Categories of Art (3) : A Thousand Splendid Versions – On Ramayana & Sita Sings the Blues

Being familiar with the epic and having grown up watching it on TV in the 1990s (Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana tele-series) the first reaction to Sita Sings the Blues (SSTB) was of amusement. Here was something fresh in its colours, ideas and presentation and which didn’t preach, in fact it enquired! Also, that the shadow puppets- their positioning and language gave the story a completely radical feel. An epic of such repute layered with a language which stops just short of being profane is a bold attempt. The author appears to have taken an offence at depiction of Sita in this story. Perhaps the anger is amplified by incidents in her personal life which to her appeared parallel to Sita’s story. As a person located outside the Hindu belief system in which Ram and Sita are deified, she connected with the epic as just a story, void of its deeply entrenched cultural and traditional values. When one connects in this way interpretation and relationship with the story is completely altered. SSTB is an illustration of such a process.
The director goes through a personal crisis of having been left by her husband and in that state of mind questions if Sita’s portrayal in Ramayana too was unjust and unfair. That, for her spawns a new narrative of Ramayana which is told through Sita’s experience. Sita singing the blues is an imagination which is creative, audacious, progressive and suggestive. It is suggestive in its reading of gender in Ramayana and contests it with its own version. This version doesn’t quite differ in its outcome from that of the epic but that it is combined with an urban story and another layer of criticism as incidents happen. It seems to suggest that if these questions are asked clearly and openly, perhaps our social world will not borrow from such distorted version of gender and follow it for real.
That the director is an American woman narrating the epic in her life’s context makes it noteworthy. It is an experiment in an alternative narrative and in my opinion a moderately successful one. For it achieves a refreshingly modern form with an interesting combination of story, commentary and technology. She sees the tragedy of following such role models like Sita in our daily lives. It would take a significant effort for an Indian to attempt the same not only for the intense backlash that it might trigger from the radical groups but also that the Indian imagination does not allow for such a thought which challenges the depicted roles of women in the epics.
Use of animation and shadow puppetry into telling of Ramayana alters the way the story is experienced. It has existed in diverse forms and traditions across Asia and the Asia Pacific. This new attempt in SSTB can be seen as just another one. As with every form this one too appears a product of its own times and of a particular conception of social world. This conception is not singular or homogenous at any given time. While one perceives it as an art from, another person lives by it. It is subjective to people’s location in the cultural-social milieu as well as their relationship with it. Therefore, it is not surprising that SSTB evoked angry response from Hindu radical groups (like Hindu Janajagruti Samiti) and at the same time the ‘liberal’ variety applauded such a bold experiment with their comprehension of the form remaining equally fuzzy.
SSTB is also a milestone in filmmaking as well as distribution with its audacious attempt to break free from the exploitative copyright and distribution networks. While the original record copyrights for Annette Hanshaw were not held by anyone, the songs were still under copyright. This had severe financial implications because if the film were to be released and distributed legally it should have bought the rights to use the songs. That is when the director leverages internet and peer sharing networks to distribute the film free of cost over the internet. Not many would experiment with such forms of distribution especially when a lot of money and reputation is at stake. This is affirmed with the recent controversy over the Indian filmmaker Kamal Hasan’s film Vishwaroopam. These experiments are the stuff that progress in any field rests on.
Watching a film is certainly about entertainment but it is often difficult to experience it with a frame of mind that is culture and value neutral. SSTB offers a variable and highly subjective experience of Ramayana to audiences of various nationalities and culture. This must be said before one attempts to examine the various connotations of this film.

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