suspect that hierarchy and segregation existed among the art forms, it is also true that much of it is contemporary construct. In tradition the scope for integration existed as well, as is illustrated with an example from Vishnudharmottara quoted earlier. A number of rich theories and constructs exist – namely nâda-brahma-vâda in music, the concept of vâstu purusa and vâstu-brahman in architecture, to name a few. This is true of fine arts, sculpture and dance as well, with their rich repertoire of methodologies and techniques. It is perhaps time to look not only at rasa-vâda or other such poetic theories (through which attempts to cognize the whole field of Indian aesthetics can be made) but also at theories from the other fields of aesthetics which can throw new light and help us develop rare insights into this rich and vast field. This task lies ahead of us in the future, though some attempts are already being made.

Some Major Works / Critics and their Contributions

Works on Indian aesthetics, especially poetics, are many and one who is interested to find out more about them from a historical perspective can start by exploring the writings of K. C. Pandey, P. V. Kane and S. K. De. One can also look at Nâtya Sâstra and Vishnudharmottara in translation. It is important to note that scholars are divided as to how to classify the systems, what to highlight and what not to and this is discussed in detail Professor Tripathi’s paper. The earlier practice among many modern scholars of aesthetics/poetics was to divide the tradition into schools of thoughts. This is especially true of S. K. De. But we must also realize that most of these writers talked about the major theories prevalent in their times–only that they highlighted or favoured one concept over the other. While keeping these things in mind, I have, non-the-less prepared a table based on V. K. Chari’s classification10 of major literary theorists and works which might help someone who is new to the field get her bearings. As Professor Pandey has pointed out, literary art is held in the highest esteem and music and architecture are treated as the other two independent art forms11. Besides, a comprehensive aesthetic theory that includes all art forms really doesn’t exist (though rasa-vâda is very influential in diverse fields). So I have prepared a list of some important works and authors in the field of music, architecture and fine art with reference to the works of K. C. Pandey, Swami Prajnananda, Sivaramurti, S.K. De, Chari and some other critics. While the lists are incomplete, I hope they will serve as useful guidelines to interested readers. 

Literary Critics or Writers on Aesthetics (with focus on Poetics)

Bharata Nâtya Sâstra  5th century B.C. – 3rd century A. D. Discussion on all art forms present in theatre and on the purpose and essence of art 
Commentators on Bharata
Lollata  A. D. 9th century Commentator of Bharata
Sankuka   9th century Commentator of Bharata
Bhattanayaka   9th – 10th century Commentator of Bharata
Abhinavagupta Abhinvabhratai Locana 10th – 11th century Commentaries on Nâtya Sâstra and Dhvanyâloka. Most influential commentary on almost all art forms with special focus on rasa and dhvani

The Alamkâras Theory

Bhâmaha Kâvyalankâra  7th – 8th century First comprehensive work on poetics, on alamkâras s, also the concept of vakrokti
Dândin Kâvyâdarsa 8th century  Highlights guna-riti. Alamkâras theory articulated more cogently; shows some influence of Nâtya Shâstra.
Udbhata Kâvyâlankârasarasangrahah  8th – 9th century Along with focus on alamkâras s, he also discusses rasa and doesn’t seem convinced about dhvani
Rudrata Kâyvâlankâra 9th century Again focus on alamkâras as well as brief discussion of rasa 
The Riti Theory
Vâmana  8th – 9th century The first to ask questions about the soul of poetry – and focuses on riti or style
The Dhvani Theory
Anandavardhana Dhvanyâloka 9th century Focuses on the role of suggestion – dhvani – in poetic language. Also links rasa to dhvani.
Abhinavagputa Locana 10th – 11th century Comments on Dhvanyâloka. Establishes rasa-dhvani as a very powerful concept.
Mammata Kâvyaprakâsa  11th century Extends the dhvani theory further
Miscellaneous Writers on Poetics
Râjasekhara Kâvyamimamsâ  10th century Different aspects of poetics discussed
Dhanamjaya  10th century Different aspects of poetics discussed
Kuntaka Vakroktijivita   10th – 11th century Elaborates the theory of vakrokti or poetic language of indirection
Ksemendra Aucutyavichâracharcâ   11th century Elaborates the concept of appropriateness or aucutya

Sringâra Prakâsa Samarangana-sutradhara

11th century Rasa theory, different types of plays, performanceMusic, art and architecture
Mahimâbhatta 11th century  Important commentator on earlier theories
Hemacandra Kâvyanusâsanam 1088-1172 Handbook of poetics discussing earlier theories


 12th century Important commentator on earlier theories

Visvanâtha Sâhityapardna

 14th century Handbook of poetics discussing earlier theories. In addition, it deals with performance as well
Appayyâ Diksita Kuvalyanandah 16th – 17th century   Important commentator on earlier theories
Jagannâtha Rasagangâdharah 17th century   This too deals with the entire field of poetics
Other Major Works/Critics on Aesthetics
Bruhatsâmhita Barâhamihira Chapters on iconography and silpa
Nâtya Sâstra  -  Significant contribution to dance
Vâstusutra Upanisad Part of Paiplada samhita, a very important treatise that deals with the philosophy of architecture and discusses rasa in this context
Abhinaya Darpana Nandikeswara 3rd century (?) AD Most significant treatise on dance after Nâtya Sâstra
Vishnudharmottara Purâna 7th century  A purâna with chapters on architecture, painting, music, dance, poets, etc. attributed to the late Gupta period.
Nâradasilpa On architecture and art
Prajâpati Silpa   On architecture and art


11th century  Discussion on music, painting, sculpture and architecture 
Sangitaratnâkara Sârangadeva Simha Bhopala and Kâlinath 13th century14th & 15th   century Encyclopedic treatise on musicCommentators


Locanakavi Râmamatya
15th century Treatise on musicCommentator


15th century 
Saraswati Silpa  On architecture and art
Silparatna     16th century On architecture and art

Modern Revival

In the context of our colonization and in the post-colonial era, revival has two distinctive connotations. One, that the aesthetic tradition had become dormant and had to be salvaged – English translations, critical focus and interpretation, comparison to western critical theories, applied criticism, and so on. The other implication is the revival of internal practices in the modes of producing art – writing poems using traditional canons or painting and sculpting using traditional material, forms and principles. 

Here, a lot of confusion exists. When one looks at poetics, the climate is complex. Productions in Sanskrit have come down and are less read. Regional languages have incorporated various traditions and are also trying to invigorate themselves with western influences in their creative writings. In poetics or literary theory, as pointed out by Professor Radhavallabh Tripathi, a lot of interest is being taken by both European and Indian scholars and translations of seminal texts are taking place. But in the process a kind of feeling is generated that there is hardly any work on poetics after the 17th century (after Rasagangâdhara). This is a contested point, and Professor Tripathy points out that many contemporary scholars are working at dispelling this misunderstanding. From this viewpoint, writings on Indian poetics have continued almost without any break. But it is a different story for the Indian who is English-educated and brought up in the colonial and post-colonial tradition. For her, without her knowledge of Sanskrit, this is a revival and a new insight into her own culture. 

In the context of music and dance, there is hardly any break in tradition. The gharânas and paramparâs have continued and the guru-sishya traditionis still strong. In the context of sculpture and painting, there is a divide – the traditional artists (artisans!) who often live in guilds and practice silpa within tradition and the modern artists influenced by the West. And in architecture there has undoubtedly been a break and a revival, for modern Indian architects are now again looking with renewed interest at Vâstu


The concept of application is treated differently in different fields. For instance, when one looks at poetics, one finds that critics have applied criticism or application of the traditional canons to contemporary works of literature – Indian and Western. Such activities are currently being done by many scholars. Western and Indian theories are being compared, and Indian theories are being applied to modern and contemporary works. Professor P. G. Rama Rao’s paper which applies Rasa Dhvani to Keats and Shelly is a case to the point.

In architecture, Vâstu Sâstra is becoming a strong force – both scientific and superstitious. In fine arts, modern artists since Jamini Roy have been delving into tradition for stylistic and thematic inspiration. In music, while popular film and non-film music draw a lot from the râga form for their compositions, the classical traditions proceed uninterrupted. Classical dance tradition, while experimenting with new themes, does so from within the continuity of its tradition. Modern dance or filmi dance, on the other hand, borrows from all and acknowledges none 

Summing Up

Indian aesthetics is a vast and complex field and I strongly feel that this short overview is incomplete. The subtle nuances involved in the discussion of fine arts, music, dance and architecture have not been covered here. This is both because of shortage of space and because of my feeling that I will not be able to do them justice. But it is true that many of the concepts discussed in poetics are of great importance for aesthetics per se, and for the various other art forms. If I am asked to give my opinion about the current status of research in the field, I will only submit that now, perhaps, the focus should be more strongly upon showing the interrelationship of art forms and the way aesthetic canons pervade them – a theme that runs strong in the Nâtya Sâstra and is found again and again in the practice of art in our tradition. For instance Râgamâlâ tradition in painting draws a lot from music, the concept of dhyânaslokas (which are supposed to create a tangible physical personified form of the raga in the mind of the person meditating on them); and here is no separation of Hindu and Muslim tradition. Similarly, Jayadeva’s Gita-Govinda is a seminal text that is at the centre of three distinctive kinds of developments – spiritual or bhakti tradition, at least two different musical traditions and the tradition of miniature painting depicting Radha and Krishna12. I sincerely hope such insights are presented in a more systematic way and literary theorists participate in a more involved way in such activities.

Finally, I would like to briefly mention about the papers brought together in this special section on Indian Aesthetics. The papers compiled here, though small in number, do justice to the theme; and I must thank the contributors for writing them for this journal. Professor Ranjan Ghosh’s paper on fine arts and aesthetic experience highlights the spiritual element that runs through all Indian art forms. Mr. Ujjwal Jana emphasizes rasa theory and the interrelation of rasas, something which is equally relevant to poetics and other art forms. Professor Tandra Patnaik focuses on the philosophy of language and the language of aesthetics in speaking of dhvani theory in the light of Bhartrhari’s sphota theory, while Dr. Joy Sen looks at harmony and unity on the spiritual plane in his discussion of Vâstu. Professor P. G. Rama Rao applies rasa theory to the poetry of Keats and Shelly, thus giving a demonstration of how Indian aesthetic theories can be applied. These papers, thus, cover a range of fields and discuss their different dimensions. On the other hand the papers by Dr. Binda Paranjape, Professor Radhavallabh Tripathi and Professor Bharat Gupt deal with colonial influence on aesthetic studies, trends in aesthetic studies in modern times and the problems facing Indian aesthetic theories respectively. In these papers, one comes across diverse opinions and even ideologies. But as discussed earlier, it is the nature of Indian aesthetics to welcomeall to look at things from varied contexts and perspectives and finally to assimilate them. 

I hope the readers find these contributions thought-provoking and useful and make use of the short bibliography of books on aesthetics that has been hurriedly put together and presented in this issue at the end. 


Boner, Alice, Sadasiva Rath Sarma and Bettina Baumer (Trans). Vastu-Sutra Upanishad.New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, India; 3Rev Edition, Dec 2000. 
Chari, V. K. Sanskrit Criticism. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993. 
Chopra, P. N. (Ed). India: Art and Architecture in Ancient and Medieval Period. Caluctta: Publication Division, 1981.
Coomaraswamy. A. The Dance of Shiva. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997.
De, S. K. Some Problems of Sanskrit Poetics. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1959.
De, S. K. History of Sanskrit Poetics. Second revised edition. 2 vols. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1960.
Ghosh, Manmohan. ed. and transl., The NatyaSastra. A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics. Calcutta: The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1950.
Hiriyanna, M. Art Experience. New Delhi: IGNCA & Manohar, 1997. (1954).
Massom, J. L and Patwardhan, M. V. Aesthetic Rapture: The Rasadhyaya of the Natyasastra. (Deccan College. Building Centenary and Silver Jubilee Series. 69.) 2 vols. Poona : Deccan College, Postgraduate and Research Institute, 1970. 
Massom, J. L and Patwardhan, M. V. Santarasa and Abhinavagupta’s Philosophy of Aesthetics. (Bhandarkar Oriental Series. 9.) Poona : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1969.
Pande, Anupa. Natyasastra Tradition and Ancient Indian Society. India: South Asia Books, 1993.
Pandey, K.C. Comparative Aesthetics. (2 Vols) by K. C. Pandey. Varanasi: Tara Printing Works, 1959.
Sivaramamurti, C. Indian Painting. Delhi: National Book Trust, 1970.
Sthapati, V. Ganapati. Indian Sculpture and Iconography. Trans. Sashikala Ananth. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Society and Ahmedabad:Mapin Publishing, 2002.
Tomory, Edit. A History of Fine Arts in India and the West. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1989.
Vatsyayana. K. “Gita-Govinda and its Influence on Indian Art.” Chhavi-2. Ed. Anand Krishna. Varanasi: Bharatiya Kala Bhavan, 1981. pp 252-258.
Vijayavardhana, G. Outlines of Sanskrit Poetics. Varanasi: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series office, 1970.


1. Kâmasutra of Vatsyayana, Richard Burton and F. F. Arbuthonot, Jaico, 1974, pp. 12-14.
2. The Vishnudharmottara, Stella Kramrisch, Calcutta University Press, 1928, pp. 31-32.
3. Ibid, Part 3, cpt 2, Verse 1-9, pp 31-32
4. Indian Painting, p. 17
5. Ibid, p.14-15
6. The Dance of Shiva, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1997, p. 48
7. Ibid, p.42
8. India: Art and Architecture, pp.57-68.
9. Many critics may argue against this view and highlight the essential unity or interrelationship of the various art forms. I accept that. But I wish to point out that in spite of what theory says practice suggests that while sharing and taking from one another, these art forms also moved within a very rigid caste system. My artist friend at Puri had to leave his house and settle elsewhere in order to peruse art since he was a Badaanda (belonging to the family of the chief priests of Lord Jagannath) and his community could not accept him painting like a Chitrakara
10. Sanskrit Criticism, p. xi. 
11. Comparative Aesthetics, Vol 1, p. 603. 
12. Kapila Vatsyayana’s paper in Chhavi-2.


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