What do you want to make them feel?

When creating stories, we consider a few carefully chosen theories connected to human psychology and design thinking. A theory that we’ve most recently started experimenting with for storytelling is an ancient Indian performance arts theory. This is the Eastern theory of ‘rasa’. We started exploring the Rasa Theory because it directly involves evoking human emotions in the storytelling process.

Emotions are very important in decision-making and memory; Someone may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

What a business makes a consumer feel is directly linked to how people remember that brand: It is also linked to how they connect desires and emotional needs to what that business has to offer. This is why we think emotions are especially relevant to storytelling for businesses, and why we are interested in the Rasa Theory.

‘Rasa’—defined closest in English as ‘aesthetic flavours’. Although recent to our storytelling experiments, the Rasa Theory is by no means new; It originated in India sometime between the first century BCE and the third century CE, from where it spread throughout the South Asian region and as far as Bali and the Javanese islands. Rasa is the aesthetic flavour contained in a creative work—it is not what is mentioned outright or described, but rather, evoked in the minds of the audience as moods created through a mix of emotions. The classical Rasa Theory describes nine rasas—sensuality (shringāra); humour (hāsya); sorrow (karunā); anger (raudra); heroic (vīra); terror (bhayānaka), disgust (bībhatsa); wonder (adbūtha), and tranquillity (shānta). These pure rasas make sense for the dramatic arts where emotions are heightened beyond the everyday and made universally intelligible. But, when we bring the Rasa Theory to storytelling, we look at a much wider spectrum. For example, bhayānaka rasa from apprehension to blood-curdling terror, or vīra rasa in expressions of power, confidence, as well as courage. We’re also observing the polarities of each rasa considering both the negative and the positive. This means we find karunā rasa not only in sorrow but also in empathy and compassion; while we see raudra evoked through retribution as much as fury.

Image: 2018, Anne-Marie Gaston. Bharatanatyam Evolves: From Temple to Theatre and Back Again. Manohar Publications

Even when we’re exploring beyond the original theory this way, we still find profound cues to each rasa expression in the art form where it was born—classical Indian drama. Dramatic expressions of each rasa are among our strongest cues to how they can be evoked; Like the shrinking expressions connected to bībhatsa which led us to discover it beyond the emotion of ‘disgust’ usually attributed to this rasa, and find it in evocations like humility. 

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