Reframing Sita through Western eyes

Recently Dave and I watched Nina Paley’s animated documentary Sita Sings the Blues. Alba is familiar with the story of the Ramayana, and especially this part, the part that tells of Sita’s abduction and the battle that took place to avenge Rama’s loss. The story is part of Alba’s heritage, and I’m glad that she knows it; it’s one of the important stories of Hinduism.

I talked about the documentary with Alba yesterday. We happened to be in the car with her little Christian cousin.

“Do you know about Sita?” Alba asked her.

“No?”

“Oh, you don’t? Sita is this totally beautiful princess that was stolen by Ravanna and his giants, and her husband Rama had to come and rescue her, and he came with an army of monkeys led by Hanuman, and the giants set fire to Hanuman’s tail but he just used his tail to burn down Ravanna’s castle.”

I admit that it was totally cute to hear Alba’s take on the story.

Sita Sings the Blues is an interesting interpretation of the myth. The story is directed and animated by Nina Paley, a white woman, which is important to note because it reveals that she is not originally of this culture. Paley points out the great injustice that Rama does to Sita when he continues to question her purity of heart and body after her abduction. Sita undergoes a trial by fire to prove her purity, but this is not enough. When she is pregnant, Rama overhears a launderer saying, “Unlike our king, I will not take back an impure woman,” and because of this, kicks pregnant Sita into exile.

Throughout all of this, Sita remains faithfully committed to Rama, bringing up his twin sons during exile until Rama takes them back.

It is a sad story, and the two halves of my culture are at war in my head about it. On the one hand, it’s clearly unjust and unfair to make Sita prove her purity over and over again. On the other hand, the story is a cultural artifact embedded in the beliefs of its time (beliefs that still persist in various places in the world).

The original myth glorifies Sita’s steady faithfulness, and paints an honest picture of Rama as an exemplar of Chandler’s “best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” Rama had to successfully rule a country, and in his culture, that meant that his woman was not his priority. Still, I find it interesting that the myth has never sugarcoated his treatment of Sita. Perhaps the myth was a critique of the culture of the time?

Nina Paley’s documentary interprets Sita as a 1940s lounge singer, fitting torch songs to adorable animations and allowing these to narrate much of the story. This device creates a feeling of timelessness, showing that ridiculous life choices motivated by love are rife in all cultures.

One small jarring note: Three narrators help tell the tale. They are depicted by Southeast Asian Ramayana shadow puppets, and at first I couldn’t fit the Southeast Asian visual elements into the East Asian tale. “But wait, those are not from the right Asian culture.” But then I realized that it didn’t matter, the tale itself has spread throughout Asia, and the documentary is an intentional hodgepodge of cultural imagery.

All in all, I’m grateful that I can watch something relevant, interesting, and modern about my heritage.

You can watch it for free at Paley’s movie site, here, and you can support Nina Paley’s artistic work, here.