‘Sita Sings the Blues’

Ever seen Hanuman pluck a double bass? Animator Nina Paley has created a witty, ’20s jazz musical version of the Ramayana, Sita Sings the Blues (via Turbanhead). Her lovely, highly stylized characters evoke Betty Boop, Amul Butter ads and Ghee Happy, and Sita is voiced by ’20s blues singer Annette Hanshaw.

Watch the clips or, if the site is slow, see the end of the post to download.

This animation’s original title seems to have been The Sitayana. Like Anna’s feminist neologism, ‘Herstory,’ Paley had replaced Rama with Sita in the title. And she goes even further: Sita has the only speaking part in the entire animation. Rama is strong but silent, a Ken doll and essentially decorative, the inverse of most action flicks. But Paley stays reasonably faithful to the original text. Her Sita is still a maiden in distress rather than a Shrek-like princess-ninja.

Paley also inverts the Moulin Rouge formula. Instead of desi music in an American tale, she uses ’20s American music (one song even includes the banjo) in a quintessentially desi story. Her soundtrack choice is a classy touch; imagine someone doing a version like hip-hop Shakespeare, using Justin Timberlake as the soundtrack.

Shudder.

The fountains of rakshasa blood in part 1 are reminiscent of Kill Bill and anime. Paley makes excellent bhangra choices in the closing credits, and the dancing god is very cool, although the Medusa hair is really more of a Greek thing. The music-synchronized motion is lovely, from the high-stepping crescent moon to Hanuman’s dance. I’m also partial to her version of the golden deer.

However, using only music and no dialogue gets in the way of the narrative, you may need to already be familiar with the story to get it. And the art style gets repetitive after awhile – it’s not Paley’s fault, but I’m becoming bored with highly geometric, computer-assisted art.

Paley is looking for a desi remix artist:

Any chance you folks are tuned into… [the] desi music scene in NY? I’m desperately seeking a composer/remixer to do remixes and additional music for “Sita Sings the Blues.” Please let me know!

You can download the clips below using BitTorrent (get a downloader: Windows, Mac).

28 thoughts on “‘Sita Sings the Blues’

  1. This is just fantastic. I hope Paley gets loads of success. If she cant find anyone in NYC to do desi tunes for her she should try in England.

  2. I’ve only seen the first one, but the song…. won’t …. leave…. my …. head

    Very cute.

    I don’t think she wants to put desi tunes to it, I think the cross-cultural vibe is what she’s going for

  3. I don’t think she wants to put desi tunes to it…

    Maybe she wants new ones for the end credits, where she’s using bhangra.

  4. There are many talented and aspiring brown producers/composers right here in the US who could do the musical job for Nina.. why outsource it to the UK? I contacted TH and they are forwarding my info to Nina. You should really check out aishanimusic dot com (disclaimer: this is my website).

    No more shameless self-promotion, I promise. ;-)

  5. Really great stuff – I’m going to bore my friends to death with this here in Dublin… A beautifully nuanced act of heartfelt cultural cannibalism and witty postmodern regurgutation. Looking forward to further work from this very talented lady.

  6. Thanks everyone for the nice comments, and sepiamutiny for the added exposure. Simp, I love this one: “A beautifully nuanced act of heartfelt cultural cannibalism and witty postmodern regurgutation.” I want to use it in my promotions (is there a name other than “simp” to which I can attribute it?). I understand this project treads a fine line between entertainment and offense – one offended viewer just posted a complaint on my web site, so I really appreciate the positive responses.

  7. Nina, the animation is just incredible! You have managed to combine the right music with incredible timing and humor. I hope you do the entire Ramayana and if possible the Mahabharat too as shorts.

  8. I admire how much work Nina’s put into this and how different the Ramayana looks. It’s fabulous to hear Sita’s take, and can’t help but recall a bunch of hindi songs from the early 90s when heroine would sing love songs to hero in the forest. Lovely track, lovely animation. It’s just beautiful.

    For music, well, this isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, but there’s a group of graphic designers in Mumbai – called ‘Grandmother’ – who moonlight as a drum-and-bass thingmajig called Bhavishyawani (sic). Anyway, here’s their address; they might be worth a look. All the best! http://www.grandmotherindia.com

  9. Iam unable to download the torrent files even with a torrent client.There are some errors found while connecting to your website.Please check out. Thank You

  10. Nina:

    Apologies to the mods and supervisors in advance for finding a temporary loophole to continue this discussion, rest assured this will be my final contribution, and I only do so because Nina has asked a very important question in a sincere way, and I consider myself one of the aforementioned “race analysts.”

    I said your ideas are “decades-old” because these ideas are no longer new and radical – they’re mainstream. With the exception of people who rely on the Fox Network for their news,

    It comes back to perception. It’s as if we’re two billionaires discussing our hedge funds and you say, “Well, yes with the exception of people who live paycheck to paycheck, most people can decide whether to increase their shares in holding A vs holding B.”

    As a white woman who has taken more than a cursory interest in another culture (something a bit more sophisticated than, “Oh my gosh! I love Samosas!”) , you are very very much in the minority. I’m afraid to say it, but what you consider mainstream.. really isn’t. Most people do rely on the Fox Network for news.

    When you bring race into a critique, you’re not actually enlightening anyone who never considered race.

    Because not considering race is a privelage, most whites don’t consider race because they never had to. And personally, I’d have the same comments for an Indian artist producing the same “controversial” material. But, as a white woman more whites will be receptive to your art as a source of information about Indian culture, in particular for the “shock value” associated with it. It’s all a matter of distribution.

    Do you think that, if white artists thought more about their white privilege, they wouldn’t make art that offends you?

    Again, it’s all about distribution. Even if you do not consider your race, it plays a factor in how it’s received, perceived, and in the end, distributed. And I know its hard to conceive, as many whites think, “all that influence from little ol’me ?”

    But it’s this very dissemination that motivates any offense taken. People (like me) personally don’t have a problem with your artistic expressions, because they know the truth or at least the “socially accepted majority opinion.”

    People take offense because they fear others who don’t know the truth will only have this sample point regarding a culture they hold as sacred. And it’s not that we “own” the Ramayana or Mahabharata, but lets face it, you and other whites can stop being “Indian” whenever you please. Subconsciously, we feel you have very little to lose. No one walking accross the street from you will ever think you eat monkey brains or worship penis chopping gods.

    The power and privelage is nothing to feel “guilty of” or anything like that, but it’s something us “race analysts” would hope you’d at least be aware of, especially as you become more of a household name and your art does extend into these “uninformed circles.” (if indeed it’s your intention)

    I look at the Eminem example. A white man, in what’s probably the most hostile artistic environment against white men. He proved himself, totally blew up, but always made clear (either explicitly or implicitly) his reverance to the Black origins of his chosen art, that without those origins, he’d be nothing. (In particular, by his involvement and support of the group D12)

  11. This link http://www.berlinale.de/en/programm/berlinale_programm/datenblatt.php?film_id=20081891 shows that the complete full-length version of “Sita Sings the Blues” received its world premiere screening at the 58th Annual Berlin International Film Festival in Germany this week. It looks like a fun and clever film. I have two teenage daughters who would probably enjoy it. Hopefully it will be screening in Manhattan soon. Anyone know anything about it?

  12. It’s perfectly acceptable for Bollywood to steal american culture and material. Japanese anime artists constantly use american culture and references as well. However have a caucasian draw an indian story as a cartoon (which btw has been drawn before as a cartoon) and it’s racist somehow?
    The people complaining about this work are most likely the same individuals that go about honor killing their children.

  13. I also criticize Indian artists who make fun of American culture. I did not like it when a film like Hanuman-2 shows the statue of liberty and other American monuments being shattered and rebuild in Indian style. So I have the right to criticize a white woman who choses to portray my culture in the wrong way. As a designer, I just love her style and character designs – the overall look and feel-the colors – it’s all great! But I cannot shut my eyes to the casual-portrayal of Hindu mythology just because she wanted to relate to the story. For those American desis who are supporting her film – Do you even understand the meaning of Ramayana? It’s not just about a Prince’s wife being taken away and the rescuing stuff…that was an entirely different era called sat-yug, where the image of a king was more important than his own personal relationship – where laws were laws and following them was called ‘mariyada’. Things are different now, we cannot bring the same story in today’s context. It’s like how we have divided literature or art into eras, the same mythology had it’s eras. Taking any example and putting it in today’s context, that too just to vent out your own personal frustration – is absolutely wrong.

    I like ‘Sita sings the blues’ in terms of it’s artistic values, but i dislike it for the casual use of Hindu mythology content. Did anybody notice that she has portrayed ‘mother earth’ as nude? those circles make good design elements, but where is the level of decency when dealing with somebody else’s culture?? don’t point fingers at khajuraho where we find similar images of our gods – it had a different history and different purpose. OPEN YOUR EYES fellows! We should not be liberal at the cost of letting anybody portray our culture without using their brains.

  14. The torrent is gone. Please, someone — anyone — create a new one and get it “spread around”. The tyranny of unreasonable copyright restrictions has put a stranglehold on this film which can only be broken by the sheer power of underground massive sharing. Lawsuits, threats, cease-and-desist orders, will not stop the power of a well-seeded torrent spread across multiple public trackers.

    I haven’t seen the film yet, only the clips floating around out there… Help me out =)

  15. Sita Sings the Blues is going to be broadcast on New York PBS station WNET Channel 13 on Saturday March 7 at 10:45pm on the series Reel13.

  16. I just finished watching the Independent Spirit Awards and just found out about Sita Sings the Blues. As an artist and a lover of Hindu and Indian art, I have to see this film. The stills above are gorgeous and rendered beautifully. I am also a blues lover and am totally intrigued by this. Have to rent the dvd!

    Michelle :)

  17. To Sonia Gaud; I’m sorry that you feel offended by the Nina’s work; but unfortunately I’m offended that you’re offended by it!! Ha ha, but jokes aside, I think its a wonderful use of mythology to illustrate one’s own life story; I grew up with the ramayana, (and mahabharat to boot!) and I’ve never tired of looking at re-tells. However, I think it is wrong to impose your own reading or perception of the story unto others; and criticize their interpretation of it….how would you know that the gods are always clothed? Do you think they care if they were clothed or not? Do you honestly believe that they have such a fragile sense of modesty that the mere display of their nude images or accentuated breasts is enough to offend them? Why are you so offended by mother earth being naked? Isn’t it what she is already? I say this because so much of our art and culture is enriched by different viewpoints, different interpretations and I think its very sad if we start castigating anyone else who attempt to introduce new ideas and concepts into this rich fabric. I say this because not only is this an isolated case, anger against brilliant artists like M.F. Husain are also equally misguided; if you cared to look carefully at his art, you would not find an reason to feel insulted, in fact I find his work full of reverence and respect and appreciation. By covering up our gods, we do not honor them; much like forcing a woman to wear a burqa honors her…..Hinduism’s greatest gift to the world is acceptance and absorption of different cultures and ideas, and to break that great tradition is perhaps the greatest insult I could think of…

  18. Did anybody notice that she has portrayed ‘mother earth’ as nude? those circles make good design elements, but where is the level of decency when dealing with somebody else’s culture?? don’t point fingers at khajuraho where we find similar images of our gods – it had a different history and different purpose.

    Dayum, Khajaraho was on the tip of my fingers. But yeah, it was a different time and purpose, and now is a new time and purpose and Nina has made her animation to fit her time and purpose.

    There is no time like the present. And there is no present like now. That’s why it’s a gift, er, is that how the saying goes?

    OM

  19. I think the film has amazing graphic style which is inspiring. Hinduism has survived for so many years only because we have been open minded towards various opinions/ visualizations of gods and goddesses. I am working on my thesis project which is also very stylized and music-based like ‘Sita Sings the Blues’.