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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Categories of Art (1) – Primitive, Classical, Vernacular, Modern, Contemporary and More

A painted Shiva in a house, Jamui, Bihar

A painted Shiva on the wall of a house in Jamui, Bihar

Categories of Art is a 6 months course in arts that I begin this month. My earlier training is in biotechnology and that has always left me feeling a bit deficient in my understanding of arts. This course as I see it might help me in identifying and articulating my perception and experience of art forms. Plus, it just complements my travel in many interesting ways.

This post is from the first session of this course where we fill in a self assessment form. The contents of this form is supposed to help instructor gain a sense of understanding of the backgrounds that the participants come from. Also, it sort of helps one get a flavour of what the class’ perception of self, modern, art etc is. The questions ask for simple information about one’s family and structure. The information is a proxy to know the participants and in a very generic sense estimate how they identify themselves with society, gender, art and abstract ideas like modernity. It also would offer a probable explanation of why they believe the way they do. As the instructor suggests, “you are taught (usually) to look at other people. This presents an opportunity for reflecting upon yourselves.” As for that question exploring the language of instruction of the participant she argues that the English world offers a different kind of intellectual and creative space and the vernacular offers a different one. One needs to be cognizant of this.

The questions of the form are shared below, including my responses to them. It would be interesting to see it again when I finish the program. It would sure reflect the distance that I am likely to cover during this engagement with art and its categories.

1. Do you know your caste? Does your name reflect your caste?

Yes. Yes.

2.  Are you from a village, town or city?

Town

3. Have you ever been to a village, town or city before joining the university?

Yes

4. In which language medium were you educated?

English

5. Write a sentence in English about the class structure of your family.

My family is characterized by a migration from practicing priests as an occupational class to a family of professionals employed in various services (or service class?) in the government, over a period of five generations (with me as fifth).

6. Write the same sentence in a vernacular language.

7. Do you cook?

Yes

8. Who cooks food in your home?

Mom

9. Does your mother work outside the house?

No

10. Does your father do housework?

Yes

11. Which classical art form, if any, do you engage with on a regular basis?

Carnatic and Western classical music

12. Which folk art form, if any, do you engage with on a regular basis?

Hindi Poetry of the rural variety

13. Which popular art form, if any, do you engage with on a regular basis?

Graffiti

14. What does modern mean to you?

Modern to me is an expression of self and the manner of relating to contemporary processes which construct a sense of identity in an individual (or groups).

15. Do you read books for pleasure? How many a year? In what languages?

Yes. About 45 a year. English (very few Hindi)