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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
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Shivaratri in Vrindavan

On February, 23 the celebration of Maha Shivaratri was observed at the ancient Temple of Gopishwara Mahadeva in Vrindavan. Vaishnava’s honor the various Devas, seeing them as exemplar devotees of Lord Vishnu or Krishna. So in Vrindavan, the holy town of Krishna bhakti, Krishna devotees, following the edict of Srimad-bhagavatam, Vaishnavanam yatha shambhu,1 worship Lord Shiva as a Krishna devotee in his form of a gopi (Gopishwara Mahadeva). CONTINUE READING THIS ARTICLE »

  1. Shambhu (Lord Shiva) is the greatest of Vaishnavas
Kaustubha das

FLOWER SHOWER

patram pushpam phalam toyam / yo me bhaktya prayachati
tad aham bhakty-upahritam / ashnami prayatatmanah

“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.”

Bhagavad-gita 9.26

On January 31, 2009 photographer Stephan Crasneanscki shot the annual Pushya Abhishek Festival at the Radha Gopinath Temple in Mumbai. Below are some of the photos as well as an excerpt of the inaugural talk given by H.H. Radhanath Swami Maharaja.

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Excerpt From the Inaugural Talk

“This wonderful festival is a festival of devotion. Please don’t see just with your eyes, see through your heart. Through the wisdom we receive from the Holy Scriptures and the great saints. It is a shower of our combined intent to please Krishna, to purify our own hearts and ultimately to be instruments of love in every aspect of our life.”

“The world is in turmoil, economically, ecologically, emotionally, psychiatrically. According to the World Health Organization depression, mental illness, is the number three disease that causes pain and death. Why? Externally we have so much, but internally so little. The jewels of divine love within our hearts have been plundered by the thieves of greed, envy, anger, arrogance, selfish passion and illusion. Driven by those thieves, enemies within us, even the pure soul creates havoc within this world. There is a great need to understand what is really of value. Things like character, integrity, humility, self- control, a selfless spirit of compassion towards other living beings, which are all part and parcel of love for God. These are the greatest needs within this world.”

“Today hundreds and hundreds of devotees have been plucking flower petals. It is really beautiful to see, and to really appreciate it you have to know the people. There are simple taxi drivers, simple waiters who work in restaurants, simple people who are unemployed, living in little huts. And they are sitting next to multi, multi millionaires who are industrialists with international corporations. And together they are just plucking the petals. Little children are sitting next to PhD, IIT graduate engineers. Anyone can do it. We are all united in our combined efforts to just offer this very, very simple service to the Lord. It is said that all people are created equal. On the spiritual level we are all created equal but as long as we think ourselves American, Russian, European, or any of these other things, we are not equal. As long as we think ourselves man or woman, young or old we are not equal. There are no two snowflakes, since the beginning of time, that are identical. There are no two cats, two dogs or two human beings that are the same. We all have our karmas, conditionings, and attributes. Real equality is on the spiritual platform. In our devotion to the Lord we are equal. It was beautiful to see this.”

“India has been condemned because of its caste system, which is a perverted conception as it is lived and understood today. On the spiritual platform we are all servants of God and we can be united in that love, on a real level, not just a sentimental level. So we are all together plucking flowers and the result is baskets and baskets of flower petals, more than one ton. How beautiful! How much does the flower petal weigh? The endeavor to get so much made everyone so happy. People go to Bollywood movies, people work so hard to get a Mercedes Benz, or good clothes. They go to the gyms to get strong. Nothing against these things, but as far as happiness is concerned, none of these could compare to plucking the flower petals. Why? Because it awakens such ecstasy in our hearts if we do it with the right intent. And we really all become brothers and sisters, united. And the culmination of so many people plucking is that, although not one of them is getting paid, they are happy because they are doing it out of love in the spirit of service.”

“The culmination is that we get to see every single tiny flower petal made an offering of our united devotion. Our meditation while offering these flower petals is that we are making a prayer for the purification of our own hearts, for the awaking of the love that is dormant within us. We are praying for the blessing of the Lord within all living beings. We are praying for the spiritual prosperity of every living being. That is the mood of the offering of each of those millions and millions of petals. And after the offering there will be the festival where of all the maha prasada flower petals showered upon all of us.”

H.H. Radhanath Swami Maharaja

Click here to hear the entire talk, and for more photos and descriptions of the festival.

More Slideshows

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Flower Festival In Mumbai!/SLIDESHOW

On January 31, I was fortunate to be present at the Radha Gopinath Temple in Mumbai for their annual Pushya Abhishek, a devotional festival in which the temple congregation comes together to profusely decorate the deities of Radha and Krishna with flowers, and then offer them an extended shower of over a ton of fresh flower petals.

In the early morning devotees gathered to pluck the petals from millions of fragrant flowers. In the evening 2000 devotees squeezed into the temple as thousands more gathered in the temple courtyards to watch via video screen. CONTINUE READING THIS ARTICLE »

Kaustubha das

Radha Govinda Temple / Photos by Robert Stoetzel

divyad-vrndaranya-kalpa-drumadah
srimad-ratnagara-simhasana-sthau
sri-sri-radha-srila-govinda-devau
presthalibhih sevyamanau smarami

In a temple of jewels in Vrndavana, underneath a desire tree, Sri Sri Radha Govinda, served by Their most confidential associates, sit upon an effulgent throne. I offer my humble obeisances unto Them. [Sri Caitanya Caritamrita Adi 1.16]

The Radha Govinda Temple is seen as one of the most impressive examples of North Indian architecture. It sits in the middle of the Yogapitha, the sacred place where Radha and Krishna would meet.

The deity of Govinda, believed to have been established thousands of years ago by Krishna’s grandson Vajranaba, was rediscovered by Srila Rupa Goswami in the 16th century. The construction of the temple was begun under the direction of Raghunath Bhatta Goswami and his disciples, headed by Raja Man Singh (a general in the Army of Emperor Akbar) and was completed in 1590. Jiva Goswami praised Emperor Akbar in his Govindam Mandir Astakam (Eight Prayers in Glorification of the Govinda Temple), which is carved into the temple’s stone. The inscription reads “Emperor Akbar is a very kind-hearted person and a Vaishnava. I give my blessings to Emperor Akbar. In his kingdom all the Vaishnavas are living very peacefully.”

Less than 100 years later Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the temple’s destruction. Before his soldiers arrived the deities of Radha and Govinda were moved. They now reside in the grand Govindaji temple in Jaipur.

Before its destruction the temple stood seven stories high. Just two stories remain. Still, the Radha Govinda Temple remains a towering monument to Lord Govinda and a place where one can feel a connection to the great saints of the past and the history of Krishna devotion in Vrindavan.

Kaustubha das

Robert Stoetzel is a New York based photographer traveling and photographing in India trough March 2009.

Related Posts

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December Vrindavan

As the busy month of Kartik1 reaches it’s end, the crowds of pilgrims in Vrindavan gradually thin. December’s cold brings a thick fog and with the change in ambiance comes a change in mood. The spirit shifts. It feels like Vrindavan is calling the soul to move from festive celebration to hushed, solemn contemplation and prayer. In the mornings one can circle the path around the town visiting holy spots veiled in haze.

Early in the morning, Keshi Ghat, usually lively with pilgrims and sadhus bathing in the holy Jamuna, becomes a lonely place. Boats sit idle on the bank. Beautifully carved sandstone piers invite you to rest a moment, take a few drops of holy water on your head, gaze up river toward the Madan Mohan Temple, and offer a prayer in silence.

This is the place where Krishna killed the horse demon Keshi who represents false pride, an obstacle on the path of bhakti. In the Bhagavad-gita Arjuna refers to Krishna as Keshi-nishudana (slayer of Keshi). His hope was that, by his divine instructions, Krishna would slay the doubts which hindered his spiritual conviction. At this spot, Krishna bhaktas have been offering similar prayers for thousands of years.

Kaustubha das

Robert Stoetzel is a New York based photographer traveling and photographing in India trough March 2009.

Related Posts: Gopurams in Sepia / Portraits from the Kunds of Govardhan / Murals of the Krishna Balaram Temple

  1. Kartik is the eighth lunar month of the Hindu calendar. It is characterized by many religious festivals especially in the North Indian holy town of Vridavan.
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Murals of the Krishna Balaram Temple

Vrindavan is a town of literally thousands of Krishna temples, some small and mostly unnoticed, some popular and festive. Many date back hundreds or even thousands of years and new ones are always springing up. Among the most visited is the Krishna Balaram Mandir (temple) which was personally established by Sri Bhaktivedanta Swami in 1975. The temple is situated in Raman Reti, Vrindavan, where it is said that Lord Sri Krishna displayed His lilas 5,000 years ago. Sri Krishna and his brother Balaram would herd their cows at Raman Reti near the Yamuna River.

Approaching the temple, one passes under a grand marble archway connecting the samadhi (sacred tomb) of Sri Bhaktivedanta Swami, with a matching structure used for greeting and feeding guests. Next, one descends a few steps to enter through the temples large ornate doorway and, passing over the checkered marble floor, one comes to a sunken, open courtyard which provides a charming space for celebrating festivals or for simply resting and taking in the divine atmosphere. Past the courtyard, one steps into the temple itself where kirtan is held and scripture is discussed at the foot of the three magnificent alters dedicated to, on the left, Sri Caitanya and Nityananda, in the center Sri Krishna and Balaram, and on the right Sri Sri Radha Shyamasundara (Radha and Krishna).

Around the courtyard are large panels which serve as frames for murals depicting, on the left, the lilas of Sri Krishna and, on the right, the lilas of Sri Chaitanya. Other murals are squeezed into corners or fill open spaces. Collected here are photos of just some of the murals, to give the viewer an idea of the temples beauty and spirit of devotion. The photos are by Gitapriya dasi and unfortunately I don’t know the identity of the artists who painted the murals. If any viewer has information about the artists please feel free to leave a comment. I’ve included verses, relating to the lilas depicted in the murals, as captions.

For more photos and video of the Krishna Balaram Temple one can follow the links below.

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Photos of the Krishna Balaram Temple

Video of the Krishna Balaram Temple

Related Posts: Gopurams in Sepia / Portraits from the Kunds of Govardhan

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Gopurams in Sepia

Some captions were adapted from the following sources.

Introduction to Indian Architecture, text by Bindia Thapar, Periplus

India, John Howley, Spiritual Guides

India, DK Eyewitness Travel Guides

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Portraits from the Kunds of Govardhan

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