Illustrated Man, #8 – Sita Sings the Blues

The history of womankind is a broken record as the same damn things keeping happening over and over again. At least that seems to be a major theme in Sita Sings the Blues, an incomparably unique animated feature that combines ancient Hindu mythology, a 1920s blues singer, and one artist’s failed marriage to tell the story of a every woman who lets a man walk all over her.

This is a true labor of love, rendered mostly in Adobe Flash, by the artist and cartoonist Nina Paley. Paley has made the complete feature available for free under a Creative Commons license. Now that the music rights have cleared for Annette Hanshaw’s soundtrack the film is also available on DVD and if you like what you see there’s merchandise for sale so appreciative audiences can support the artist.

The story unfolds in multiple layers, each taking place at divergent moments in history and represented with its own animated style. We begin in present-day San Francisco, portrayed here in squigglevision, with the couple, Nina and Dave, in domestic bliss. Dave’s sudden departure for a new job in India foreshadows the impending end of their relationship. Paley juxtaposes this with the epic myth of Sita and Rama, presented as gouache paintings come alive. Interrupting or narrating the story is a third form, a trio of shadow puppets commenting on the myth. These characters exist out of time. Finally the signature sequences are done with computer animation as a cartoonish Rama and Sita act out their story with Sita singing the words of Annete Hanshaw’s blues. Although visually set in the myth the audience is experiencing creative expressions from the early twentieth century America and encouraged to note the similarities between the two.

“I never knew how good it was to be a slave to one who means the world to me,” she sings.

We learn from the mythic segments that Rama is noble and good, the embodiement of righteousness. The ideal man. The shadow puppets explain to us that Rama’s father, Dasharatha, had planned on crowning him king until one of his scheming wives, Keikeyi, invokes an old debt to force him to banish Rama to the forest instead. Sita, his devoted and beautiful wife follows him. Meanwhile the evil king of Lanka, Ravana, is persuaded by his sister, Suruphanaka, to steal Sita away.

Even with her husband gone Ravana cannot violate Sita’s chastity. Later, aided by his half monkey sidekick Hanuman, Rama finally discovers Ravana’s castle, slaughters his demons and wins Sita back. However Sita has now lived in another man’s house and Rama, having avenged the insult of having his wife stolen, no longer desires her. She must prove her purity to him first in a trial by fire, but before the pyre can harm her gods descend and spirit her away.

With her purity beyond dispute Rama returns to his kingdom to accept his rightful position as king. Then in a chance encounter, Rama observes one of his subjects, a laundryman beating his unfaithful wife. He scolds her: “Do you think I am like Rama?” Now the king feels his wife’s reputation is costing him the loyalty of his subjects, so he banishes her even while she is pregnant with his sons.

Back in the real world Nina follows Dave to India, but the passion of their romance is gone. When she receives an invitation to attend a conference in New York City Dave dumps her by email. In an utterly humiliating scene Nina tearfully begs Dave to take her back when obvious he’s the one doing her wrong.

As Wynton Marsalis describes it, the blues is down home sophistication and it shows in Hanshaw’s numbers. This is a truly adult musical form. “What wouldn’t I do for that man,” she croons as the cartoon Rama literally walks on Sita or sits on her back to drink tea so devoted she is to him. While held captive by Ravana she sings, “Daddy won’t you please come home.” And when Rama rejects Sita after the rescue its, “You love to see me cryin’. I’m left alone singing the blues and sighin’.”

Annette Hanshaw in her vocal performances is really like another character in the story, one which shares with Sita certain idealized qualities of womanhood – a point hammered home by the Betty Boop like proportions of Sita the blues singer with huge bosoms, a tiny waist, and flirty eyelashes. They are both women who define themselves through their romantic relationships with men, in particular men who are blameless. Through all the hardships Rama puts Sita through her devotion to him remains unwavering just as the woman portrayed by Hanshaw’s lyrics continues to love her man no matter how mean he might treat her. Paley clearly identifies with both of these characters. Even as Dave treats her like dirt, she can’t bare to let him go. “Am I blue? You’d be too.”

It is only through the shadow puppets that Paley can bring herself to criticize her own behavior. These characters are really my favorite part of the movie. Depicted in royal or mythological garb the shadow puppets are voiced to sound like modern South Asian Americans and they comment on the myth of Rama and Sita from an alienated, “born confused” perspective. Throughout the feature they interrupt the proceedings to explain the myth but just as often they bicker among themselves, offer competing versions of the story, screw up, questioning the characters’ motivations and cracking jokes at the authority of myths and the powers they hold over our lives.

Late in the movie, Nina calls Dave to beg him, “Please take me back.” This time the puppets stop the action in the modern world outside of mythic time. They explain how as unfair as it might seem that Rama is remembered as a benevolent king while he treats Sita so badly it cannot be that Sita is without fault. After all she’s the one who keeps putting up with his behavior. They make her unquestioning devotion, a virtue under patriarchy, into a character flaw. “Listen he doesn’t like you! You’ve got to move on. C’mon!” That’s her mistake. You shouldn’t love someone who treats you so badly. As Hanshaw sings, “Love had its day. That day has passed. You’ve gone away,” Sita the cartoon character literally cries a river.

Sita Sings the Blues makes clever use of irony, crossing over between multiple timelines to give us a portrait of women – across cultures and through time – being mistreated by men and not having the sense to do anything but put up with it. While the patriarchy of ancient Hindu myth may be readily apparent to us and their congruence with early American popular culture unsettling, Paley urges women to be cognizant of its unconscious internalization. Our romantic proclivities are part of tacit culture.

In the fairy tales we all know so well and which Disney re-presents for our children time and again the man comes to the rescue of the fair maidens whose only aspirations, like Sita, is to be the perfect mother and wife. Such stories contribute to our socialization and enculturation, reflecting the values of the societies that reproduce and repeat them like a broken record playing the blues. This time around, Paley seems to be saying, women need to save themselves.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

9 thoughts on “Illustrated Man, #8 – Sita Sings the Blues

  1. I’m so glad someone is writing about this wonderful film. I have shown it in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class when students were reading Margaret Trawick’s Notes on Love in a Tamil Family. It opens up the kinds of gender and family relationships they read about and allows them to consider the underlying symbolism of husband/wife, brother/sister. The film never fails to engage students, especially the young women. They show it to their friends; several became anthropology majors; and one of my new students went off to India for a semester to learn Hindi because she decided she wanted to work in India.
    I think the film works especially well because of the multiple voices in the movie. But I think it’s worth mentioning that Paley faced tremendous obstacles in making this open access film (and this also allows to discuss issues of ownership and property).It wasn’t just the copyright issues in using Henshaw’s music, as much of an obstacle is that was. Paley also became the target of Hindu nationalists who objected to Paley’s depiction Sita’s curvy, dancing body, to the implicit questioning of her fate in life, to the joyfulness and silliness of the whole film. Their argument (as I understood it) is that Sita and Rama are holy figures, avatars of essential female- and male-ness, the objects and focus of deep cosmological principles that should not have been depicted by an outsider, and not in such a ‘frivolous’ way. To further illustrate this issue, I find a bunch of YouTube videos of Indian films of the story to compare tone, meaning, and so on. It’s one of the best forms I’ve found of introducing students – and this is a General Education class, so they come in with either Introduction to Anthropology (a four-field course) OR Introduction to Sociology, and have no intention of becoming majors – to the multiple layers of voices we need to listen to and try to understand when doing anthropology in the modern world.

  2. “They explain how as unfair as it might seem that Rama is remembered as a benevolent king while he treats Sita so badly it cannot be that Sita is without fault. After all she’s the one who keeps putting up with his behavior. They make her unquestioning devotion, a virtue under patriarchy, into a character flaw. “Listen he doesn’t like you! You’ve got to move on. C’mon!” That’s her mistake. You shouldn’t love someone who treats you so badly. As Hanshaw sings, “Love had its day. That day has passed. You’ve gone away,””

    It’s true, but there is a fine line, I think, between saying that women should be empowered to move on, and blaming the victim. Of course they should move on from these kinds of relationships, but it’s not their mistake – the problem is that men should not treat women this poorly.

    Sita’s “mistake” – wanting Rama after he’s treated her poorly – enables him to go on feeling virtuous in spite of his bad behaviour. Whereas Rama’s much more serious mistake is that he is too narrow-minded to realize that he’s done anything wrong (and culturally, it may be that he hasn’t done anything wrong, but, of course, for us he has).

    It’s an excellent film, a nice cross-cultural depiction, with excellent animation (I especially love the musical interlude showing the various gods, and the woman dancing through fire – beautifully done!).

  3. Another quick point is that we shouldn’t simplify the experience of the men in this. Certainly, this film is about the women’s experiences, and that’s important – it’s needed, and this film does an excellent job. However, the men have reasons for their behaviour that can be (but aren’t necessarily) more complex than simply being bad guys. We aren’t informed in the film about Dave’s reasons and so he just comes of cowardly and mean. Rama has to deal with a massive cultural background of norms and values. I can say from experience that it’s not so easy in some of these situations to determine what’s right and what’s wrong.

    That’s not to say we should just shrug off their bad behaviour, but I think part of what’s needed is more guidance for men on what is, in fact, appropriate when faced with these kinds of ethically difficult situations. Black and white moralizing and reducing men to just bad people doesn’t help us figure out what to do.

    Again, though, great film! I don’t mean to diminish it in any way.

  4. I loved this film. I agree with Kate Gillogly though that the history of making the film is also very interesting. I think the ordeal over copyright of what should have been public domain music speaks a lot to how we conceive of intellectual property. I think the Hindu nationalists were not only upset about how Rama & Sita were depicted, and by an outsider, but that they also afraid that this film will be the only frame that people use to see the Ramayana/Indian culture as a whole. That instead of the flawed but noble hero Rama was in the Ramayana, they’ll just see how Sita suffered.

  5. “Depicted in royal or mythological garb the shadow puppets are voiced to sound like modern South Asian Americans and they comment on the myth of Rama and Sita from an alienated, “born confused” perspective.”

    Author, did you not do any research on this film atall? The shadow puppets are of the same three figures – Rama, Sita, and Hanuman (a very clever visual pun), and the dialogue IS between three “modern South Asian….” non-Americans.

    From Paley’s FAQ on the SSTB site:

    “Q: The narration of the shadow puppets—how much of that was scripted?

    A: 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. (source)

    They’re all from different regions of India and speak different mother tongues, and grew up on different versions of the story. So naturally they remember “the” Ramayana differently from one another. There is no one Ramayana. Their discussion makes this clear.”

  6. This is a very late comment, but even so: Very difficult to know how to comment on this post, or on the film. I think that for altogether too many years, stories from Indian mythology (and particularly the Ramayana) have been unproblematically subjected to a feminist critique of the sort that Nina Paley’s _Sita Sings the Blues_ exemplifies. It comes perhaps as part of feminist reclaiming of history, and (with growing political polarizations) readings that defend the worldview presented in the Ramayana (to continue with that example) become irrevocably cultural defenses, for that uncomfortably close to right-ist/Hindutva-type readings. So it’s risky business indeed to offer an alternative view, or even a critique of Paley’s work. Just to be clear, I’m not objecting to the curviness or heightened sexualization of Paley’s illustrations, though I can fully see how devotees would cringe at the license Paley has taken, nor to the light-hearted ‘frivolity’ of her portrayals. What I find more difficult to accept is the way in which aspects central to the meaning and significance of the Ramayana in its native context get completely lost, or worse, flattened in these sorts of critical reclaimings and returns of feminist voices. Those are putting forward models of sexism and empowerment that are, for the most part, out of sync with, even contrary to, the epics’ own ethical models of gender, personhood, righteous conduct etc., all of which I think are not to be brushed aside so lightly. I’ll grant that none of these things are so easily understood, and we’re certainly not helped much by the shadow puppet narrators, who appear less than informed—hardly the erudite kathakars [storytellers], and much more modern cosmopolitans for whom the Ramayana is not much more than an interesting anachronism. (They don’t know the difference between rakshasas, asuras, and vibhutis? No wonder they can’t figure out why Ravana is a “bad guy”.) What happens to Sita then becomes a lot like the practice of sati, which evokes even greater horror, until someone like Joan Didion explains it (I think quite perfectly), in the wake of her own husband’s death, thus: “Widows did not throw themselves in the burning raft out of grief. The burning raft was instead an accurate representation of the place to which their grief (not their families, not the community, not custom, their grief) had taken them” [That’s a quote from _The Year of Magical Thinking_]. What does it mean to understand the Ramayana’s model of ethical kingship as one which supersedes love in marriage and even mistrusts it? Or to see what happens to Sita as a playing out of curses meted out in prior periods? “Rama treated Sita badly” is a statement that either just doesn’t make sense, or is up for debate, depending on which chapters or whose version of the Ramayana we’re talking about. Following from that point, the statement ignores the fact that there are (cf. Ramanujan’s work of the same name) many Ramayanas, some more harsh on Sita’s predicament, others far less so. Not to mention that there are also indigenous critiques of Rama’s treatment of his wife, and debate on whether or not Rama’s model of righteousness required subjecting Sita and their sons to the harshness of a second exile. Paley’s use of the Ramayana as a metaphor for another more contemporary narrative is itself not a novel idea; Shashi Tharoor did something very similar (and much more complex) with _The Great Indian Novel_ many years ago. But Tharoor had no axe to grind, whereas Paley’s story is bitterly personal, and in her hands the Ramayana is not even so much metaphor or allegory but a tale deliberately twisted to other ends. Fine and fair enough in the spirit of “many Ramayanas” and all that – but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’d definitely not use Paley’s work in teaching. In my experience, students come at this sort of material with so many other preconceptions and ideas anyway, it’s just not worth the time and effort to cut through all the extra layers that Paley adds on. For fun and contemporary retellings of the Ramayana, I would much rather turn to former Pixar animator Sanjay Patel’s work, which comes to the Ramayana much more sensitively and honestly.

  7. What a fantastic comment, I appreciate your contribution very much. Obviously I come at this much more as a fan of the genre of animation than an expert in South Asian culture. I’ll be looking in to Sanjay Patel now, thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Matt: Well I’m glad the comment made sense. I hesitated to blurt it out, but the entirely predictable near-universal adulation pitted against the sort of also too-typical critiques had left me in a squeeze for a while & this was finally an attempt to get beyond those binaries. I’d love to know more about what you think of Patel’s work, as and when you get around to looking him up.

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