One of the most exciting times of the semester occurs when we watch “Sita Sings the Blues” in class. This film by Nina Paley – one she has made available to the public by withholding copyright – is a wonderful addition to what has come to be known as the Ramayana tradition. Unlike a few decades ago when scholarship focused on only pan-Indian literary Ramayanas, scholars today are beginning to acknowledge that most people get to know of Rama and Sita through folk and oral tales, women’s songs and local and regional tellings.
But the thing about “Sita Sings the Blues” that struck me most was how, in 81 short minutes Paley masterfully reflects the complexity of the tradition; the Ramayana in its various forms has been questioned, adapted, revered and challenged by commentators and devotees alike in the two millennia it has traveled across space and time, from north India to Bali to New York. But what scholarship has elaborated over three decades and endless research, Paley has managed to show in less than two hours.
The Ramayana as my last post explained acts as a blue print for daily living for millions of Hindus worldwide. There are various problematic episodes in the epic, one of the most controversial being Rama’s unceremonious treatment of his own wife, the ever loyal and faithful Sita. Paley like so many others who have joined the debate over Sita’s treatment – one that began in antiquity – gives Sita a voice of her own when she ingeniously has the tragic heroine of the Ramayana singing to Annette Hanshaw’s songs; Hanshaw was an American jazz singer whose success soared in the 1920s and 30s. Throughout the film, her melancholic voice reminds us of the universality of the story, one of a woman scorned by the man she loved. Paley herself could feel Sita’s pain, for amid the various layers of the film, is woven her own experience of love and betrayal. But Paley is present throughout the story in another way – the animation, design and editing is entirely hers.
Let me elaborate when I say Paley shows the complexity of the Ramayana without actually telling it: the three narrators in the background talking among each other, debating “facts,” add authenticity in more ways than one: they reflect the fluidity of the story when they “recall” the same event differently and mix up names of people and places; they reflect the “historicity” of the story when they speak of places such as Rama’s birthplace, Ayodhya “which exists even today and therefore the story must be true.” All this while taking a jab at the increasing intolerance of questioning the Ramayana, an unfortunate and ironic matter given that fluidity and mutability are what define the story.
Paley also reflects the assorted forms the narrative has taken. Her film includes animation, shadow puppets, popular art and calendar iconography. And just as people in real life snatch bits of the story from different sources to make up their own personal Ramayanas, so too does Paley’s film include difference sources – a weepy Rama brings to mind the seventh century drama, the Uttararamacharita, by Bhavabhuti, in which Rama is so consumed with guilt over the way he treated Sita, that he just cannot stop crying. Similarly, questions regarding the “demon” Ravana’s own nobility and erudite background are reminiscent of the Dravidian or Southern take on the Ramayana – which they read as a justification of northern or Aryan subjugation of indigenous peoples of the sub-continent.
But more than anything, by inserting herself into the story, Paley draws the parallels between Sita’s life and ordinary women like herself; after all, Sita is the role model for millions of Indian women. Rather than focus on her purity and chastity and divine fire-proof attributes, however, Paley reveals a person in deep pain, one whom mortal women will be able to identify with; Sita is in love with her man, and would do anything for him, and experiences unspeakable sorrow when he dumps her without explanation. And although, just like in Valmiki’s ancient story, this Sita too triumphantly “gives it back to Rama” by eventually disappearing into the earth, Paley’s message is for women of this world – cry a little, pick up the threads, and then get on with your life. NOT by running away, but by fighting the system, for only you can change it. Indeed, by the end of the film which had begun with the goddess Lakshmi massaging her lord and master Vishnu’s feet, the roles have reversed; Vishnu is now massaging her feet.
Like many other Ramayanas, this one too did not go down well with some viewers, who claimed it was “degrading” and “offensive” to Hindus. How exactly is unclear, although the same report does go on to decry the appearance of a “too bosomy” Sita. Disagreements and challenging this version are of course welcome, as they only add to the richness and diversity of the Ramayana tradition. But when those in authority intervene, opposing the very tradition they claim to be protecting, as when an acquaintance in India had to cancel the screening of “Sita Sings the Blues” after a Hindu nationalist party threatened to forcefully disrupt it, that is when it becomes a real tragedy, much like Sita’s own life.
“Sita Sings the Blues” is not just a film, it is a part of scholarship that includes women, gender, literature, religion and anthropology. Objection to its screening even contributes to the controversy surrounding its censorship. Animation invokes fun, silliness and simplicity but not here. It may appear to be a “bacchon ki picture” (“a movie for kids” as a character in the film refers to it) but to my mind, it is an integral part of scholarship, one that bridges the gap between academia and ordinary people, the latter of whom often make something worthy of scholarship.
 Sumathy Reddy, “Animated Debate is Curtain-Raiser,” The Wall Street Journal (July 21, 2011).
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha moved to Albuquerque last year from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She will be teaching a class on eastern religion at University of New Mexico this coming fall.