The Art of Emotions

Ever wonder what evokes feelings inside us? Feelings of love surprise, anger, sadness, fear, courage, aversion or peace? These feelings, that are born deep down inside the core of our bodies, namely our soul, are what we call Emotions. They are the ways we express our reactions towards various activities and happenings in our lives. They make life lively, rich, colorful and interesting, even though some of those colors may be bright and others darker.

The artist in me would describe emotions as the light and dark hues, shades and colors that paint the ultimate mortal canvas that is life.  As a designer, I would say they form the warp and weft of the fabric called life. Infact, I believe life and emotions have a symbiotic relationship and one cannot exist without the other. Can you imagine life without emotions? If they didn’t exist, how different would we be from robots and machines?

Emotions can be both positive as well as negative depending upon our perspective towards life and how we perceive situations. They are also displayed in varying degrees from person to person, depending upon his or her intensity of reaction to a particular situation. In psychology and philosophy, emotion is defined as a metaphysical experience displayed in the form of a psychological expression of our mental state as well as the biological reactions of our body.

Emotions form the foundation of Indian classical dance and music, theatre, art and literature and are recognized as the 9 Rasas among these traditional Indian performing arts. Popularly known as the Navrasa, they are translated into the nine emotions, moods or sentiments that figure in the daily lives of every human being. However, Rasa, a Sanskrit word, has multiple meanings as it can denote emotions as well as taste or flavor. The word Navrasa is also of Sanskrit origin, where Nav means nine and Rasa means taste or essence.

Not just the performing arts, the fine arts too (specifically drawing, painting and sculpting), have been a medium of expression for the Rasas.  Evoking the rasas in the audience through their art work is the primary objective of every artist, hence artworks are created solely with this aim.

 Come to think of it, every artist’s work evokes a certain emotion or a combination of emotions.  Rasa exists in each and every object, event or action. Not just that, everything that we do has Rasa. Depending on the individualistic nature of an object or person, some rasas hold a place of higher importance than others and at the same time may be extrinsic or innate. Rasa is the true “essence” of life itself.  

The nine emotions included in Navarasa are Shringara (love/beauty), Hasya(laughter), Karuna (sorrow), Raudra (anger), Veera ( heroism/courage), Bhayanaka (terror/fear), Vibhatsya (disgust),  Adbutha (surprise/wonder), and Shantha (peace or tranquility).

The “Color Spectrum” of Emotions

In the performing arts, specifically Indian classical dance forms, the “emotional color spectrum” consists of seven colors, just like the rainbow. Each emotion is designated a different color – rage(red), greed(orange), fear(yellow), will power(green), hope (blue), compassion(indigo), and love(violet). However, it also represents the absence of color (black), which is death, and the combination of colors (white) which is life. Similarly each rasa is also depicted with a different color, as listed below:

  1. Shringara – Green.
  2. Hasya – White.
  3. Karuna – Grey.
  4. Rudra – Red.
  5. Veera – Orange.
  6. Bhayanaka – Black.
  7. Vibhatsya – Blue.
  8. Adbhuta – yellow.
  9. Shanta – White.

These guidelines are being followed as a general rule to portray the rasas in Indian classical dance forms, but for us artists, the sky is the limit. So, don’t let it stop you from thinking out of the box and innovating!

Depiction of Navrasas in Art

The early 20th Century saw the rise of an art movement called “Expressionism,” in which the artist wanted to express an emotional experience rather than depict a scene realistically. Some artists would attempt to capture what they were feeling at the time of making the artwork and it would eventually reflect in their final finished piece. Others would create an image with the hope of awakening an emotional response in the viewer. 

One of the best ways to depict an emotion is through facial expressions. And this is the element most artists have adopted while illustrating emotions in their art. Some artists have used eyes to achieve the same goal. As they say, eyes are the mirror to the soul! Apart from these, several other approaches have been taken by artists in order to depict emotion in their art, for instance hands and even the entire body. Infact, the subject’s hands have become a fundamental element for expressing emotion. Some of the greatest masters of modern art like Matisse, Picasso, Lichtenstein and Chagall have displayed emotion in their art.

But how do artists illustrate the Navrasas in their art? The most common way is through facial expressions, as is seen in the work of an Indian artist and a leading illustrator in Tamil magazines, Maniam Selvan. In one of his paintings, he depicts the rasas with joy at the centre, surrounded by love, sorrow, anger, courage, fear, disgust, wonder and peace.

The Navrasas by Maniam Selvan

He has also rendered the rasas individually in the form of facial expressions on a woman’s face.

Artist P.S. Jalaja’s work titled “Shringaram”, which is part of her ‘Navarasa’ series of works, is a close-up of a homogenous crowd in the grip of a telling emotion, rasa. Working further on her favorite motif of crowd, she has transformed her canvas into a cauldron of intensely individual emotions transferred to a think-alike mob. These personally political ‘navarasa’ series of paintings are remarkable for their social currency, satirical undertone and tremendous local appeal and are not easily conceivable.

Artist Annie Ravi has depicted the rasas in the form of a self-portrait, inspired by the nine Indian sutras of dramatics, the colors of pop art and expressions from Japanese manga characters.

Navrasa by Annie Ravi

Apart from this, Navrasas have also been displayed as facial expressions in Kerala murals paintings and Indian sculptures.Here’s some more imagery depicting the rasas in art.

Now that we have talked about direct portrayal of the Navrasas through art, how do you think artists expressing emotions indirectly in their work?

Let’s consider some examples:

  • Henri Matisse’s famous artwork “Dance II” can be interpreted as a display of joy.
  • Roy Lichtenstein’s “Frighten Girl”, is suggestive in itself owing to the title, for the look of fear in the subject’s eyes speaks volumes.
  • “The Weeping Woman” by Pablo Picasso seems to be an attempt to express sadness.
  • Marc Chagall’s “Birthday”, expresses love, which is seemingly evident in the gait and stance of the couple.
  • “Grrrrrrrrrrr!!”  by Roy Lichtenstein, is evidently displaying anger, but then again, it could also generate a feeling of fear in the viewer.
  • Francis Bacon’s, “Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, can be interpreted as anger as well pain.
  •  “The Promenade” is also a creation by Marc Chagall that depicts happiness.
  • Grant Wood’s, “American Gothic”, is a painting that I personally find difficult to interpret owing to the grim and serious looks on the faces of the subjects. But these two are expressions and thus emotions, in themselves.

These are the most universally accepted interpretations of the emotions portrayed in the above paintings, but then again, there is no hard and fast rule. For all you know, your emotional response to any of these paintings can be totally different from mine, so, to each his own!

My Interpretation of Navrasas

In the next few posts, I will take you on a journey into the world of these nine emotions or rasas that not only govern Indian performing arts and fine arts, but also constitute the very cosmos of human expression. So, join me as I plunge into the fascinating world of Navrasas! 

I will introduce you to each rasa individually and describe how I have interpreted it in my art. My approach to every rasa has been a combination of direct as well as indirect portrayal. In some of my pieces, I have used the conventional elements in terms of the face and eyes, but I have attempted to use them symbolically to either convey or to evoke an emotion with a moral or social message attached to it. At the same time, I have also tried to depict certain emotions indirectly without the aid of these elements.I have also not followed the conventional norms of the emotional color spectrum alone. Instead, I have chosen to use other colors as well, in combination with these.

Just to give you a sneak peak into my world of Navrasas, here are some of the artworks from my upcoming Navrasa series:

Want to know more about them? Then, keep following my blog and read the upcoming posts!

Sources and Photo Credits

4 thoughts on “The Art of Emotions

  1. Brilliant canvas and an amazing conceptualization! Your second calling may well be as a writer, considering the flow of your blog!


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