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.
[Originally posted at Desidabba and Desicritics]