Sitayana: Eye of the Storm

06 May

Nina Paley bills herself as America’s Best Loved Unknown Cartoonist. Give her till 2008 when she plans to make her full length animation debut with a feature on the life of Sita and she’ll be India’s Best Debated Unknown Cartoonist.

To rewind a little, Paley is the creator of Sitayana a.k.a. Sita Sings the Blues, a series of short animations based on the story of Sita from the Ramayana. Paley, an American artist who lives in New York, has already attracted a lot of attention from Indian netizens for her colorful work set to little-remembered blues music from the 1930s (by Annette Hanshaw, an interesting story in her own right).

While the original inspiration for her work came during a visit to Kerala where her American husband was then working, Paley began working on Sitayana in earnest after her husband dumped her by email.

[A]s time went on, my life began increasingly to resemble Sita’s. I desperately tried to move on emotionally, but I couldn’t get over my husband. Why was my heart devoted to him, when he’d treated me so badly? My husband’s peculiar behavior resembled Rama’s: no violent explosions, just mysterious emotional implosions. Why had he frozen up? Why had he rejected me, when I loved him so much? Why, why, why?

What! The sacred bond between Sita and Rama likened to an American divorce? How dare she? Everybody knows that the stories of gods and goddesses are not meant to have any relevance to real, actual people unless otherwise sanctified by somebody ‘suitably’ Hindu! Don’t give me any nonsense about living texts – that there is a god and a goddess. We’re supposed to pray to them, not learn from them. This is the kind of modern thinking that is ruining India!

Et cetera, et cetera, as the King of Siam would say.

On the other hand, any number of people (count me amongst them) find her work both cool and innovative. She’s obviously put in a lot of effort and it shines through. But more importantly, she’s succeeded in creating a piece of art that focuses on the immortal aspects of an ancient story – the story of all of us.

Ramayana, the story of the perfect man, whose perfection demanded he repudiate the woman he loved, retold as Sitayana, the story of the perfect woman whose perfection can’t protect her. It’s not just a religious story, it’s a human story.

That central focus on love and loss is one of the reasons why it has managed to survive so long in so many different forms. The versions in Sanskrit, Tamil and Hindi, the repeated references in Bollywood cinema, the familiarity with the text that cuts through religious differences, the fan following generated by the TV serial, the influence spread across Southeast Asia… its power is apparent.

But it’s no stranger to controversy either. Not only is the Ramayana the biggie of all religious texts in India, surpassing the Bhagwad in popular reference and the Mahabharata in holiness, its central character, Lord Rama, has unwittingly been at the eye of a socio political storm for the past 20 years in India.

Some amongst us are also the last of the Victorians, so more than a few people have written in to complain about Sita’s buxom body, fetchingly draped in the kind of clothes you’d see in temples galore around India – a fact that seems to have completely eluded these defenders of Indian honor. Paley on the other hand, who situates her work in a specific time period, says she got her inspiration from sculptures dating to that era on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Then of course, Paley is a white American. Cue the drum beats baying for her blood. This complex we have when it comes to white people is so ingrained in our psyche that we no longer know whether to celebrate that they’re paying us attention or get angry at the direction taken by their interest.

It is one thing to remember the colonial era and how it shaped/shapes our world today; it’s completely another to thrust the onus of more than 200 years of institutional racism on a single artist merely because she is white and she has dared to tackle one of our holy cows.

In any case, it’s about time we took a good, hard look at ourselves. For years we’ve been dressing “Chinese” people in kimonos with full geisha makeup in Bollywood movies where they make noises like “Chandi ka chamcha, chin chin choo” and were perfectly okay with it; we’ve consistently portrayed black people as nothing more than vicious thugs and white people as racist money bags when they’re not hippie losers – it ill behooves us to pretend that racism and racial stereotyping only exists in the Western mind.

Similarly, and more pertinently perhaps, we’re a nation that thrives on “Indianizing” things. From food to music, automobiles to religion, we’re past masters at making the alien familiar. But guess what? We’re not unique in that. Everybody does it to some degree or the other and Sitayana is but one more example of it.

The first five chapters of Sitayana are available on Youtube.

Update: And the fireworks have begun! This guy piggybacks on my post to rant about stuff that has nothing to do with me. Deepti writes about Rama.

[Originally posted at Desidabba and Desicritics]


Posted by on May 6, 2007 in Entertainment, Personal, Review, Video


7 responses to “Sitayana: Eye of the Storm

  1. DG

    May 8, 2007 at 8:58 am

    Good going there with Anamika. Now you are a proud member of the ‘DC Writers Anamika Doesn’t Take A Fancy To’ club. Check out her comments re my chick lit post. I had just written that I used to be a ‘condescending jerk’ (to use your phrase!) re chick lit but hurriedly changed my mind when I started trying to write one. She wrote back saying that I was an argumentative Indian and she pointed out my post to her friend on what argumentative Indians are like – they argue for no special reason etc. Strikes me like she is prime candidate for that role!

  2. Amrita

    May 8, 2007 at 11:15 am

    I have no idea what her problem is! She started in on me, just took off like a rocket, getting mad ABOUT THINGS I DIDNT WRITE, DG!!! How the hell am I responsible for things I didnt write? I checked out your chick lit post and its definitely the West that drives her engine: what on earth did they do to her in America? 😀

    Aditi is a cool one though, ain’t she?

  3. DG

    May 8, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    Possibly abducted her and did strange things to her innards, rather like the li’l green men 😀 Who knows?

    Yeah Aditi is tres cool. We should rope her in to the Inner Circle.

  4. kela

    May 9, 2007 at 3:54 am

    DG,can I join the gang,i have man-boobs 😀

  5. DG

    May 9, 2007 at 4:14 am

    I bet you do mate!

  6. kela

    May 9, 2007 at 5:39 am

    well,its another thing i got them from doing 80 push-ups a day followed by pressing 80 kilos on the bench.
    I better beat a hasty retreat though before i get called a stalker by Amrita

  7. Amrita

    May 9, 2007 at 10:48 am

    one of the few times I found you funny, little man 😀

    DG – I’m inclined to think they shot her thesis down or something and told her to go home. I can’t believe I was this mistaken in somebody. Live and learn 🙄

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