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Kaustubha das

Sita Sings the Blues

I was both delighted and disappointed by Sita Sings the Blues. Delighted by its creativity, but disappointed by its narrow understanding of the ancient story of Sri Rama. Sita Sings the Blues is an award winning1, 80 minute film, written, directed, produced and animated by artist Nina Paley. It is her personal retelling of the Ramayana. Sita Sings the Blues has a captivating beauty of its own. But the Ramayna’s beauty, traditionally exemplified in the character of Rama, is often displaced by Paley’s resentment toward her ex-husband.

With this observation, I am not engaging in psychoanalysis at a distance. The connection is clear in the film itself. Paley’s narrative of Rama and Sita is cleverly interwoven with the narrative of her own painful divorce. Speaking of her marriage, Paley says, “the way that it fails is uncannily similar to the way Rama and Sita’s [relationship fails].”2 Similar maybe, but there are obvious relevant differences as well. And in failing to recognize the differences, Paley allows the character of Rama to morph from the Ramayana’s hero into its villain.

But before elaborating on this criticism, I’d like to share some of what I found to be so great about Sita Sings the Blues. Unlike other animated Ramayanas which have been presented as children’s cartoons, Sita Sings the Blues is a mature artistic achievement. Its often fast paced progression is bursting with the colors and styles of India. It dazzles with wit and charm. From beginning to end, I was astonished with Paley’s cleverness. She masterfully combines several styles of animation. Shaded, squiggly drawn figures and collage style photography are combined to illustrate Paley’s own story. The bulk of the Ramayana story is animated with several styles of Indian painting as well as something resembling Betty Boop cartoons. Traditional South Asian shadow puppets with Indian voices are used as informal narrators. As they struggle to recall the details of the Ramayana story, and chuckle at the ones they find implausible, a variety of Hindu images enter and exit the screen illustrating their discussion. The result is not only captivating and humorous, but also brilliant as it considers some of the most puzzling questions about the Ramayana in a way that feels like a casual chat amongst friends sitting in a restaurant waiting for their masala dosas to arrive.

Then, of course, there is the music. From time to time, the story breaks to allow Sita to sing of her love and woe to the tune of 1920’s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. Mirroring my feelings about the entire film, I found these segments to be both exceptionally clever and often unbefitting the subject matter. As a Westerner with an interest in art and music, I found the choice of these unfamiliar songs to fit perfectly with the style and humor with which the story was being told. Paley’s dusting and polishing of these old gems allowed me to gain an appreciation for a style and era of music to which I’ve never given much thought. But as a sadhaka who has devoted decades of contemplation and reflection to understanding the profound meaning of the Indian epics, this portrayal of Sita had my eyes rolling. I’ve always known Sita as the embodiment of beauty, grace, and virtue. I would never associate her pain, which I believe can only be understood by penetrating into the esoteric subject of bhakti-rasa 3, with that of a speakeasy crooner lamenting the loss of her man.

I understand that an artist should be free to express themselves according to their inspiration. And I decry the kind of backlash that Paley has received from Hindu fundamentalists that see no merit in her work.4  And while I embrace much of the feminist platform, I believe that to try to understand the Ramayana through the lens of feminism, particularly that which is fueled by resentment, is to miss its true value. While such an approach may be appropriate for interpreting an Alanis Morisette song, applying it to the Ramayana results in a very warped retelling. The greatness of the character of Rama, his heroism, kindness, wisdom, honor and the tenderness of his love for Sita, which are fundamental to the Ramayana, are entirely missed by Paley. Essentially, Paley takes parts of the Ramayana’s story and uses them to express her own feelings of pain and redemption. She is admirably frank about this: “I didn’t set out to tell the Ramayana, only my Ramayana. I wanted to be very clear about my point of view, my biases”. 5

In his review of Sita Sings the Blues, film critic Roger Ebert, who admittedly knows nothing of the Ramayana, writes “It tells the story of a brave, noble woman who was made to suffer because of the perfidy of a spineless husband…It is about a prince named Rama who treated Sita shamefully, although she loved him and was faithful to him.” A narrow and skewed idea of Rama, to be sure. But for one unfamiliar with the Ramayana, Paley’s film can lead to no other conclusion.

Paley has written that “I understand this project treads a fine line between entertainment and offense”. 6 It does, and so I’ve consciously cut her some slack and set aside my traditional understanding of the Ramayana, to appreciate her otherwise fantastic film. But I can’t help but see some humor in all this. I find Sita Sings the Blues to be fairly vivid example of how our our own experiences tend to color our perception, sometimes to ridiculous extremes. I’m reminded of the Siendfeld episode where Jerry describes the colored perception of his uncle Leo: “He’s one of these guys that anything goes wrong in life, he blames it on anti-Semitism. You know what I mean? The spaghetti’s not al dente? Cook’s an anti-Semite. Loses a bet on a horse. Secretariat? Anti-Semitic. Doesn’t get a good seat at the temple. Rabbi? Anti-Semite.”

Now in all fairness, there are elements in the Ramayana which can easily be interpreted as cruelty towards Sita. But then what to make of Rama’s evident virtue? How to reconcile the apparent contradiction in his character? His manifest virtue is indeed the reason that Sita’s banishment is such a problematic issue. There would be no confusion were he merely a narcissistic, selfish man. According to Paley “the question that I asked, and the question people still ask is, “Why”? Why did Rama reject Sita? Why did my husband reject me? We don’t know why, and we didn’t know 3,000 years ago. I like that there’s really no way to answer the question, that you have to accept that this is something that happens to a lot of humans.”

Here I have to disagree. Traditionally, to get answers to these kind of questions, one would approach someone who’s devoted themselves to understanding the subtleties of India’s great devotional literature. Ideally that person would not only have gained an academic grasp of the subject, but also lived a holy life and walked the path that these books lay-out. Someone who has repeatedly alternated between study, inquiry, contemplation and back again and who, in quiet moments has allowed the literature to speak to them and clarify its message. It’s a process in which one very consciously tries to set aside the biases developed though his or her own experiences and open oneself up to the possibility of coming in touch with a timeless truth.

The subject of Rama’s banishment of Sita has been questioned, contemplated and commented on by a variety teachers and holy people over the course of the history of the people of India. People existentially committed to the texts and whose questions are motivated by deep, living concern. The answers range from the exoteric (often involving the need for a leader to sacrifice for the good of their followers or for their character to be beyond reproach), to the esoteric (usually dealing with the depth of emotion experienced through love in separation). One such explanation can be found in the article previously published on The Bhakti Collective entitled “Radhanath Swami on Sita’s Banishment”.

Sita Sings the Blues will remain for me a film of interest, even an inspiration, but not as a genuine telling of the Ramayana. It’s narrow and irreverent approach leaves me feeling a bit estranged.  Still, I don’t want to come off as too stuffy. I really enjoyed Sita Sings the Blues and I’ll definitely be watching it again. And while it had its moments of disappointment, there were far more moments of delight.

I‘ve included a slideshow with stills from the film (below) as well as the film itself (above). (By clicking the box in the bottom right corner you can expand the film to full screen.) I encourage you to watch it and to share your thoughts below.

Jaya Sita-Ram

Kaustubha das

Related Posts: Radhanath Swami on Sita’s Banishment

  1. 1.Awards include Annecy, June 2008, Cristal grand prix for best feature film, France/Avignon, June 2008, Prix Tournage for Best American Feature Film, France/Athens International Film Festival, Sept. 2008, Best Script Award, Greece/Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinéma, Oct. 2008, Grand Prix Z Télé, Grand Prize chosen by the public, Canada/Starz Denver Film Festival, Nov 2008, Fox 31 Emerging Filmmaker Award, CO, USA/Gotham Independent Film Awards, Dec 2008, Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, NYC, NY, USA/Les Nuits Magiques, Dec 2008, Audience Award for Best Feature Film, Begles, France/Santa Fe Film Festival, Dec 2008, Best Animation, NM, USA/Boulder International Film Festival, Feb 2009, Best Animated Film, CO, USA/Film Independent’s Spirit Awards, Feb 2009, Nominee/ Acura Someone to Watch Award, Los Angeles, CA, USA/Fargo Film Festival, March 2009, Ruth Landfield Award and Honorable Mention, Best Animation, ND, USA/Festival MONSTRA, March 2009 Jury’s Special Prize, Lisbon, Portugal/Cairo International Film Festival for Children, March 2009, Jury’s Special Mention, Cairo, Egypt/Tiburon International Film Festival, March 2009, Best Animation, Tiburon, CA, USA/Big Cartoon Festival, March 2009, Grand Prix Sirin, Krasnoyarsk, Russia/ANIMABASAURI5-ANIMABASQUE, March 2009, Jury Special Award, Bilbao, Spain/Akron Film Festival, April 2009, Best Feature Film, Akron, OH, USA/Philadelphia CineFest, April 2009, Archie Award for Best First Time Director, Philadelphia, PA, USA/Salem Film Festival, April 2009, Grand Jury Award, Salem, OR, USA/Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, April 2009, Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature, Los Angeles CA, USA/Talking Pictures Festival, May 2009, Best Animated Film, Evanston, IL, USA/Connecticut Film Festival, June 2009, Best Animated Film, Danbury, CT, USA/Festival Internacional de Cine DerHumALC, June 2009/ Signis Award, Best Film of the Official Competition, Buenos Aires, Argentina
  2. 2.Interview, Wired.com “One-Woman Pixar’s Animated Film Premieres at Tribeca
  3. 3.Bhakti-rasa – the emotional experience of loving surrender to God
  4. 4.For one example click here
  5. 5.sepiamutiny.com, March 25, 2009, “Sita Sings the Blues, Just for You
  6. 6.www.sepiamutiny.com April 21,2005 Comment 10 on “Sita Sings the Blues
Kaustubha das

Hari Sankirtan

From A Portrait of the Hindus: Balthazar Solvyns
& the European Image of India 1760-1824

Sankirtan-detail

More from Robert Hardgrave’s A Portrait of the Hindus: here is Balthazar Solvyns’s etching of a kirtan gathering in 18th century Calcutta. The term sankirtan – a compound of the Sanskrit words san (together), and kirtana (glorification) – refers to the practice of congregational singing of the holy names of God, especially in public, as a practice and expression of bhakti. CONTINUE READING THIS ARTICLE »

Kaustubha das

An Etching of the Khol

From A Portrait of the Hindus: Balthazar Solvyns
& the European Image of India 1760-1824


Khol detailAs promised, from Robert L. Hardgrave’s A Portrait of the Hindus, Balthazar Solvyns’s etching of the khol or mridanga drum. Here, I’ve provided a detail of the etching. The entire image can be found below. I’ve included an excerpt from the description by the artist, Balthazar Solvyns, and below that, an excerpt from Robert Hardgrave’s commentary, (I’ve not included the footnotes). One observation of my own: it appears that the musician is wearing, around his right ear, a small pushpa-mala (flower garland). CONTINUE READING THIS ARTICLE »

Kaustubha das

A Portrait of the Hindus

A Portrait of the Hindus

Recently, while browsing the shelves of Strand Book Store, one title caught my attention: A Portrait of the Hindus: Balthazar Solvyns & the European Image of India 1760-1824 by Robert L Hardgrave. Published by the Oxford University Press, the 568 page book measures 9×12, with 287 halftone and 78 color illustrations. In the following days I will be posting some images from the book along with excerpts from the commentary. CONTINUE READING THIS ARTICLE »

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