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Volume 26 - Issue 10 :: May. 09-22, 2009
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
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CINEMA

A break-up story

VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

American director Nina Paley’s feminist visual reading of the Ramayana draws critical attention.

PICTURES COURTESY: NINA PALEY, SITASINGSTHEBLUES.COM

RAMA, SITA AND Hanuman in the 82-minute animated film.

IN an academic paper titled “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation”, A.K. Ramanujan wrote: “The number of Ramayanas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast Asia over the past twenty-five hundred years or more are astonishing. Just a list of languages in which the Rama story is found makes one gasp: Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan…. Sanskrit alone contains some twenty-five or more tellings belonging to various narrative genres.” Even this erudite scholar of Indian literature was unsure as to how many tellings (a word he prefers to versions or variants as that would imply that there is an original text) of the Ramayana actually exist. Is it 300, is it 3,000, he asks in the article.

An animated version of this epic, Sita Sings the Blues, is the latest addition to the vast repertoire of Ramayanas. The film juxtaposes the personal experience of its American director, Nina Paley, who goes through the break-up of her marriage, with the “break-up” of Rama and Sita. Even the tagline of the animated version is “The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told”. While the analogy between the two is not completely accurate, Nina Paley writes on the film’s website how she relates to the story: “I’m just an ordinary human, who also can’t make her marriage work. And the way that it fails is uncannily similar to the way Rama and Sita’s [relationship fails]. Inexplicable yet so familiar. And the question that I 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’.”

The 82-minute film, which broadly has Valmiki’s Ramayana as its premise, has been creatively rendered from Sita’s perspective. Its tongue-in-cheek irreverence is already attracting serious criticism, but it cannot be denied that the film provides a different way for people who are unfamiliar with the feminist tellings of the Ramayana to understand this epic. The film begins with a series of Hindu gods, including Lakshmi and Vishnu (whose avatars are Sita and Rama respectively), dancing to techno-funk music accompanying the credits. This slightly unusual portrayal of gods sets the tone for the rest of the film. Vishnu lounges on his snake bed while the many-armed goddess Lakshmi massages his feet. (At the end of the film the roles are reversed with Vishnu massaging Lakshmi’s feet.)



Nina Paley, the director.

The film uses four animation techniques to construct the narrative of the Ramayana while there are two separate stories being told with a similar theme – the inexplicable breaking up of relationships. The first brief story is of Nina Paley’s seemingly failing relationship with her husband which is spliced with a shortened version of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. There are some flaws in the technique of storytelling, with the plot meandering at times. Some people might also find unnecessary the casual dialogue indulged in by the three South-East Asian shadow play figures who try to piece together the Ramayana applying modern rational and gender-relation notions to the fantastic tale. The result is an irreverent, but fairly interesting, presentation of the Ramayana. There is also an empathetic understanding of the characters of Sita and Ravana, while Rama’s attitude towards his devoted wife is shown to be inexplicably harsh.

Sita’s lip-synching of jazz songs, originally sung by the early 20th century American jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, is used by Nina Paley to highlight Sita’s feelings; they also form the high point of this film. An example is when Sita is accepted by Rama after she goes through her trial by fire and comes back to Ayodhya with him. As his subjects continue to cast aspersions on Sita’s chastity and Rama becomes more aloof from Sita, she sings, “You always scold me whenever somebody is near, dear/ It must be great fun to be mean to me, you shouldn’t/ Oh can’t you see what you mean to me? Sweetheart I love you, think the world of you, but I’m afraid that you don’t care for me/ You never show it, don’t let me know it, everyone says I’m a fool to be pining the whole day through. Why do you act like you do?”

Feminist tellings

This latest interpretation of the Ramayana is interesting because in most popular renditions of this epic, Sita’s aspect of the story is glossed over and her altruistic behaviour vis-a-vis her relationship with Rama is lauded as the epitome of female conduct. Nina Paley’s version, which gives primacy to Sita’s feelings and emotions, is not in any way pioneering.


In an article titled “Lady Sings the Blues: When Women retell the Ramayana” in the journal Manushi, Nabaneeta Dev Sen writes of the many versions of the Ramayana written by women, including the Telugu Ramayana written by Molla and the Bengali Ramayana written by Chandrabati in the 16th century. Molla’s narrative is through the traditional eyes of the male epic poet, and as a sudra and a woman she subverts the literary tradition by writing a perfectly classical Ramayana, a task that was considered the exclusive dominion of male Brahmin court poets. Chandrabati, on the other hand, looks at the Ramayana through a woman’s eyes and critiques Rama from a woman’s perspective. According to Nabaneeta Dev Sen, these two were the first women to retell the Ramayana in their respective regional languages.

Nina Paley’s personal feminist visual reading of the Ramayana was made available as a free download on www.sitasingstheblues.com in February 2009 and has been screened at several film festivals. It is gaining several admirers across the virtual world. The film was made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License, allowing third parties to share the creative content for non-commercial purposes freely as long as the author of the content is attributed as the creator of the work.

Protests in cyberspace

Since February, as word began spreading about the film, a gradual online protest has been gathering steam. A group called the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti ( www.hindujagruti.org) is leading these protests in cyberspace. Demanding a complete ban on the movie and the initiation of legal action against “all those who have been involved in production and marketing of this derogatory act against the entire Hindu community of world”, the group has listed 15 points that it finds offensive. Many of these pertain to the animated representations of certain aspects of the story, but it is obvious that more serious problems exist with the presentation of Sita’s perspective.

Much of the common understanding of the epic was influenced by Ramanand Sagar’s television version. For 78 weeks in 1987-88, Sagar’s Ramayana dominated television space, helped by the fact that there was only one national television channel at that time. Conservative estimates about the viewership of the serial range between 60 million and 80 million. This version, scripted personally by Sagar, had run into some serious criticism for its depiction of Sita.


In an article in Seminar in February 1988, feminists Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon wrote: “Eternal mythologies like the Ramayana are revived and popularised via state-controlled media at the mass ‘entertainment’ level, and the negative values they convey regarding women find more than adequate reflection in textbooks and children’s literature at the ‘education’ level. With Sita as our ideal, can sati (widow-burning) be far behind? It is this overarching ideology of male superiority and female dispensability that sanctions sati and leads to its glorification, and accepts the silent violence against women that rages in practically every home across the country.”

The historian Romila Thapar wrote in the January 1989 issue of Seminar that the television serial Ramayana reflected the concerns of “the middle class and other aspirants to the same status” and the pervasive impact of the serial would lead to a marginalisation of other versions. In her critique she said: “The Ramayana does not belong to any one moment in history for it has its own history which lies embedded in the many versions which were woven around the theme at different times and places.”

Romila Thapar, a respected scholar of ancient Indian history, says in her book Early India that the “…conflict between Rama and Ravana probably reflects an exaggerated version of local conflicts, occurring between expanding kingdoms of the Ganges plain and the less sedentary societies of the Vindhyan region”. This explanation offered by her might perhaps explain how history and mythology coalesce in this case.

Sagar’s Ramayana also introduced, according to Ramachandra Guha in his book India After Gandhi, “…subtle changes in this pluralistic and decentralised religion [Hinduism], long divided into sects, each worshipping different deities, lacking a holy book, a unique and singular god, or a single capital of the faith”. The subtle change was a veering towards congregational Hinduism, which Guha says “…contributed enormously to the VHP’s [Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s] movement to ‘liberate’ the birthplace of Ram[a]. Hitherto one of the many gods worshipped by Hindus, Ram[a] was increasingly being seen, courtesy of the serial on television, as the most important and glamorous of them all.”

Among the more recent versions of the Ramayana is the one by Ashok K. Banker, who is writing a six-volume version of the epic. Written in a saucy and racy style, Banker’s rendition of the Ramayana reads like a fast-paced thriller. While keeping Valmiki’s Ramayana as its premise, Banker freely rewrites the tale for a modern audience. There are some problems with his work as he indulges in anachronisms.

In Sita Sings the Blues, there are some factual errors (for example, the narrators say that the Mughals were ruling India in the 14th century when Babur did not win the first Battle of Panipat until 1526) and the plot meanders, but it is interesting because it is a new, modern version of an epic that has seen thousands of tellings. Writing the introduction to his easy-to-read prose version of Kamban’s Ramayana published in 1972, R.K. Narayan said, “It may sound hyperbolic, but I am prepared to state that almost every individual among the five hundred millions [Narayan wrote this in 1971] living in India is aware of the story [Ramayana] in some measure or other.”

The tale has pervaded the consciousness of people living across Asia and easily stands out as one of the world’s greatest epics. Earlier, litterateurs used to write versions of the Ramayana in the dominant literary traditions of their times; for example, Kamban’s Ramayana runs to 10,500 stanzas with modern annotations running into six parts, with each part being of a thousand pages.

With the growth of the mass media and the shortening attention span of the public in mind, Andy Warhol, the American artist, predicted in 1968 that “in the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes”. Nina Paley’s version must be recognised, as a modern American version of an epic though it would be the 301st or the 3,001st rendition.

Romila Thapar wrote in 1989: “The appropriation of the story by a multiplicity of groups meant a multiplicity of versions through which the social aspirations and ideological concerns of each group were articulated. The story in these versions included significant variations which changed the conceptualisation of character, event and meaning.” Ramanujan’s article discusses some of these many versions: Kamban’s Iramavataram, a Tamil literary account incorporating South Indian material; Jain tellings, which provide a non-Hindu perspective on familiar events; a Kannada folktale that suggests that Sita was Ravana’s daughter; the Ramakirti performed in Thailand, which has nothing in common with any Indian version.

As societies have discovered their own Ramayana, Nina Paley’s film also, with all its flaws and limited research, is the result of her personal engagement with the futility of her relationship. It is only when an epic is told and retold, and especially one as nuanced as the Ramayana, that its literary immortality is established. Even Mohammed Iqbal, the poet-philosopher whom many credit with laying the intellectual foundation for Pakistan, was not immune from the effect of the Ramayana and was a great admirer of Rama. One of his nazms is titled “Imaam-e-Hind” and a couplet from it goes: “Hai Ram ke wajud pe Hindustan ko naaz/ Ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain usko imaam-e-Hind” (Hindustan is proud of Ram’s existence/ Discerning minds consider him the leader of the land). •



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