Sita Sings the Blues, Just for You

Roger Ebert calls it an “astonishing original” and something that has him “smiling from one end of the film to the other.” I am of course talking about Nina Paley’s animated film Sita Sings the Blues. A project of passion, Nina has worked on this film on and off over the past five years. The Mutiny has followed Nina’s progress over the past few years of development and finally, her Sita Sings the Blues is finished in it’s entirety.

On Saturday March 7th, if you have access to WNET NY Channel 13, set your TiVo for 10:45 because Sita Sings the Blues will be broadcasted. Not in NY? Not to worry, the film can be watched fully online streamed from the Reel 13 Blog right now and will be available to download in various forms on March 7th from the site.Sita Sings the Blues Poster.jpg

What exactly is Sita Sings the Blues? I got to watch the full movie this weekend and it’s…. well it’s…well a cartoon, I guess? But it’s like, wow….and unlike any cartoon I’ve ever seen. And a musical… and there is dancing, and blood. And puppets, really funny puppets. With four different parallel stories. About Sita. Hmm…I’m at a loss for words. Nina Paley calls her movie, “…a personal, musical, animated interpretation of Sita’s story in the Ramayana set to old American jazz and blues by Annette Hanshaw.” But really, it’s so much more than that.

I got the chance to catch Nina before she flew off to Vienna for an animation conference. Just for you, an exclusive interview with the writer, director, animator, and producer of Sita Sings the Blues, Nina Paley:

I’ve heard you say in the past that this story was developed after you yourself experienced heartbreak. In a very stark way, you placed yourself as an animated character in the final product. In one part of the film, the animated version of you is in black lingerie trying to get your husband to take notice of you. Why did you make the movie so personal when you had the option of not?

I was making the Sita segments to tell my story. In real life, when I explained that, people were at least as interested in what happened to me….so the autobiographical bits serve as a built-in FAQ. Might as well put that into the film itself, instead of just the inevitable press kit.

It was a very personal project from the beginning. Including the autobiographical bits emphasizes that. 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.

Sita Sings Blues on Bed.jpgHas your Rama, your ex-husband Dave, seen the movie? How does he feel about his broken marriage being displayed on the ‘big screen’ like that?

He saw an almost-finished work-in-progress. I think he understands it’s my side of the story, from my point of view, about my feelings. I didn’t aim to speak for him, only for me. After viewing it he told a friend of mine he was “relieved.” I tried to focus on myself and my feelings; I still don’t understand why either of us behaved the way we did in real life, and I don’t think he knows either. I like the ambiguity of the Ramayana for that reason. It doesn’t explain why the characters behave as they do; only that they do.

A big part of your animation process involved the screening of clips of the movie to the internet community throughout your filmmaking process. What once started as an animated short is now a full fledged film. How have your thoughts evolved since you first started putting clips from the film online five years ago? You often got slammed by angry responses to the clips. How do you think that has shaped your thinking and the film?

It sure gave me a lot to think about during the production. It honed my philosophy. I wrote a bit about it as I went along, like this.

I learned more about Indian politics. At first I took every bait that came my way, but once my blog was overwhelmed by Hindutvadi trolls, I learned to ignore them. I also engaged in some thoughtful dialogs with critics, back when I had time. We never changed each others’ minds, but got better at articulating our points of view. All the online reaction continues to teach me about detachment. I can get just as attached to praise as to criticism; it’s up to me whether I’ll let it dominate my life.

Sita Sings the Blues Cast of Gods.jpg

My two favorite sequences are the musical montage of the opening where two gods are sailing through the sky…

That’s actually Vishnu and Laxmi, of whom Rama and Sita are said to be avatars. The very beginning of the film is Laxmi rising form the Eternal Waters, listening to a broken record. Spinning records, cycling Yugas, it’s all about cycles….

…as well as the dancing woman during the scene of heartbreak…

The dancing woman in that heartbreak scene, which I call Agni Pariksha, is Reena Shah, whom I videotaped and rotoscoped.

…What inspired you to mix up the animation styles?

Fear of boredom, mostly. But also to hint at what a wealth of visual traditions are associated with the Ramayana. I barely scratched the surface.

You also added some contemporary artists a contrast to the 1920s jazz music. How did you pick/find these musicians and decide to include them in the film?

Todd Michaelsen was engaged (now married) to Reena Shah, who played the speaking role of Sita. He ended up creating the title music and Agni Pariksha which Reena sang… Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose modern jazz graces the modern scenes, was my downstairs neighbor in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn…Rohan (“Rama’s Great” and “Burnt Sugar,” the music in the trailer) was recommended to me by Sank Sury, who I met at a Sepia Mutiny meetup. Nik Phelps, who did the “Intermission” music, was a collaborator of mine from San Francisco who since moved to Belgium. Masala Dosa is a French band who found me online and traded their CD to use in “Sita” for some animation to use in a music video. Their sound was perfect, and they – like the other collaborators – are the sweetest most wonderful people you could hope to meet. They’re all geniuses.

Sita Sings the Blues Puppet.jpgI loved the narration of by the black shadow puppets between each of the scenes…

The designs are based on Ramayana shadow puppets from Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and India.

…They had what sounded like very real dialogue – they were talking over each other and correcting each other. How much of that was scripted?

None – it was completely unscripted, 100% real.

Here’s how I got them all in the studio: I met Manish Acharya (Loins of Punjab Presents) through Manish Vij…I guess Manish V told Manish A to check out Sita, and then Manish A asked me to do animation for a Loins music video, and part of the payment was he’d let me record an interview.

Aseem Chhabra had written about me and Sita and I bumped into him at the Loins of Punjab screening. I asked if he’d lend his voice to an interview and he said yes. He actually met Manish the day of the recording – he interviewed him that morning for an article. They sound like best friends who have known each other forever, and they’re great friends now, but they’d just met that morning.

Bhavana Nagaulapally I met at a play reading of Anuvab Pal… Apparently, I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was the only white woman in the audience, and she asked, “are you Nina Paley?” She had a great voice, and I asked if she’d consent to the interview too. I didn’t know if she would – luckily she showed up, and was awesome, and the rest is history.

I was surprised when I was able to watch the film in its entirety online. Usually when films are made, you watch it in the theater or buy the DVD. Why are you opting to stream your film fully online? You mentioned that “Sita is in copyright jail and needs $43,000” on your blog – is the online release of the film related?

Sita Sings the Blues Flying.jpg

Yes. The whole struggle with our broken copyright system turned me into a Free Culture activist. I’m actually going to release all my old “Nina’s Adventures” and “Fluff” comics under a Share Alike (copyleft) license too. I saw what happened to Annette Hanshaw’s beautiful recordings: they got locked up so no one could hear them. I didn’t want that to happen to my film. My first concern is Art, and Art has no life if people can’t share it.

This is actually a very big subject. I’ve written a lot about it on my blog, including: Your Children are Not Your Children, Sita’s Distribution Plan, The Nina’s Adventure in Copyleft Project, Watch Me Go On and On and On About Copyright, Fairies are Forever, Copyright Was Designed By Distributors, Lessons Wrong and Right, and Free Culture.

It seems like you have been forced to take an alternative route to get your film out there. Where has it been screened? What’s in the future for Sita Sings the Blues?

The complete screening list is here. Giving Sita to the audience, its life is only beginning. As I wrote, “Like all culture, it belongs to you already….From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.” I’m excited to see what happens next.

How has your film been received, in particular the South Asian community as well as the Hindu community? What are the responses you’ve heard from viewers?

Oh my! I’ve gotten a LOT of love, and it means a lot to me. For example, here’s a great letter. There’s lots of discussion in the blogosphere, more than I could encapsulate here.

Do you feel like you were able to put your heartbreak to rest after the completion of this film?

Yes! Thank you Valmiki!

What next for Nina Paley?

Hopefully a bunch of shorts about Free Speech, which we’re currently calling Minute Memes. I’m all about the Free Speech/Free Culture right now.

Sita Sings the Blues Nina.jpg

And now: my big heartfelt thanks to Sepia Mutiny, whose discovery of the Sita work-in-progress changed my life. When I started Sita I hardly knew any Indians in New York, and was just blindly following my muse.

Sepia Mutiny (and Turbanhead and later Ultrabrown) connected the project with 1st- and 2nd-gen desis online and in real life. Manish Vij’s anti-Apu tirades bolstered my decision to avoid fake accents (even the super-stilted scripted dialog is performed by 2nd-gen desi actors, whose quasi-historical “Indian” accents are informed by their relatives). Sepia Mutiny is how I found Bhavana and, indirectly, Rohan. Thanks to Anna John, I’ll never misspell “Gandhi” again.

Also, when the hate mail came pouring in, there were always voices on Sepia Mutiny who remained intelligent and kind. The Hindutvadis wanted me to believe they alone spoke for “Indians” and “Hindus”; Sepia Mutiny and sites like it confirmed they did not. Not by a long shot.

Thanks, Nina

Thank YOU, Nina. You can watch Sita Sings the Blues online, and to follow the film’s progress you can visit www.sitasingstheblues.com. To read more of Nina’s writing, please visit her blog.

This entry was posted in Animation by Taz. Bookmark the permalink.

About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates MutinousMindState.tumblr.com and blogs at TazzyStar.blogspot.com. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar

156 thoughts on “Sita Sings the Blues, Just for You

  1. That tacky Sunday morning Ramanand Sagar spectacle with Technicolor cardboard sets, cheesy sound effects, and sparkling arrows and chakras which made the production values of Sports Hour on Doordarshan almost seem Spielberg-esque in comparison.

    Saivite, I have played Ravana in neighborhood Ramlilas in times past, a very fulfilling experience. It is the entertainment value that counts. Ask any old lady who did aartis of the telly screen when the serial was on. I believe that it served it’s purpose at a specific time and place. The teenagers already consider it a cult classic in the ironical way that you mention. The next one will perhaps be aesthetically superior.

  2. I know Nina Paley in real life. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her (and grabbing her kundi at a meetup)

    Does anna swing both ways ? If so how does that blend with her strong religious beliefs. More seriously, as a “outstanding” Catholic I find that intrusions into a religion that is not your own (either by birth or conversion) is not a relaxed expedition. As one who has read the original Kamba Ramayanam (in Tamil), SSTB is one more narrative to the river. Whether it will be more popular than others only time will tell.

    but the white lady’s obsession with Hindu gods and goddesses is a little creepy. hey, the ladiez don’t call me mahalingam for nothin’

    best comment so far :)

  3. 102 · melbourne desi said

    Does anna swing both ways

    Only with hermaphrodite monkeys. Our ex-intern has filed a sexual harassment suit, much to no one’s surprise.

  4. “However, there are several “sampradayas” in India that DO have very old and rich tradition of textual analysis.”

    One Vaishnav – this rich tradition of textual analysis (and argumentation) that you are referring to relates to epistemological matters. It has nothing to do with the puranas, i.e., the Ramanyana, Mahabharata, and the rest of the compilation of stories. In epistemological matters, this sort of analysis is appropriate and only one view can prevail, that is, whichever one provides the richest explanation of the nature of reality. Now you may counter this with the fact that there are 6 different schools of hindu philosophy, plus the tantras, plus buddhism and jainism, all with a slightly different take. This is because language ultimately is not an adequate tool to describe physical reality and these differences will occur. This has nothing to do with faith or lack of respect.

    As for the sampradyas, gurus, etc. who do discuss stories, there are differences in their emphasis based on caste, region and a whole host of factors. Besides – wild guess – but at least 50% of hindus never go to any of these things. They simply read or hear or watch the story.

    Why should stories be about interpretation anyway? Why can’t they simply be regarded as units of learning? So one learns to be a valiant warrior, a dutiful wife etc. BUT, one also learns that a little trickery is sometimes necessary, and that the wife can tell the husband that she’s had enough and being swallowed up by the earth is better than being with him. Parents can hardly be expected to teach their children that a little trickery is fine, and here’s where stories come to the rescue. If you go the interpreation route (the western christian tradition) then you’re stuck with a normative form of morality. Christians have never been able to resolve why there is evil in this world when God is supposed to be perfect. If you want to present Rama as someone perfect, then you will never be able to come to terms with his conduct. But that’s not the worst part. If you hold perfection as the ideal, it will only result in guilt – something that the christian world has had to contend with.

  5. Does anna swing both ways

    Only with hermaphrodite monkeys. Our ex-intern has filed a sexual harassment suit, much to no one’s surprise.

    Funny and very pertinent to the conversation since we are discussing Ramayana. Two of the major players in the epic are Jambavan (the bear) and Bali (the primate). Both of whom had human wives. I’ve always wondered about that dynamic. Of course Jambavan and Bali are assumed to be half-human themselves because they do have abilities of reasoning and language, human discourse.

    Just a rhetorical question, OVO. Would you use these herbs/self help modalities if your life depended on it? or your loved ones’? Would you encourage an acquaintance to choose a herbal remedy over chemotherapy for a Lymphoma?

    Lupus Solitarius, I was just using “herbs” as an example of a “modality”. Anything that has not gotten the stamp of “scientific approval” is referred to as a “modality” or “model of possibility” in holistic circles.

    However, to answer your question, I know people who have been cured of diseases via eating an exclusively live, raw foods diet. Though neither raw foods nor cooked chemically processed “food”, nor herbs nor allopathic chemical medicines have anything to do with my “religious beliefs”, I have seen good results in my own health via live, raw foods.

    I also consume chemicals like midol when I need too. Whatever works.

    One Vaishnav – this rich tradition of textual analysis (and argumentation) that you are referring to relates to epistemological matters. It has nothing to do with the puranas, i.e., the Ramanyana, Mahabharata, and the rest of the compilation of stories

    Divya, if textual analysis has nothing to do with puranas then how would you explain the many different tikas (commentaries) written about the Bhagavat Purana? Again, each Vaishnava Sampradaya has their own and each are unique, but with overlapping similarities.

    As far as other comments about only people within a religious tradition or familiar with the original languages texts are written in should be able to analyse any given religious text, my own personal journey as been that I did not really start to analyse my own tradition until I read some of the analysis of the same by people outside of it.

    Again, that anti-Ramayana communist manifesto I picked up in a train station really got me thinking about interpreting my own tradition for a post-modern age.

    Til then I had relied on whatever medieval era tikas I had been exposed to, or to the intepretation of those tikas by people who came from a vastly different cultural background than myself. I started thinking about what does all this mean for ME on a personal, day to day level. If these texts and the lessons therein were truly UNIVERSAL as claimed, then that means that the lessons should be applicable to me and experiences in a post-modern world. Perhaps the very same stories would hold different lessons for me than they would someone who was coming from a different cultural background and mental space.

    Hearing the views of people outside my tradition got me out of the box.

    Christians have never been able to resolve why there is evil in this world when God is supposed to be perfect. If you want to present Rama as someone perfect, then you will never be able to come to terms with his conduct. But that’s not the worst part. If you hold perfection as the ideal, it will only result in guilt – something that the christian world has had to contend with.

    Divya, the point I was making with regards Rama as “maryada purushottam” is precisely that. Rama is indeed upheld as the “perfect king”, “supreme man” (purushottam). However, he could only be called so by people who deem what he did under his given circumstances as correct and dharmic. Coming from my post-modern feminist perspective, it was not. So then, as a Vaishnava, how do I “resolve” that?

    The Vaishnava tradition resolves many such issues concerning the behaviour of avatars via the concept of “lila”, or “divine play”. In fact, that is why so many commentaries have been written for the Bhagavat Purana, because there are alot of issues that need to be resolved.

    For an ordinary mortal to behave the way Rama did is not acceptable nor dharmic. But if you resolve the issue with the concept of “lila” (divine play) and the concept of a second “mayik” (illusory) Sita, then such moral issues will not result in one feeling “guilt” over the way their chosen Deity behaved.

  6. Saw the movie, it made somewhat of a spalsh on Boing Boing. I like animation, but this movie is just not entertaining. The annoying narrative in particular killed it for me.

    Pity the film maker had not just concentrated on making a polished film, concentrating on the music (which is’nt half bad) and the fantasy aspect. Instead we see a mixture of 50s cartoon scenes, interspersed with robot chicken like animation and a bad puppet show, with amazingly bad voice acting. At a time when movies like Waltz with Bashir are redefining animetion, Sita seems like a big step backward

    Ultimately, this looks like the cheap budget, “experimental” piece of Garbage that it is. Think of one of the average shorts on Adult Swim extended into a full lenght feature, and that is what you get in Sita.

  7. No disrespect to Nina but the white lady’s obsession with Hindu gods and goddesses is a little creepy.

    PAfD, would you say the same thing about Jindal and Catholicism? About a desi and Star Wars? About anyone and a really neat story that she can relate to?

  8. sigh…I just love Betty.

    That’s funny; I was looking up Boop history last night. I think she is really cute too; but then I love flapper style anyway.

  9. No disrespect to Nina but the white lady’s obsession with Hindu gods and goddesses is a little creepy.

    It’s not creepy. It just prooves the universiality of archetypal myths.

    Think Jung.

  10. 89 · saivite said

    i am hardly one to thrust my beliefs on another

    but please don’t be above thrusting your, er, mahalingam.

    you know, apparently, ravana the great saivite had an amazing mahalingam. so hanumana is scouring lanka to find sita, and he wanders into ravana’s pleasure chambers. he sees rooms of pleasured women tired, in various states of undress. hanuman averts his eyes, because he cannot see another man’s wives in this compromised state. ultimately, in the inner chamber, he sees ravana with yet another set of wives/concubines. there he realizes that ravana is a great big love machine responsible for the undressed ladies (he does have ten heads, yaar).

    that story just cracks me up. hanumana is averting his eyes all the time to avoid being a sinner, and yet he must check to see if sita is one of those women.

  11. and grabbing her kundi at a meetup

    vot? please be reserving your urges for hermaphrodite monkey interns only.

  12. Again, that anti-Ramayana communist manifesto I picked up in a train station really got me thinking about interpreting my own tradition for a post-modern age.

    What do you mean by “Post-modern age?” I don’t think I’ve talked to any two people who can actually give me the same definition of “post-modernism” as it pertains to philosophy. Mostly it described to me as what sounds like a bunch of new-agey, morally relativistic, “do whatever feels good” clap-trap. So it might help if I understood what exactly you were talking about.

    But beyond that, why should the Ramayana be shoe-horned into your “post-modern” philosophy? Why can’t your personal philosophy bend to be accepting of the Ramayana rather than the other way around? Maybe I am misreading you, but the way you’re describing this it sounds like you had a preconceived idea about how the world should be and when you noticed that the Ramayana didn’t fit that conception you decide to interpret it to suit your preconceived idea. That seems completely antithetical to personal spiritual growth. Instead of critically reexamining your own beliefs when confronted with something you respect that disagrees you chose to just reinterpret the Ramayana to have it not disagree with you?

  13. Why should stories be about interpretation anyway? Why can’t they simply be regarded as units of learning? So one learns to be a valiant warrior, a dutiful wife etc. BUT, one also learns that a little trickery is sometimes necessary,

    That question and it’s assumptions are precisely WHY interpretation is neccessary, Divya.

    First assumption: wife. That assumes that marriage is something good. That wife is a role to be coveted. That “dutiful” is a quality worth aspiring for as a wife if you even accept the paradigm concept of “marriage” to begin with.

    Because religious texts are products of the time and space they were written in (or first passed down orally in), some context needs to be established, some interpretation rendered, in order to make them relevant to contemporary enthusiasts of the same.

    Ramayana’s context is ancient, pre-modern South Asia.

    But I’m living in a post-modern globalized world, therefore, the values gleaned by me from the text will naturally be different than the values gleaned by people who first heard/read it in pre-modern South Asia. I may not even be able to relate to the idea of “dutiful wife” and hence, I need to interpret the texts for my own personal meaning.

    And hence the need for more and more interpretations as time passes.

  14. I do not have a problem with her film. But calling anyone who thinks that it is anti-religious a hindutvavadi requires chutzpah. But this lady has taken a woman scorned to new heights.

    Ms. Paley enjoy your 15 minutes. if you want to stretch it Ann Coulter can give a few pointers.

  15. But beyond that, why should the Ramayana be shoe-horned into your “post-modern” philosophy? Why can’t your personal philosophy bend to be accepting of the Ramayana rather than the other way around? Maybe I am misreading you

    I think you might be.

    I accept the Ramayana. But what I get out of it, due to my era/region/culture/conditioning, may (and often does) end up being something entirely different than what someone else gets out of it due to their era/region/culture/conditioning. Hence the concept of “interpretation”.

    I believe that the Ramayana crosses and transcends time/regions/cultures, but exactly how it does that – that is the discussion we are having!

    As far as “post-modern” terminology, here.

  16. The Vaishnava is Pardesi Gori, folks. Which doesn’t necessarily take away from her points on this thread.

  17. Why should stories be about interpretation anyway? Why can’t they simply be regarded as units of learning? So one learns to be a valiant warrior, a dutiful wife etc. BUT, one also learns that a little trickery is sometimes necessary,
    That question and it’s assumptions are precisely WHY interpretation is neccessary, Divya.

    Vaishnav – As long as there are people there will be interpretations. This does not really contribute to knowledge. Imo, you are looking at this issue through a chritianized lens, where interpretations are very important – because of xtianity’s claim to truth. Where there are no truth claims, only stories, interpretation can be considered superfluous, irrespective of human tendencies to interpret. Also, human beings do not act based on reasons and interpretations. They know what they’re going to do and then they fit reasons around this to justify their actions. Reason (and interpretation) is a secondary act, contrary to popular belief. Three-quarters of decision making goes on at a subconscious level. These are not meant to be knock-down arguments. Just pointing out that there are alternative ways of thinking and that people like you and the rest of the hindus who are steeped in multiple cultures always privilege the one and only way of thinking that is inherited from christianity. Interpret away all you want but do not point to tikas to support your arguments. Are you really going to swallow the lila angle with respect to ethical matters? Ugh. Lila is a beautiful explanation for other sorts of questions like “what is the purpose of this world?” Answer = nothing. More elegantly put = lila.

  18. I thought the film was wonderful, a beautiful blend of animation, music and narrative. In a weird way, it gave me more respect for Sita, who I have generally found to be a bit of a milquetoast (I tend to prefer the Draupadi school of interpersonal relations. Take that however you will ;) ). Yes, the writer was equating herself with Sita, in the context of parallels to her own personal situation: she used the story as inspiration/consolation for her own situation. I’m a little puzzled that anyone would find that unusual or laughable. The reason stories, whether fictional, mythological or front page plane landing on the Hudson news survive for more than a few days in the collective consciousness is because they have some intellectual and/or emotional resonance, based on our own experiences (we can approve, empathize or outright reject but if we are completely indifferent, chances are we’re not going to remember the story).

    However, I do understand concerns that the film may give a superficial one-dimensional gloss (“asshole husband ditches long suffering saintly wife and Hindus think he’s the bees knees!”) on a very complex story. I have a religious background which helps me put the film (and the empHAsis on certain sylLABles) in context. But to someone with little exposure to the story, there is a chance that things can veer into “chilled monkey brains” territory. However, I think the counter to that is not to suppress the story, but to call it out where inaccurate (Spielberg better visit my house with a big box of “I screwed up” chocolates) or use it as a launching pad for more discussion (explain to me how Ram’s treatment of Sita is any different from the still valid in some circles “Caesar’s wife must be above reproach” school of political thought?) and also have more stories offering other interpretations on all cultures–including one about Lot’s daughters–trust me, THAT’S a post-modern squick factor story for the ages. And seriously, any culture that accepts a narrative of an omnipotent god who demands that his merely mortal follower sacrifice his own child and then pulls a “psych!” with seconds to spare on the countdown clock is going to respond to the argument that stories need to be understood in context.

    I also do agree that in the North American context, much more mainstream credence is given to the idea that there is something more accurate about Judaic and Christian narratives with a lesser emphasis on Islam, as compared to other spiritual belief systems. Things are changing somewhat, but the basic distinction (truth vs. myth) is still there and anyone who disagrees probably hasn’t been paying much attention to the intelligent design movement framework. However, I believe that the imbalance is best addressed by pointing out that all the belief systems do not differ significantly in their supporting evidence, rather than suppressing someone from telling a story inspired by non Big 3 tradition.

  19. 45 · Amardeep said

    Why aren’t parting seas, burning bushes, talking serpents and virgin mothers referred to as ‘mythology’? They are mythology. All religions are based on stories told by human beings. That doesn’t take away from their potential power to move people. To call something a “story” or a “mythology” isn’t to take away from its potential spiritual power. It’s simply a way of describing narratives, especially ancient narratives, that don’t fit a modern historical paradigm and can’t be confirmed via empirical evidence.

    Calling religious decriptions of life as stories is a form of materialist arrogance.

  20. Imo, you are looking at this issue through a chritianized lens, where interpretations are very important – because of xtianity’s claim to truth

    I disagree witht that. I just assume that you are unfamiliar with what you call “hinduism’s” long and rich interpretive tradtion, like many people are. Your assumption that there had been no commentaries written on Puranas stated as much.

  21. Calling religious decriptions of life as stories is a form of materialist arrogance.

    It’s no more arrogant than calling them “lilas”. We need not get caught up in the linguistics when the 2 words mean more or less the same thing, but in different languages.

  22. I accept the Ramayana. But what I get out of it, due to my era/region/culture/conditioning, may (and often does) end up being something entirely different than what someone else gets out of it due to their era/region/culture/conditioning. Hence the concept of “interpretation”. I believe that the Ramayana crosses and transcends time/regions/cultures, but exactly how it does that – that is the discussion we are having! As far as “post-modern” terminology, here.

    What you’re doing isn’t interpretation. A work has a message (or multiple messages) embedded in it. The point of an interpretation is to discover what that (those) message(s) is (are). If you disagree with the message that’s fine. But what you’re doing seems to be imposing your own message onto the Ramayana. You’ve killed it, gutted it, and then sat it on your lap like a macabre puppet to keep repeating your pre-conceived opinion back to you.

    I’m really not seeing where you actually get any spiritual growth here when everything you read must be “reinterprted” to gel with opinions that you have already settled on.

  23. Yoga Fire, may I ask where you have read my interpretation of the Ramayana? I’ve not even written one! So you have no idea what I’ve gleaned from it, if anything.

  24. 124 · A Vaishnava’s Opinion said

    Calling religious decriptions of life as stories is a form of materialist arrogance.
    It’s no more arrogant than calling them “lilas”. We need not get caught up in the linguistics when the 2 words mean more or less the same thing, but in different languages.

    You missed the point I was trying to make. Amardeep’s comments dismiss the legitimacy of spiritual faith.

  25. Amardeep himself is a devout Sikh. Sikhs also have their own mythology, therefore I’m sure he is not out to dismiss the legitimacy of spiritual faith. “Myth” is just word. It does not mean “not true”. You can look it up. People get all bent out of shape over words, and oftentimes they don’t even know the meaning of those words.

  26. And that is why I now get why some (not all) of my Hindu friends are less than enthusiastic about SSTB. It may put me in the minority here, but I think those feelings of unease deserve to be accepted, not invalidated. Religion is such a personal, significant element of a believer’s life. It’s easy to be hurt or offended, and sometimes, it’s not easy to articulate why; a lot of the time, I understand why some of you feel intimidated to even try.

    Thank you, ANNA. I have not watched SSTB, and as such the idea of interpreting the Ramayana or the Mahabharata is not something new. The spirit in which it is done matters a great deal – so I will reserve judgement on SSTB till I actually see it. Its easy to say – it should not matter to you how other people view your religion. But it does. It matters especially when you are in a minority and people around you have a very limited view of your religion. It matters when you have to bring up your children in such an environment.

    I have watched funny / borderline offensive interpretations of Ramayana in India – but everyone in India knows the actual Ramayana and most people have an emotional relationship with it. You grow up hearing stories from the Ramayana – its a familiar part of your life and culture whether you choose to have a deeper connection with it or not. There is a certain context in which the epic is made fun of or challenged, which is important. I cringe every time I hear/read the phrase “monkey god” here. Obviously the person using such a phrase does not understand the faith and affection of the people at the little roadside Hanuman mandirs all over India. I am not saying that no non-indian person is capable of providing an alternative interpretation of the Ramayana, just that it is not just a piece of literature.

  27. just that it is not just a piece of literature.

    Well, it is not just a piece of literature to you. And it is very likely that it is not just a piece of literature for thousands or even millions of people, however, there are people existing for whom it is indeed just a piece of literature.

    We can only really speak for ourselves regarding what anything means to us.

    Is everyone around us obliged to think the same way we do or to nurture the same cultural/religo/socio/psycho sacred cows? No.

    This is what alot of religionists or culturalists fail to understand.

  28. Well, it is not just a piece of literature to you. And it is very likely that it is not just a piece of literature for thousands or even millions of people, however, there are people existing for whom it is indeed just a piece of literature.

    it is a matter of politeness that one does not encroach on another’s personal faith. faith is something that is neither explained nor can be explained. faith exists and perhaps the only evidence that it occupies space in one’s being is the feeling of hurt when articles of faith are expunged or twisted beyond one’s recognition.by another it is within your right to speak what you wish but what should or should not hurt is beyond your control in matters of faith.

    one is enriched by seeing with the other’s eye what is held precious by her and little to be gained by diminishing another’s faith for a personal whim. tread lightly. you will not be able to explain why it shouldnt hurt.

  29. “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” Truly, the man was a genius

  30. 126 · A Vaishnava’s Opinion said

    Yoga Fire, may I ask where you have read my interpretation of the Ramayana? I’ve not even written one! So you have no idea what I’ve gleaned from it, if anything.

    This is all in reference to you saying that you want to reevaluate the Ramayana from a “post-modernist” viewpoint whether the Ramayana supports it or not.

  31. one is enriched by seeing with the other’s eye what is held precious by her and little to be gained by diminishing another’s faith for a personal whim. tread lightly. you will not be able to explain why it shouldnt hurt.

    You are preaching to the choir here, Khoofia. Every “faith” that I have ever been exposed to gets due respect from me because there is not a single idea out there that I cannot learn from. I see the various manifestions of religion and ritual around the world to be expressions of excitement over the same underlying PRINCIPLE, ENTITY, LIFE SOURCE, ENERGY – whatever people call “God” these days.

    However, there are people around me who do not, and they don’t have to. We need to tread lightly in order not to become fanatics.

    This is all in reference to you saying that you want to reevaluate the Ramayana from a “post-modernist” viewpoint whether the Ramayana supports it or not.

    You’re misreading me Yoga Fire.

    I actually don’t invest alot of time into thinking about or evaluating the Ramayana because although Rama is an avatar of Vishnu/Krishna and I am a Vaishnava, still, the Ramayana is not a foundational text in my sect. Participating here on this site has been probably the most I’ve ever spent thinking about it. Rama Lila is narrated in my tradition but mostly in comparison to Krishna Lila, hence the distinction between “maryada purusottam” and “prem/lila purusottam”.

    My point is, that whatever narrative from ancient times we are dealing with, we need to put it into context in order to understand the psyche of the times.

    I thought I articulated that point well enough here.

    “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”

    This is especially true for the Krishna narrative!

  32. Ramayana’s context is ancient, pre-modern South Asia. But I’m living in a post-modern globalized world, therefore, the values gleaned by me from the text will naturally be different than the values gleaned by people who first heard/read it in pre-modern South Asia

    OVO I have only read the Valmiki, Tulsidas and Ashok Banker versions of the Ramayana. Undoubtedly, other versions may have insights that I am ignorant of. The reason that the Ramayana differs from a random ancient literary work is because it’s appeal is universal, making the time period of the reader kind of irrelevent. It might give you personal insights, but those insights remain similar between Tulsidas and Gandhi. The epitome of Maryada remains the same in the 5th or the 21st century. The ideal that Rama represents is the bedrock of hindu society. You do not even have to believe in it’s historical veracity. But of course, I also believe that the uttara kand was a later extrapolation.

  33. The epitome of Maryada remains the same in the 5th or the 21st century. The ideal that Rama represents is the bedrock of hindu society. You do not even have to believe in it’s historical veracity.

    As a Vaishnava, historical accuracy is less important to me than the lila of the narrative and it’s message.

    The historical timeline is irrelevant to me. I know that dating ancient texts and trying to place their contents in history or archeological finds is important to some people and many religionists seek to “validate” their faith via those means.

    I could care less rather there are any archeological finds “prooving” the existence of my Deity or not. The beauty in the whole thing for me is it’s mystery, it’s veil, the unknown of it all. Whether my myths can be scientifically proven or not is not what wakes me up in the morning to perform sadhana (practice).

    However, I will say this regarding maryada remaining the same throughout the ages. Sri Rama’s abandonement of Sita at the time of Her pregnancy (or at any time) is not what I would deem “maryada” according to my value system. That He did so proded by the opinion of a local man who’s wife came home late and he thus called her “Sita”, makes it even less so. The narration goes that Rama wanted to know what His subjects thought of His rule so He sent out a “spy” of sorts to roam around and gather a consenses by acting like a normal citizen and thus gaining privy to their thoughts via conversations both engaged in and overheard. He heard the dhobi say to his wife, “what? you are coming home late and you think I will take you in like that fool Rama who took back Sita?”

    So when the spy returns to Sri Rama and Rama inquires as to the general pulse of the populace, the spy relunctantly relayed this incident.

    Rama responded in a manner that was congruent with the ethos of the times.

    Fast forward to today and the same situation. Perhaps Rama would set about a campaign to spread awareness of victims’ rights, PTSS (post traumatic stress syndrome), gender bias (as opposed to gender roles) and all things related to the plight of kidnapped women and the stigma they may face upon rescue and return.

    Perhaps Rama would banish that dhobi-walla for his regressive thinking instead of banishing His wife. You see what I’m getting at here?

    The concept of “maryada” is very much time/culture/region dependent.

    According to the time/culture/region I was born in, I was unable to make out the “maryada” in Rama’s action in this particular incident regarding Sita until I analysed the particular time/culture/region that it took place in.

    So yeah, the concept of “maryada”, the concept of “righteousness”, and the concept of “dharma” is indeed present throughout the ages, but how maryada or righteousness or dharma is defined will change with the times and those definitions often become more refined, nuanced and detailed with age.

    For that time, what Rama did could be considered “maryada” when you analyse the situation in context of the times and culture. Would it be considered “maryada” now? Doubtful. Does that mean that the title of “maryada purusottam” is not deserved? It is deserved.

    But even 500 years ago within the Vaishnava tradition there was a question about the whole ethics of this very incident and it was “resolved” via the 2 concepts of “maya” and “lila”.

    So if 500 years ago in a small village in West Bengal such a question arose, then what to speak of the 21st century when the Ramayana has reached international shores?

    This is why interpretation is a LIVING tradition.

  34. Question: exactly what was the point of that bizzarre two minute “intermission”? Because as far as I could see, there wasn’t any.

  35. Question: exactly what was the point of that bizzarre two minute “intermission”? Because as far as I could see, there wasn’t any.

    Bollywood films do that. Hence I figured it was like a “knowing smile” amongst the clued in (bolly-fans).

  36. Ebert’s review is an interesting mirror to this work of art:

    “Sita, the heroine, reminds me a little of the immortal Betty Boop….”

    and again….

    “Consider Sita’s curvaceous booty. When she sings an upbeat or sexy song, it rotates like a seductive pendulum, in counterpoint to her bodacious boobs.”

    As Jerry Seinfeld would say: It offends me not as a jew but as a comedian.

  37. Okay, just saw the film. I think the idea of juxtaposing an ancient story with a modern one is superb. The animation was delightful, as was the music. I didn’t get the point of the asinine background commentary. Did anyone figure out what that was supposed to be about? It kind of ruined the film for me.

  38. I didn’t get the point of the asinine background commentary. Did anyone figure out what that was supposed to be about? It kind of ruined the film for me.

    Check out the three annoying puppets of Mystery Science Theater 3000 commenting on a film, in this clip, and see if you find any similarities in style.

    By and large I’m kinda happy this pic has this annoying commentry. Along with the terrible voice acting of the main characters in some of the scenes, it makes it less likely that this movie, and its portrayal of Ramayana will have any traction outside the “Art house” crowd, irrespective of Ebert’s thumbs up.

  39. Back in the early’60s, The American International School in Delhi staged a water ballet of the Ramayana. This very naturally follows on that, and the asinine commentary proves that Indians mostly have no idea what the Ramayana is about! Are we sure what this movietini is about?

  40. I really enjoyed SSTB. Ms. Paley did a fabulous job with the animation.

    Related/unrelated question: Can someone tell me why the letter “A” is added to the titles of the Ramayan, Mahabharat and characters in these stories (Rama, Ravana, Arjuna etc)…I never understood the purpose for the extra vowel.

  41. A water ballet version of the Ramayana sounds intriguing. Why stop ther?

    How about a version of the Ramayana (or even Mahabharata or any of the epic stories) that takes place in space like a Star Wars type of saga? Hanuman would be adorable in a space suit with a little hole for his tail to do his pyrotechnic work or Jambavan the Bear King could be a more regal & articulate version of Chewbacca. Or perhaps a Ramayana with a Wizard of Oz vibe? You can go to town thinking of different settings etc. (Recently, there was a Shakespeare troupe that performed A Midsummer’s Night Dream with Indian actors and actresses wearing Indian clothes. Forgot the name of the theatrical group, though.) Disney’s House of Mouse even had their own interpretation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream – it was adorable. Now how would the Disney folks handle Ramayana?

  42. I saw that group in Chicago @ the Navy Pier – they were crazy awesome. They spoke at least 5 languages untranslated – with some very sensual scenes – mixed in with some Cirque du soleil type acrobatics. Love Shakespeare adaptations like that.

  43. Now how would the Disney folks handle Ramayana?

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

    [Do not want.]

    How horrifying can you get? You want that bunch of content-bereft copyright-fascists to get their hands on yet another indigenous epic so that they can castrate it and add an Elton John soundtrack? Wasn’t it bad enough that they did it with Hua Mulan and Alladin? What are you, an equal-opportunity masochist?

  44. We once discussed at home what would happen if Disney took on Ramayana. We were sure that Hanuman would become the comic figure.

  45. My last question was really meant to be dripping with sarcasm. I’m just being goofy (no pun intended) with ideas about dealing & re-doing traditional epic stories. Some literature shouldn’t be handled (or manhandled) by Disney, of course.

    Last September at a parent/teacher open house, we were informed the obligatory coming of age/puberty films for 5th graders were made entirely by Disney. After hearing that, there were a couple of groans and a few giggles among the parents. Luckily, none of the students were present to hear that.

  46. Related/unrelated question: Can someone tell me why the letter “A” is added to the titles of the Ramayan, Mahabharat and characters in these stories (Rama, Ravana, Arjuna etc)…I never understood the purpose for the extra vowel.

    In Sanskrit, noun endings in the nominative case, first person singular, are pronounced Ramah, Ramayanah, Arjunah. When transliterating into English, the last h sound probably got dropped by the first person who ever did the translation, thus making it Rama instead of Ramah, etc., and the rest of the folks just adopted the convention. In Hindi the entire ending is dropped, so it becomes Ram.