Introduction to Reception Studies in Indian Classical Arts with Reference to Kathakali

Saturday, June 21, 2014 - 09:44
(Jyotsna Krishnan is a research scholar of cultural studies at Kerala Kalamandalam.)
This paper tries to analyse the scope and importance of Reception Studies in various fields of discipline that focus on Indian classical arts. The aesthetics of reception/reader response is one of those new approaches that emphasizes on audience and the readers for the first time with a methodological concept. Reception as theory sees a text differently from the existing theories. The involvement of audience in theatrical events is undoubtedly complex. The spectator plays a major role in all stages of theatrical development. Theorists who analyse media through reception studies are concerned with the experience of cinema and television viewing for spectators, and how meaning is created through this experience. Kathakali as is a thauryatrika of music, dance and rhythm. The audience and an appreciator needs to understand all these factors involved while viewing the staging of Kathakali. Reception Theory’s revolutionary approach to the role of the reader with concern to the notion of interpretation was one of the most important contributions to the history of literature, and its new perspective on the literary experience established a new paradigm for writers and theorists. Reception Theory, thus, turned out to be one of the most relevant and important level of aesthetic approach and this analyses this fact through the exploration of different methodological ideas.
“Spectator ship is not a passivity; that must be turned into an activity” quotes Jaques Ranciere, a French philosopher while discussing on the relevance of audience in a performance. The concept of spectator-ship came from the human tendency to arrive at one’s own meanings. The meanings are arrived at through the active involvement into the performance which results in comprehension. The origin of the discussion of audience/spectators can be viewed in two phases: the first is only as mere reference in the works of various critics and the second as a theory and criticism. Both try to focus that Audiences are not a single separable entity who are to be considered apart from the performances. They have active involvement in making successful performances. “The spectator is born in the vanishing point generated by perspective, is summoned into hypothetical existence by the visual structure” (Aaron: 10).  It is not a simple act of watching something but it is pleasure making activity which pulses experience.
The word audience/spectator generally means the assembled people at a public event. It can be viewers or listeners who come to enjoy the event. Bordwell defines the spectating as “an activity undertaken by the individuals of wide range, perhaps, united by their capacity for active perception” (Mayne: 55). The literary and critical discussions was lighted up with the aesthetic concepts of Aristotle in the Western scenario. He entered the intellectual dais of Athens rejecting Platonian notions. He turned out as a good spectator of his teacher’s perceptions thereby going beyond it. Aristotle’s Poetics occupies a significant and prominent position in the critical methodologies of western literary criticism. Aristotle introduced his concept on the spectators while discussing tragedy in his Poetics. The concept of katharsis focussed on the audience response of the tragedy. Pity and fear are the two emotions that come out of a spectator’s mind while seeing tragedy. Spectacle plays a major role in the elements of tragedy mentioned by Aristotle. But he defines spectacle as less artistic method that is dependent on the good actor.
Wordsworth in his advertisement of Lyrical Ballads mentions the necessity and concept of readers. He discusses on readers of superior judgement and common readers. He defines poet as man speaking to men. The ‘men’ he meant was audiences/spectators. The discussions on audience were not much important in the later ages of English criticism. There were a lot of discussions on poet as he/she was the superior to a work of art. The assumption of God was stumbled with the Darwinian Theory of Evolution. This notion made the people to think in a different perspective. The modern theories extended the scope of reader/audience with a different perspective. With the coming of formalist and structuralist tendencies, the author began to be unimportant and the text gained relevance. The famous essay of Roland Barthes ‘The Death of the Author’, the concepts of practical criticism of I. A. Richards expresses this notion of textual criticism. The new critical theorists William Wimsatt and Beardsley explain the concept of Affective Fallacy which “is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does)” (Davis: 92). The effect that is formed is viewed as an error according to them. As a post structuralist tendency, the text- oriented criticism extended its scope to a reader- centred notion of looking at the work of art.
The aesthetics of reception/reader response is one of those new approaches that concentrated on audience/readers for the first time with a methodological concept. Reception as theory sees a text differently from the existing theories. “Reception Theory posed once more the problems of defining the work by its effect, of the dialectic of effect and reception, of canon formation and restructuring and of dialogic understanding through the distance of time” (Collier: 53). It focused mainly on the effect that reader/audience has on the text. The aesthetic experience began to be seen as a productive, receptive and communicative activity and readers/audience are the media for the activity. It was only an inactive process before. Reading was considered a submissive act which does not annex the interpretative quality. They are influenced by culture, nationality, genre, age, experiential background, aesthetic tastes and education in their approach towards a text. Every reader/audience reads with his/her own beliefs, attitudes and personal biases. Reception studies, therefore is not concerned with individual texts and their relationship with one another but also with broader cultural processes which shape and make up those relationship.  It also stresses the receiver’s knowledge of the source and how it is obtained.

Lorna Hardwick in the work reception studies quotes “The increasing prominence of reception studies is a fairly recent development. Although reception studies has been an important strand in German scholarship, its development in the international field and especially its adaptation in Anglophone Scholarship has involved significant reshaping of the scope of reception studies (2).

The concept of reception is the comprehension of the performance. Audience/reception studies states that reception is the understanding of the cultural texts by the audience which is the effect of communication of the negotiated power relations. The communication happens between the performer and the spectator. The process of coding is also a part of reception in which decoding is done by the receiver. The binary concepts of encoding and decoding are discussed by Stuart Hall in his essay ‘Encoding, Decoding’. He says that, “There is no intelligible discourse without operation of code” (During: 503). The performer encodes the message and the spectator decodes it his/her own way.

Hardwick’s Concept of Critical Distance is the distance in time, place and culture… enable the reader/ spectator to move outside the limits of his/ her own society and cultural horizons to see more clearly and more critically (8). This really forms basis to the formation of Audience Culture.

The term “reception theory” thus refers to an attempt among literary and film theorists to account for the fact that a single text can be interpreted in different ways by different readers are a widely accepted one. There are two basic notions of reception Theory: 1) texts have no meanings, and 2) meaning is produced by the reader through the interaction of him or herself and the text. While analysing deeply the theory arouses a confusion as the appreciation is purely a subjective phenomenon. It is difficult to understand the measure of reception of a person. Reception studies can be viewed as a different approach in the critical dias. For a performing art the perspective of a spectator is a necessity. Robert Holub defines Reception studies as ‘ general shift in concern from the author and the work to the text and the reader’. Reception Theory’s revolutionary approach to the role of the reader in relationship to the notion of interpretation was one of the most important contributions to the history of literature, and its new perspective on the literary experience established a new paradigm for writers and theorists.

Reception in Theatre:

The involvement of audience in theatrical event is undoubtedly complex. The spectator plays a major role in all stages of theatrical development. Traditionally the audiences of drama had great relevance as it was based on the response of the spectators. Susan Bennett commends that, “spectators are thus trained to be passive in their demonstrated behaviour during performance but to be active in decoding of the sign systems” (206). Talking, laughing, whistling, drunken brawls, and hissing, even dancing and singing were the common behaviours of theatre audiences. Partee was a term used in French to differentiate the classes of audiences. Partee audiences were high class audiences. The antics of partee audiences included mimicking performances, ogling at the women in the boxes, and making fun of people etc. During 18th century the term changed a lot and it connoted to a group of people who critically viewed and approached theatre. Richard Steele’s and Addison’s essays present partee audience characters to stress the relevance of them in the society. During the 18th century the concept of Audience in England changed completely. The rise of middle class gave popularity to drama also. The audience came for pleasure and entertainment. The audiences/spectators in theatre and audience/spectators of theatre were the two concepts that were widely discussed. The first category is the passive audience that were simply viewing the play or performance. The second category really extends the scope of reception in which they are actively involved in deep thought process related to performance. It is due to this division the characteristic features of the plays itself changed to this category and a division of two types of plays: for general audience and for interpretative audience.

Reception in Communication Theories:

The models of communication that states the traditional notions of communication, mentions the receiver as a passive acceptor of the messages send by the sender. The famous Shannon’s model states this clearly. But it was much later that receiver has been considered as an important acceptor in communication process. The communication models are classified as linear and non-linear model. Linear model “is a unidirectional model that portrays the message flow from speaker to the audience with or without effect” (Narula: 13).  The non-linear is just the opposite of this. The interactional model of communication that happens through interaction is an example for non- linear model. The models like Schramm’s model of communication views receiver as an active participant of communication theory. The feedback was considered as the crucial and consistent element of communication process. David Berlo formulated a basic and authentic view of communication in 60s. The ‘effect’ was included as a part of communication according to him. He suggested that message need to have both positive and negative effect on the audience. His model tried to put up a concept that effect plays a major role in the communication which can be viewed as a basic concept of reception studies.

The receiver is the individual or individuals to whom the message is directed. The extent to which this person comprehends the message will depend on a number of factors, which include the following: how much the individual or individuals know about the topic, their receptivity to the message, and the relationship and trust that exists between sender and receiver. All interpretations by the receiver are influenced by their experiences, attitudes, knowledge, skills, perceptions, and culture. It is similar to the sender’s relationship with encoding.

The receiver in the contemporary communication theories does not stick on to a reception. They are the interpretators and analysers of the message. It is due to them the message attains a meaning. The meaning is constructed from the effect of communication which is influenced much by the environment in which a person is made up.

Reception in Media Studies:

Janet Staiger in her work Media Reception says: “the history of reception studies in media begins at the moment speakers attempted to figure out what listeners might understand about messages” (1). It extended the scope of the coming of new media. The interpretation of films is also one of the most significant produces of reception studies. In films the area of special focus is given to fans while discussing reception studies. A fan is not a general viewer; he/she feels of experience the particular programs as themselves, who share the common interests. Lawrence Grossberg explains the fans and says that they have ‘sensibility’ or ‘feeling of life’ (Lewis: 56) Theorists who analyse media through reception studies are concerned with the experience of cinema and television viewing for spectators, and how meaning is created through that experience. An important concept of reception theory is that the media text has no inherent meaning in and of itself. Instead, meaning is created in the interaction between spectator and text. Reception theory argues that contextual factors, more than textual ones, influence the way the spectator views the film or television program. Contextual factors include elements of the viewer’s identity as well as circumstances of exhibition, the spectator’s preconceived notions concerning the film or television program’s genre and production, and even broad social, historical, and political issues. In short, reception theory places the viewer in context, taking into account all of the various factors that might influence how she or he will read and create meaning from the text.

Reception Theory in Eastern Classical Art Forms:

Reception Theory was not a widely discussed topic in the discussion of Eastern classical art forms. There were a lot of concepts appealing to the concepts of sahrdaya and appreciation in the Eastern literary scenario. The western concepts of appreciation came much early during the discussion of reader response criticism. In eastern classical art forms, even though there are structured audience who come and see the same, the intellectual capacity is the major quality needed for an audience. We can’t see these art forms purely with an entertainment. The concept of reception is a necessity in eastern classical arts forms as sahrdaya who is an appreciator and interpreter is seeing the performance. The discussions on the performance help the performer to improve his/her performance. The art forms of India have its basis on the mudra and specific movements peculiar to that art form. It also takes the theories and concepts from Natyasastra, the earliest book on aesthetics. The deep comprehension of the art form is a necessity in the reception of the art forms. The padinja padam in Kathakali is a peculiar context which is very difficult for a alien person to understand its aesthetics. The appreciation here becomes an inner subjectivity with the special kind of representation of the art forms.

The thematic difficulty also fluctuates the receptive set up of a person. He/she should be well aware of the story or the event discussed in the art form. If it is unknown the audience finds it’s difficult to understand.

Reception Theory in Kathakali:

There are many factors involved in the reception of Kathakali. Kathakali as is a thauryatrika of music, dance and rhythm, the audience needs to understand all the factors involved in Kathakali. An appreciator of Kathakali needs to understand all the factors involved in it. The appreciation level of Kathakali falls into 3 categories: pre-stage, on-stage and post-stage. The costumes and make-up are the factors of pre stage. It is a factor of recognition.  The costumes are one of the important factors that is to be understood for good appreciation. Kathakali is known for its large, elaborate makeup and costumes.  The elaborate costumes of Kathakali have become the most recognised icon for Kerala. A person, who is unknown of the colours used in it, will not be able to understand Kathakali. The characters like thaadi, Pacha, Kathi, Minukku is recognized based on the knowledge of Kathakali which is acquired form frequent viewing. The facial make-up also differs much and the appreciator needs to understand it before. The on-stage factors are the equipment, theatrical techniques and dances used in it. The equipment are the physical items used on the stage. It can be weapons, stool, curtain and even the lamp. The theatrical techniques used in kathakali also play a mojor role in appreciating the art. The creation of Chariot inKalakeyavadham is an example for this. A Chariot is made on the stage using the body language. The specific dances(nritta) used in Kathakali is another factor that is to be focused. A commoner will be confused of such a movement which is a part of performance only.

The situations of padams are comprehended with constant appreciation. Manodharama attams have much different way of appreciation. The foreigner’s appreciation of Kathakali is also much different. We cannot categorise the Kathakali appreciators into broad category. The audience need to understand the movements and actions properly along with the music and rhythm.According to Ettumanoor Kannan, Dance, song and instrumental music are three faculties that can be presented in a performing art. Unity of these three faculties in a performance is called “Thauryathrikam” (In Sanskrit Language). The three aspects-dance, song and instrumental music are developed on the basis of three fundamental elements of human existence-space, time and emotion.  Without space, time or emotion human life is impossible. Space is the base for dance; Time is the platform for instrumental music; and emotion is the reason for the first sprout of song. Space – Dance, Time – Percussion, Emotion – Song.


Reception studies is a discipline that is relevant in several fields like theatre, media especially films, communication, performing arts etc. The purpose of a performance or a write up is to please the reader/spectators. It is due to this function, the reception studies attain relevance in various fields of discipline. It is a necessity of a theatre to get communicated which heightens the scope of Reception studies.

Works Cited:

Aaron, Michele. Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On. Great Britain: Wallflower Press, 2007

Bennett, Susan. Theatre Audiences. New York: Routledge, 1997

Davis, Garrick. Praising it New: The Best of New Criticism. Ohio University Press, 2008

Hardwick, Lorna. Reception Studies, Classical Association: Oxford University Press, 2003

Holub, Robert. Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction. Routledge: 1990

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

Lewis, Lisa. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. USA: Routledge, 1992

Mayne, Judith. Cinema and Spectatorship. USA: Taylor and Francis e-library. 2002 (Routledge: 1993)

Narula, Uma. Communication Models. New Delhi: Atlantic publishers, 2006

Ohendahl, Peter Uwe. “Introduction to Reception Aesthetics” in New German Critique, 1977

Shields, Christopher. Aristotle. New York: Routledge, 2007

Staiger, Janet. Media Reception Studies. New York University Press, 2005


Jyotsna Krishnan A. belongs to Thrissur, Kerala, India. She has finished her masters in English and Comparative Literature from the Pondicherry University. Currently she is doing her M. Phil in Cultural Studies at Kerala Kalamandalam. Her interests are Cultural Studies, Aesthetics and English Language Teaching.


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