Imagine walking down a dark, lonely street late at night. Suddenly you hear the soft crackle of dried leaves….someone or something is approaching you. Your heart beat quickens, you have sweaty palms, your limbs start trembling, your throat feels parched and a general sense of unease sets in. What could be lurking in the shadows? What is this feeling that you are experiencing?
This feeling of unease and uncertainty, which is the end of our comfort zone, often signals an experience in our bodies that we call fear. The emotion or rasa that is equivalent to this feeling of fear is called the “Bhayanaka Rasa.”
Fear can be creatively defined as False Evidence Appearing Real. Our fears are in fact irrational beliefs that we have about ourselves, our actions, objects, other people or events. These fears only appear to be real within the recesses of our minds, however, they have absolutely no basis in reality. They are in some respects made-up interpretations within the physical world. Fear is nothing more than the uncertainty we feel about the outcomes, circumstances and unpredictability of future events.
Fear is closely linked to attachment. We are fearful of losing people or things we are attached to. We are all attached to our egos, our lovers and most of all our own selves. Our ability to think irrationally makes us preach about “what if” situations till doomsday. Fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of disease, fear of flying, fear of catastrophes and fear of failure are all commonly noted as “fear”. We are also fearful of losing our health, our home, our jobs, our relationships. Fear is also associated with our desires. More the desires, more fears may arise.
Bhayanaka rasa or the terrible sentiment is experienced on hearing hideous sounds, seeing something scary or ghastly, loneliness or seclusion, death, etc. Fear can arise in different people due to different reasons. The term phobia is coined to explain different kinds of fears. Something that causes an individual fear may not necessarily cause someone else the same. The extent and degree may also vary from person to person.
Fear is a spooky thing. It can overcome even the strongest parts of our intelligence. It can remain in a comatose state in our subconscious until it is awakened or triggered by some worrying situation or circumstance. Our fears, like our dreams, are indeed dreadful figments of our imaginations, which arise from the deepest abyss of our mind and can seem totally realistic. Our fears can cripple us intellectually and snatch away our dreams, our aspirations and our will to progress and prosper.
However, fear is also our natural protection that keeps us away from harm. For our ancestors, the feeling in the pit of the stomach came as a warning sign: danger. Even today, our fear response is still alive. Fear, dread, fright, alarm, panic, terror, all mean painful agitation in the presence or anticipation of danger. Our lives literally depend on our response to fear – flight, fight, or freeze. When it comes to human survival and achievement, anxiety and fear actually motivate us to take necessary action.
One good example of Bhayanaka rasa which we all can relate to is Halloween. It is the perfect recipe for fright, with all the necessary ingredients stirred together into a concoction capable of creating the emotion of fear in our psyche. But this fear can be very subjective. It can be our very own personal demons that make us cower or it can be an external factor scaring us. A clear definition of fear is described as ‘An anxious feeling, caused by our anticipation of some imagined event or experience.’ Since fear is such a dark emotion, the colour given to it is understandably black.
In the famous words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: ‘Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’
Depiction of Bhayanaka Rasa in Art
Like in any other art form, the practitioners of Indian painting too attempted to express fear and create its aesthetic appeal through their representations. In a painting expressing the Bhayanaka sentiment, the subject is generally portrayed as vile, frightful, contemptible, murderous and almost decaying. It can also be symbolized by a perplexed face and a look of confusion in the eyes, cowered down owing to fear on sighting evil or danger. Here are some examples of artists who have expressed the Bhayanaka Rasa through their artworks.
Mother and Child (2017) by Mahesh Pal Gobra
This expressionistic painting presents the lament of a mother with a baby in her hand. The lady covers her face with her hand as though unable to have a look at her child. The black colour creates a horror-filled background and induces terror. The tree and the sky are both painted black. Everything in the background is depicted in black. This is the artist’s rendition of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, a gas leak incident in India which is considered as the world’s worst industrial disaster. An Acrylic on Canvas, this painting is the artist’s tribute to the victims of the tragic accident.
Bhopal Disaster Series – Black Water (2013) by Chinmaya BR
The same rasa can be traced in the art work Bhopal Disaster Series – Black Water (2013), also dedicated to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Through this painting, the artist exposes the impact of this catastrophe and tries to impart the same within spectators. The irony is that the black colour appears only in a few areas of the painting. But the effect which is produced through those black bold curves reproduces the tragedy within a canvas. Other than black, no other colours could have been interwoven with the emotion of fear forming a perfect blend of the rasa Bhayanaka.
Fear of a New Dawn by Ranbir Kaleka
In “Fear of A New Dawn”, one awakens to a sense of fear. It is a brooding collection of video art installations which feature juddering islands, gray balls of tumbleweed, a coffin-like block of burnt wood, among other spectral images like the severed head of a donkey and doppelgangers staring and merging into each other. The artist says about this installation that, “The current political situation and the events in the recent past have affected us deeply. I remember, as a student in London, one of my professors was looking at an oil painting of a hellscape by another student. My professor asked him if his painted image frightened him, and said that if it didn’t, it was stupid to paint it. So, the fear has to happen to you. The urge to make the work has to come from within the artist.”
Fear and Horror through the Ages
Not until the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were fear and horror both explicitly illustrated and seen as emotions and feelings to be actively enjoyed – hence the popularity of horror movies. The power of painting to produce these emotions was first and perhaps most successfully shown by Goya and Fuseli. Turner illustrated the fearful attraction of Alpine scenery. The horrors of war were shown more explicitly in art through the 19th century, culminating in the paintings of the war artists of the First World War, and Picasso’s Guernica in the 20th century. Here are some paintings from the past, which in my opinion, induce a feeling of fear.
The Scream by Edward Munch
“I stood there trembling with anxiety and I felt a great, infinite scream through nature.” This was how Edvard Munch described the experience while out walking that led him to paint The Scream (1893). Munch’s The Scream is an icon of modern art and defines how we see our own age – wracked with anxiety and uncertainty. Essentially The Scream is autobiographical, an expressionistic construction based on Munch’s actual experience of a scream piercing through nature while on a walk, after his two companions, seen in the background, had left him. Fitting the fact that the sound must have been heard at a time when his mind was in an abnormal state, Munch renders it in a style which if pushed to extremes can destroy human integrity.
Rachel Whiteread’s Place (Village), 2006-08
Rachel Whiteread’s celebrated artwork Place (Village) (2006-2008) is a sculptural work featuring a ‘community’ of around 150 Dolls’ houses which were collected by Whiteread over 20 years. The artwork joins the 100+ Dolls’ houses in the Museum collection. The large-scale artwork is an assembly of vintage Dolls’ houses in a variety of architectural styles and averaging around one meter high. The houses sit on stepped platforms, evoking a sprawling hillside ‘community’. The houses are lit from within, but deserted, their emptiness evoking haunting memories and melancholy.
John Isaacs’ I can’t help the way I feel (2003)
‘I Can’t Help the Way I Feel’, is a sculpture by British artist John Isaacs. It is a huge, amorphous blob of realistic-looking human fat, complete with hideously swollen legs, angry veins, and blotchy, irritable sores. It illustrates our anxieties about our bodies and our fear of obesity.
Self Portrait by Pieter Van Laer (1638)
This painting by Dutch artist Pieter Van Laer epitomizes fear. He’s screaming out in terror as he sees the approach of the devil, as depicted by the monster-like hands reaching for him from the right side.
Salvador Dali didn’t suffer from phobias, he reveled in them. His list of pathological fears ran from childhood ereuthophobia, a fear of blushing, to acrididophobia, a fear of grasshoppers. A general fear of insects was connected to delusional parasitosis—a feeling of nonexistent bugs infesting one’s skin. He also feared, among many other things, the female body and becoming a father. These powerful phobias were matched by profound fascinations. Dali’s surrealistic images retain their impact decades later, and they’re always worth another look.
Crawling and swarming black ants. Beautiful, colorful butterflies floating individually and in clusters. An oversized lone grasshopper perched over the mouth of a deformed head, Dali’s paintings are infested with the very insects that terrify him. Ants, a common image, signify decay, suggesting a fear of death. Grasshoppers, which pop up with some regularity, he so feared as a child that other children threw them at him for fun, just to see him react.
Painting by Unknown Artist at 2011 Armory Show
This painting also depicts fear. Why do you think that is? Is it because of the extra big, extra round eyes, or the teeth that seem to be chattering?
Shawn Cross’s terrifying illustrations of phobias
Artist Shawn Cross has illustrated some of the most common phobias, to be exact 31 of them, and shared them on his Instagram account. Even if you aren’t scared of any of the following things, Shawn’s impressive and terrifying drawings are bound to haunt your dreams tonight. Here are some of his finest creations.
Deep Dark Fears by Fran Cross
Everyone has at least one irrational fear, but it’s often too ridiculous, embarrassing, or simply odd to share with anyone else. Perhaps this is why it’s so amusing to see others’ fears denuded in these morbid comics by Fran Krause, the illustrator behind the Deep Dark Fears. Anyone can submit their own personal irrational fear or a ghost story for it to be illustrated by Krause and presented to the curious public. If you‘re not the sharing type, though, take a look at these cool examples of the craziest, deepest, and darkest fears of others instead.
Artworks inducing fright
Here are some works of art either inspired by, or evoking, all that scares us —some of them so spooky that they’ll leave you shuddering with fear!
- Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, is a gigantic spider installation outside the front doors of the National Gallery of Canada. Twenty-six white marble eggs incubate in its belly, threatening the capitol with an outbreak of arachnids.
2. But Maman’s arachnid would be no match to Marlin Peterson’s two gargantuan, photo-realistic creepy-crawlies on top of Seattle’s Space Needle.
3. In Mu Pan’s Spider Woman, Spider-Man is seen hemorrhaging in the jaws of yet another monstrous beast. This one takes fear to a new level altogether!
4. Paris-based photographer Guido Mocafico’s Serpens series is a collection of one of the most common fears…snakes! These photographic compositions of the mascots of Slytherin House can freak out even the bravest!
5. Brian Andrews’ Hominid is a 2012 shot film that fuses human and animal X-ray films to create a new, hybrid beastie, a cross between a spider and a human. These surreal, spliced-together creatures, having half arachnid and half human form look even more horrific with the human skull and spider skeleton.
6. Laurence Demaison’s La novice is a surreal, black-and-white photograph that aggressively distorts the human form — or just our sense of reality — with a ghostly effect. This one is definitely not for you if you fear needles, so watch out all you trypanophobes!
7. Brooklyn artist Ted Lawson’s Ghost in the Machine is a take on homophobia (fear of blood). In 2014, he fed his own blood into a robot via I.V. The machine was programmed to paint with the stuff flowing directly out of his veins, ultimately producing a self-portrait. See it to believe it — if you can handle the sight of blood.
8. Cao Hui’s resin sculpture series, Visual Temperature will make you shriek in horror as it induces a mix of disgust and fear in you.
9. Naoki Sasayama’s Blue Sky and Recollection are not for people with Aviophobia. In other words, if you fear flying, do not view the next two images.
10. Trent Parke’s The Camera is God is a set of eerie portraits from his 2013 series. Set up on an Adelaide street corner, Parke captured candid pictures of strangers with a remote shutter. When a passerby crossed the intersection, his camera would snap 30 frames in four seconds and these fleeting moments came out as the ghostly images of fear.
11. German illustrator Bjorn Griesbach’s Hollow Children series is not for the weak at heart. Besides their Julia Roberts smiles, his faceless portraits are a sure shot scare.
12. According to artist Jonathan Borofsky, his piece, Walking to the Sky, is meant to be “a symbol for our collective search for wisdom and awakened consciousness,” but according to me, it is the scariest nightmare for anyone who’s afraid of heights.
13. Breath, a photo series by Japanese artist Tomohide Ikeya, examines the struggle between life and death, and as per his artist’s statement: “When we are covered in water, the fear inside of us comes to the surface.”
14. A Kind of You, a set of images, by Finnish artist Perttu Saksa, can be an expression of pediophobia (fear of dolls). The real-life subjects have an arguably more troubling story. Those are real circus monkeys under the doll masks. Saksa photographed them in Indonesia, where they were subjected to controversial training methods.
In memoriam by Joseph Noel Paton
This painting was painted two years after the revolt of 1857 in India. The main objective of the artist was to express the helplessness of the English women and children during the period of the revolt. It depicts the subjects huddled together in a circle, appearing absolutely scared and helpless. Their facial expressions suggest as if they were almost waiting for the horrible event to happen, anticipating the worse in the form of humiliation, violence and eventually death.
Sharing a few more images of art that depicts Bhayanaka rasa or fear (click on thumbnails to view full images):
My Depiction of Bhayanaka Rasa
The Bhayanaka Rasa depicts fear and worries that are evoked while facing something that is more powerful than oneself. It is a feeling of being helpless. The most powerful form of Bhayanaka rasa is the fear of death.
It is this extreme form of the emotion that I have attempted to express in my artwork titled Bhayanaka Rasa – The Terminal Fear.
“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else,” wrote Earnest Becker in his book, The Denial of Death. It’s a fear strong enough to compel us to go on a crash diet, sweat it out in the gym till we drop and book a doctor’s appointment at the first sight of an abnormal growth in our bodies.
Death terrifies us. Fear of death can end up in mental health disorders, including anxiety, panic attacks and depression. And we’re too scared to talk about it.
Death is the greatest mystery ever. Since the origin of life itself, every race and civilization has sought to explain this mystery. It is a puzzle that has baffled humanity under its inevitable gloom. The rich or the poor, the black or the white, the powerful or the weak, all will end up in the grave eventually. Death is the cessation of life and all associated processes; the end of an organism’s existence as an entity independent from its environment and its return to an inert, nonliving state.
The mystery of death is so profound that, inspite of millennia of religious as well as scientific theories and hypotheses, we are still shrouded by uncertainty about it.
So what happens when we die? Do we go to Heaven? Or Hell? Or are we Reincarnated? Or do we just end up in nothingness and disappear into oblivion? All these questions about the uncertainty of death make it the dark unknown that we dread facing. The mere thought of death makes one break into a sweat and can make one’s heart race. Even though we know it’s inevitable, we live in constant denial and hope against hope that the end never comes. Death is like a ticking time bomb and the countdown to our obliteration begins the moment we take our first breath. It’s just a matter of time when the counter will hit zero. This constant fear of dying according to me is the scariest thing terrorizing the human race and best symbolizes the terror sentiment or Bhayanaka rasa.
But what symbolizes death?Remember that dark lonely street I asked you to imagine walking down at the beginning of this post? Now picture doing this all over again. As you walk along, you sense a shadowy, cloaked figure who suddenly appears in front of you…holding something…something that looks like a scythe. This sinister figure is the Grim Reaper.
Death has been personified for thousands of years, by the Grim Reaper—usually a skeletal silhouette, draped in a dark, hooded robe and carrying a scythe to “reap” human souls. But why the skeleton, the scythe and the robe? Skeletons symbolize death, representing the human body after it has decomposed. The robe is a reminder of the robes that religious figures of ancient times wore when conducting funeral services. The scythe is taken from agricultural practices of the time – harvesters used scythes to reap or harvest crops that were ready to be pulled out from the soil…so, when our time has come, we are extracted from this earth. With this scythe, the Reaper severs the soul’s last ties with life.The Grim Reaper’s is as mysterious as death itself and is someone you definitely don’t want to meet any time soon.
But how did the Grim Reaper originate? In the fourteenth century, when Europe was ravaged by the Black Plague, artists began painting death as a horrific figure. Skeletons, armed with deadly weapons, danced among plague victims in the street or rode white horses with wagons full of bodies attached. Eventually, the first recognizable Reaper, a black cloaked figure, began taking shape. His dark costume and curved scythe may have been inspired by plague doctors, who wore dark shrouds and bird-like masks to protect themselves from breathing infected air. Even today, the Grim Reaper continues to rule over our imagination and has become the global icon of death. Most legends claim that the mere presence of the Grim Reaper draws the soul from the body. With the crook of one boney finger, he snatch you from the world of the living forever.
I chose to paint the Reaper in his full glory with a dark, hollow skull, almost like a void beneath his deep hooded cloak, with only his eyes and nasal cavity emitting their sinister glow. His long, black cloak is endless and engulfs within its folds whatever life it comes across. I have attempted to incorporate and depict this in the form of the infinite creases and wrinkles in the cloak. His scythe is usually a long pole with a curved blade at the top, but I decided to stylize it further, with a blade on both ends, one each on the top and bottom of his hourglass. His hourglass, which he uses to measure the amount of time left in a life represents the apprehension of every human being about his inevitable end. The hand within the hourglass emphasizes this fear furthermore and how we all are slowly sinking into the sands of time, inching closer to our demise. This image, literally scares us to death.
The medium for this artwork is mainly acrylics with the use of modeling paste and the impasto technique for imparting requisite textural effects to the fiery flames which form the backdrop for the Grim Reaper’s upper hooded form. For the folds and creases of the cloak, I have employed the technique of decoupage, wherein, instead of using the usual decoupage paper, I have used cling wrap or cling film. The procedure is simple. Once the cling wrap adhered to the canvas with the help of the mod podge, I gessoed it and then painted over it with acrylic paints.
If my rendition of Bhayanaka rasa in the form of the ultimate fear of death sends a chill down your spine, then I have managed to invoke the sentiment of terror in you, for the Grim Reaper is the embodiment of Death and thus fear itself.
As they say, nothing can be more fearsome than uncertainty and the unknown. Death is both of these things and so we fear it the most.
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