Friday, April 12, 2013
Sunday, December 27, 2009
During my college days, we used to sound rebellious in declamation contests while trying to bring in Sita’s example through various corridors of logic and argument. We had wanted to examine why it was Sita and not Rama who had to go through the trial by fire. Why was Sita exiled to the second vanavas—living in a hermitage even after Rama’s victorious return to Ayodhya?
My mother never pardoned me for being so ‘harsh and rude’ to our own glorious past. She would say, ‘It was Sita’s dharma, her righteousness that gave Rama his essential aura and moral strength, and remember he could never find peace after Sita left Ayodhya, finally taking refuge in the mighty waters of Sarayu.’ I remember the lines describing Sita’s request to her mother to take her back, which made women cry:
If unstained in thought and action I have lived from the day of my birth, spare a daughter’s shame and anguish and receive her, Mother Earth! If in duty and devotion, I have laboured undefiled, Mother Earth! Who bore this woman, once again receive thy child! If in truth unto my husband I have proved a faithful wife, Mother Earth! Relieve thy Sita from the burden of this life!
We were never satisfied with the innumerable explanations—all justifying Sita’s fire test and exemplifying Rama’s great love for her. But, and this ‘but’ always remained a very significant one, Rama was maryada purushottam, the living embodiment of the noble virtues, and hence had to listen to his people, even as in this case, to a washerman, to uphold the rajdharma—the duties of the king. He had to be harsh with himself and hence Sita had to go to the forest for the rest of her life, till she prayed to Mother Earth to take her back into her affectionate lap. The ultimate refuge of the daughter was again the same earth from which she had been offered to the great sage King Janaka.
We said that Sita rebelled. She never reconciled to the fact that she was made to prove her chastity, her singular love for her husband in full public glare, and was exiled to prove a point—to uphold the righteousness of her husband. And we were certainly never accused of heresy or sacrilegious behaviour. Even the ochre-robed sanyasins who frequented our house, laughed at my logic and said, ‘Well, when you come of age, you will understand.’
Now, in more intolerant times, I feel that this could happen only in a broad-minded Hindu family, which has become a rarity today. At that age, perhaps my mother personified the ordeals and rebellious character of Sita, or maybe we liked to see Sita’s attributes in her, imparting some sort of divine touch to the daily outbursts of domestic disquiet that we had been witnessing.
We were hardly a happy family. There were always enough reasons for an evening of unrest in our home. My mother remained a symbol of pain and patience. Rising early morning, living in utter penury, funding my tuitions, struggling to keep my studies uninterrupted, working late nights, and having the ‘Fruities’, those twenty-five paisa candies that gave us ultimate joy, she moved forward. Her night-time stories and daytime instructions from Tulsidas’ Ramacharitmanas were the only doses of morality we got that somehow always had references to Sita’s ordeals and her patience. Those were Sita’s introductory lines in our lives.
Later, my regard for Sita translated into Janaki’s strong, unwavering and extraordinarily patient character that could only be epitomized in a mix of fire and earth—one, a symbol of rebellion, the other signifying unlimited patience. My rebellious characterization of Sita in a revolutionary mould was completely off-track. I learnt that it is not necessary to portray someone in a totally alien mode to make him or her more acceptable in our own times. They are not stage actors who have to be presented in the way a director would find convenient for a show. Sita represents certain values that have nourished the ages and millenniums, and we have to accept them in their own form. Sita’s patience irritates modernists. In times like these, when everything is available at the push of a button and speed defines the state of our living, patience is one word that doesn’t find a welcome audience.
Sita’s birth from the womb of Mother Earth signifies nature, colour and vivacity. Her father Janaka was an embodiment of austerity, so much separated from worldly actions that he was known as ‘Videha’, one who is above the realm of physical needs and wants. In her previous birth, she was the daughter of Rishi Kushadhwaj, who was killed by a demon because Kushadhwaj wanted to marry his daughter Vedvati to Vishnu. In order to fulfil her father’s desire, Vedvati began a hard penance and was sighted by Ravana, who wanted to marry her forcibly. Vedvati refused and took her life by jumping into the fire and was reborn as Sita, while Janaka was tilling his land.
Remember Jan, Janaka, Janaki? [Agyeya]. The writer of this work, one of the greatest doyens of our literary world, S.H.Vatsyayan Agyeya, led a yatra of littérateurs to Janakpur Dham, where Janaki was born. The region reverberates with the sacred memories of the daughter who became a devi for all. She was everything that a woman can ever dream to be, pious, devoted, patient, beautiful, affectionate and, above all, uncompromising in her duties as well as her commitments.
She was all that Bharat could imagine as the epitome of womanhood. That is perhaps the reason why certain scholars and the so-called modern analysts of women’s issues find it so revolting to see M.K. Gandhi projecting Sita’s ideal before the Indian masses as the symbol of anti-colonialism and indigenous cultural values, and a powerful icon of the unyielding swadeshi spirit. For him and for many other thinkers rooted in the cultural contours that make us identifiable as Indians, Sita remains a far superior character in the collective psyche than even Rama, who was admiringly virtuous. Her silent suffering and enduring patience like that of Earth itself make her the touchstone of morality.
Today, there is an attempt to put Sita in the framework of the so-called modern-day value system and attributes that a Western-oriented contemporary writer would like to see in the woman of today. Therefore, Sita has to be portrayed as a rebellious, uncompromising, courageous and independent character in the mould of Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan.
Why should this be necessary? Why can’t we appreciate and accept what Sita was and has remained since time immemorial? Why on earth do we fall prey to flagellantism, exposing a colonial mindset indicating that devotion to a husband, agreeing to pass through agni pareeksha or the fire ordeal, silent suffering and agreeing to go to the forest even while being pregnant are all signs of a self-effacing woman, who can be pitied but not venerated as an ideal of womanhood. All these interpretations are meant to falsify the entire socio-cultural fabric of a land known for its rich civilization.
It is ironical that the values which have sustained our society for thousands of years and have inspired great souls are being ‘reformed’ and amended by the modernists, whose singular passion is to debunk and dispossess whatever India has cherished for ages. It is not at all necessary to denounce the past to glorify the present, and the future must find its own feet.
Sita’s insistence on following Rama into his exile, and Rama’s anguish and lament on seeing her agony while walking towards the forest are vividly narrated in the Kavitavali of Tulsidas. Her love for Rama and his deep feelings for her overwhelm any sensitive person even today. Rama’s tears rolled down when he saw his beloved trying to walk the rough road covered with pebbles and thorns while following him into the forest. Sita was breaking a convention when she insisted that she would, while facing all odds, happily join Rama, her husband and the only love in her life, in his fourteen years of exile. A timid, compromising and traditional wife would not have dared to defy the social principles of her times in such a manner. When Rama tells her about the rigours of life in exile, she says, ‘Any term of austerities or forest or even heaven, let it be to me with you only. To me, who follows you behind, there will be no tiresomeness. I shall remain in the path without any fatigue, as remaining in a place of recreation or as in a sleep. While walking with you, blades of kusha grass, shrubs by the name of kaasa, reeds and rushes and plants with prickles which fall in the path will touch my soles like a heap of cotton or soft deerskin. I shall reckon the dust raised by the strongest wind that will cover my body as sandal dust of highest advantage. While dwelling in the forest, in its midst, I shall lie down on green grass. Will lying in beds with carpets be more comfortable than that? Leaves, tubers and fruits either a little or abundant in quantity brought and given by you yourself will be like nectar to me. Your companionship will be heaven to me. Without you, it will be hell. Oh, Rama! By knowing thus my great love, obtain supreme joy with me. On the contrary, if you do not take me, who is not alarmed of the forest as such, I shall drink poison now itself. But on no account would I bow to the enemies. As a result of grief I will not be giving to live even afterwards when abandoned by you. Death is therefore better at the time of your relinquishment itself.’ (Valmiki)
Her calm, composed yet unyielding behaviour in Ravana’s captivity, her dialogue with Hanuman in Ashok Vatika, later her appreciation of the contemporary values of society, her undergoing the fire ordeal, and finally her request to Mother Earth to take her back into her lap, all create a symbol that has been accepted by a society which enjoys a free atmosphere of debate, and analyses a person’s character before adopting him or her into the pantheon of gods.
When a daughter steps out of her father’s house after marriage, the father is supposed to say, ‘May you find happiness wherever you go.’ But Janaka instead told Sita, ‘May you bring happiness wherever you go.’ Perhaps because he was a good father who had brought up his daughter to be autonomous and responsible for her life and those around her, or perhaps because he knew his daughter was a goddess—the earth itself.
The earth can be wild or domesticated. Wild, she is the forest. Domesticated, she is the field. Wild, she is a woman. Domesticated, she is the wife. In Hindu mythology, wild earth is visualized as Kali, an unclothed goddess, fearsome, naked, bloodthirsty, one with hair unbound. Domesticated earth is visualized as Gauri, the goddess of civilization, gentle, demure, beautiful, draped in cloth. Gauri’s cloth represents the rules that turn nature into civilization—rules such as marital fidelity, which ensure that even the weakest of men has conjugal security.
Sita is Gauri, the clothed goddess, and this is made explicit in the Adbhut Ramayana, where it is said that a demon more frightening than Ravana attacked Ayodhya. All the men tried to destroy this demon but were unable to do so. Finally, it is revealed that only a chaste woman could destroy this demon and save the city. All the women of the city were asked to fight the demon but none were able to defeat him. Finally Sita was called, and she transformed herself into Kali and destroyed the demon as easily as a child breaks a twig. As Kali she was so frightening that Rama begged her to return to her original state—that of Sita, clothed, with tied hair and demure disposition. This tale makes explicit the association of Sita with the goddess—she is Kali but clothed; draped in cloth, she acts out her role as Gauri.
As Gauri she is the wife who follows her husband wherever he goes. When Rama prepares to set out for his exile, she follows him—not because he asks her to do so, but because it is her duty to be by his side. He tries to stop her but she insists on fulfilling her role as his wife. Rama cannot dissuade her otherwise. And so he sets out with her. Sita is thus not the obedient wife but the dutiful wife, one who knows her responsibilities.
When Sita leaves Ayodhya, she prepares to clothe herself as Rama does—in clothes of bark and leaves. The women of the palace forbid her from doing so because as a daughter-in-law, she represents the reputation of the royal household. If she is beautifully dressed, it means that the household is beautiful, and if she is shabbily dressed, it means that the household is shabby. Further, her beauty brings luck to the house—if she abandons her finery, bad luck would strike. Thus, Sita’s clothes play both a symbolic as well as a talismanic role. If she is well dressed as Gauri, it indicates that Rama upholds dharma and all is well in Ayodhya. That is why Sita follows Rama into the forest in bridal jewellery.
Sita’s role as Gauri is further reinforced by Anasuya, the wife of Rishi Atri, who gifts Sita with a sari which never gets soiled. Later, when Sita is abducted by Ravana, she throws pieces of her jewellery into the forest, ostensibly to leave a trail behind her so that Rama can find her. But by abandoning her jewellery, she conveys a subtle symbolic message to Rama. It means that his dharma is being challenged as Ravana, by abducting Rama’s wife, has defied the civilized code of marital fidelity. Ravana wants to make Rama’s field, his forest; he wants to convert Gauri into Kali. Every piece of jewellery dropped into the forest is a reminder of how close civilization is at risk of being overrun by the forest.
When Ravana is killed and Sita rescued, Rama demands proof that Gauri, the field, which is bound to a single man, did not even momentarily become Kali, the forest, which is bound to no man, and hence available to all men. The only way this can be done is through the trial of fire. Sita goes through the ordeal and the fire does not touch her, proving that neither in thought nor in action did she ever think of any other man.
This story indicates how difficult it is to uphold the social value of fidelity. While it may be easy to uphold fidelity in action, it is not always possible to uphold it in thought. Fidelity in action can be witnessed but fidelity in thought cannot. Therefore, in typical mythological narratives, women who succeed in being faithful to their husbands in both action and thought are elevated to the status of goddesses, unaffected by fire. They get equated with Sati Maharani. Sita is like Sati—chaste in action and thought, able to walk unharmed through flames.
Despite this proof of her chastity given by Sita, the people of Ayodhya ask Rama to reject the queen because of her soiled reputation. The same laws which demanded that Rama should obey the commandments of his father, now demanded that Rama should respect the wishes of his people. And so, Sita is once again sent into the forest. It is strange that Rama, the only Hindu deity known for being faithful to one wife, is also the only Hindu deity to abandon his wife. This is clearly meant to highlight the difference between Rama, the husband, who is faithful to his wife, and Rama, the king, who is sensitive to the wishes of his people. Rama, the king, sends Sita back into the forest but Rama, the husband, never remarries. He places next to him an effigy of Sita made of gold, the metal which symbolizes purity, suggesting that he does not doubt his wife’s fidelity but that he respects the laws of Ayodhya and its royal household, however misguided they may have been.
Who is this Sita in the forest? Gauri or Kali? She is Gauri to her children—raising them as powerful warriors, who on their own are able to defeat the mighty army of Rama. But she is also Kali—the one who has shaken off the mantle of civilization. She is no longer bound by its rules. Rejected, she refuses to return to Ayodhya either as queen or as wife. She does not feel the need to follow her husband, this time, as a wife. She no longer feels obliged to represent the prosperity of the household that rejected her, or to bring good luck into it. When asked to prove her chastity once more, she returns to the bowels of the earth, whence she came from. Thus, when the people of Ayodhya asked their king to abandon his queen, they inadvertently ended up losing Janaka’s daughter, who took away all happiness from Ayodhya with her.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
It is Ramanavami today, the birth date of Lord Rama, heralding the festivities that annually replicate the joyous celebration of Rama’s victory over Ravana, the epical triumph of the Good. Theatrical performances of the Ramalila show up in village chaupals as well as in sophisticated urban centres. Men and women from all walks of life pay tribute to the enduring mythology of an undated tale.
Where is Sita in all of this? When was she born and to whom? Tulsidas has dwelt on the maternal glances of Kaushalya ma when the toddler Rama found his feet. But who was Sita’s mother? Who was her biological father? The familiar tale of the baby girl found in the furrow of King Janaka’s field is a perplexing riddle to genealogical mapping. Janaka named her ‘Sita’—literally meaning ‘found in the furrow’. Others call her Janaki, daughter of Janaka, or Mythili, the princess of Mithila. Under patriarchy, women’s names—and their roles—are relational, as I understand from my several years of delving into women’s studies. Abandoned by a mother (presumably), discovered in a furrow, and finally, at the end of a constantly challenged life, returning to Mother Earth by an act of will, is Sita a self-progenated ‘goddess’ who can be seen through modern feminism as the unitary woman?
Early texts might even support this view. There appears to be a Sita who existed prior to the Sita of Valmiki’s Ramayana. A verse in the Rig Veda mentions an earth goddess, Sita, who blesses the crops and brings fecundity and prosperity. But such a Sita is contrary to the Ramayana-related traditions, which prohibit certain forms of agricultural labour for women. According to farming practices in the hill regions of northern India, women are not allowed to touch or use the plough. A poignant folk tale from the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh recounts how a devoted wife waited anxiously during the planting season, hoping that her man would come back to the village and attend to the fields. The children starved, the earth turned brown, but there was still no man. One day at early dawn, she hitched the oxen to the plough. As the sun panned over the caked earth, the village awoke to the sight of this lonely woman doing an unwomanly job. There was first a sense of shock and the fear of Earth’s curse, but finally there was admiration for the woman’s courage in breaking meaningless traditions.
In folk tales, the primitive and the modern, the scripted and the oral are often conflated. When I came upon this story, I was fascinated by its emphasis on the Earth connections of the Sita myth. Ecology and sustenance are vital in farming communities. The ancient goddess protects the fields but also lays down some laws of labour distribution by gender roles—these have sustained farm practices in traditional communities. Now, a ‘money-order economy’, as it is called, is prevalent in the hill regions, where the men leave home to get employment in the plains and repatriate their incomes to the village. Who will then operate the plough, a male symbol though it might have been in the past? The ancient Sita who blessed the crops needs to be invoked so that the new exigencies can be met.
This amazing adaptability of myths is seen in many other aspects of Sita’s story and its modifications. In the Himachal village, it was a spontaneous retelling of an old tale whereas in sophisticated forums, the Sita story is given deliberate connotations. The name resonates with meaning, its suggestiveness allowing for infinite possibilities of interpreting woman’s position in Indian society. It is useful that Sita’s genealogy is unknown. She is, in a compelling way, unique, though the Ramayana, traditionally told, binds her to the role identification of the ur-wife within a complex triad of Rama, the ‘devoted husband’, Ravana, the evil abductor and Hanuman, the supreme follower.
Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, propounded a version wherein the Rama–Sita relationship was one of equal partnership. He famously remarked, ‘My ideal of a wife is Sita and my ideal of a husband, Rama. But Sita was no slave to Rama. Or each was a slave to the other. Rama was ever considerate to Sita.’ Against the backdrop of nationalism and the freedom movement, the ‘wifely role’ had to be redefined and there could be no better strategy for change than the evocation of this iconic couple. In his own relationship with his wife Kasturba, Gandhi attempted to demonstrate this ‘modernized’ companionship, with his autobiography, My Experiments With Truth, giving several instances of Kasturba’s questioning of Gandhi’s choices, their discussions and participation in unconventional modes of wedded life.
Madhu Kishwar (MK): While Rama’s demand for an agni pariksha is indeed offensive, Sita’s act of undertaking the fire ordeal is presented by the various writers of the Ramayana more as an act of defiance, rather than as submission to Rama’s tyranny. I find it very strange that most feminists see the agni pariksha as proof of our culture’s endorsement of women’s quiet suffering and submission to the tyranny of their husbands.
For them, a ‘Sita-like’ woman is synonymous with a slavishly dutiful wife. It is as though the main purpose of the authors of the epic was to brainwash Indian women into accepting a servile status for themselves. They tend to forget that the Ramayana is not a commandment-giving religious text in the way that the Bible or the Koran is. Valmiki’s Ramayana is first and foremost a literary text like Homer’s Iliad. And yet feminist critiques tend to treat the Ramayana as a ‘religious’ text.
Even a casual reading of the text shows that like any astute literary writer, Valmiki develops the two agni pariksha sequences as great dramatic moments to evoke a sense of utter shock and disbelief in the reader as well as all those characters who witness Rama demanding them of Sita.
It is similar to the dramatic horror evoked by Othello’s murder of Desdemona. No one would be naïve enough to suggest that Shakespeare wrote the play Othello in order to valorize jealous husbands who murder their wives and that the aim of the play is to exhort women to gracefully accept insults and even death at the hands of their suspicious husbands. This is despite the fact that Shakespeare treats Othello’s fits of jealous rage with a lot of sympathy. In contrast, Valmiki does not build any defence whatsoever for Rama’s behaviour. In most versions of the Ramayana, Rama is projected as being highly flawed in his moral judgement, in his treatment of Sita. Everyone who witnesses the agni pariksha episode is on Sita’s side and openly disapproves of Rama. That includes his own brother Lakshmana, his mother Kaushalya and all other relatives, associates and even a devotee like Hanuman.
This unease has led to numerous Rama reform measures in diverse Ramayanas. In many latter-day Ramayanas, Rama is seen either as behaving more responsibly towards Sita or being soundly condemned by those around him. A Rama devotee like Tulsidas in his Ramacharitmanas just glosses over the first agni pariksha altogether. This indicates the unease that Tulsidas felt at Sita’s ordeal by fire.
Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial Ramayana presents the agni pariksha as part of a pre-planned pact between Rama and Sita whereby Rama leaves Sita in the safe custody of Agnidev to save her from the travails of his exile. As per this version (which is influenced by some of the regional Ramayanas), when Rama asks Sita to walk through the agnidwar, he is not asking her to prove her chastity but asking her to take leave of Agnidev’s protection and walk back into the world of ordinary mortals. Agnidev endorses the truth of this pact by appearing in person to return the real Sita and explains that the Sita who was abducted by Ravana was a ‘shadow’ Sita. It is noteworthy that several months before the agni pariksha episode, Ramanand Sagar was flooded with letters from viewers advising him not to allow Rama to subject Sita to the humiliation of an agni pariksha. He explained that this had influenced his choice of interpretation of the episode.
RT: Do you think the practice of bride-burning in
MK: In my view, attributing the incidence of bride-burning in
In the second instance of a woman burning herself to death, one can see a definite unconscious influence of Sita’s agni pariksha, even though the woman who chooses to do so knows very well that unlike Ramayana’s Sita, she is not going to come out unscathed and Agnidev is certainly not going to come and offer her a good character certificate.
A woman who chooses the most painful way of killing herself is, in effect, saying, ‘I consider living in my marital home more hurtful than burning myself to death. I reject this relationship and this marriage because there is no sanctity left in it. The oaths taken by my husband with Agnidev as witness have been trampled upon. Therefore, I surrender myself to agni.’
I read this as a strong statement of protest and rejection, similar to Sita’s plea to Mother Earth to swallow her because she finds the demand for a second agni pariksha so utterly humiliating that she would rather be dead than live as Rama’s queen.
A woman who chooses this form of death leaves a permanent blot on the marital family, just as Ramayana’s Sita leaves Rama permanently stigmatized. When a charred body is found in a house, the sight itself is so horrific that it leaves no one in doubt that the woman suffered endless cruelties and indignities. In such cases, no matter what the verdict of the court is, the social verdict goes against the husband and in-laws. It is a very deadly and unforgettable way to register protest and damn your torturers, especially in a country where people can’t depend on the police or the law courts to provide them redressal and justice.
This perhaps explains Indian women’s fascination with and psychological connection to Sita. Through the ages, Rama’s conduct with regard to Sita has earned the disapproval of even his devotees, who have not been able to either justify or forgive him for such a grievous insult and injustice. Rama shrinks in stature due to his cruel and flawed judgement, while Sita rises in our estimation by defiantly rejecting his demand and his moral code and instead preferring to be swallowed by Mother Earth.
RT: Were you influenced by Sita’s character in your growing up years?
MK: Far from it. She was never a role model for me. I was more influenced by the likes of Rani of Jhansi and Joan of Arc rather than the Sitas or Savitris of India. However, I was also deeply influenced by Mirabai’s life and her rejection of matrimonial ties and queenly comforts in order to pursue her chosen goal and a life amidst ordinary people challenging all possible social hierarchies such as those imposed by caste, class and gender. Mirabai for me was a symbol of feminine freedom and autonomy. Even today, I don’t have the grahasthya ashram mindset simply because I was never inclined towards matrimony and did not want to channelize my energies towards seeking a spouse and bringing up my own children. I love other people’s children. I would rather work for all those children who are deprived of a dignified life rather than focus on bringing up one or more of my own.
I got interested in Sita only because I witnessed the widespread obsession with and admiration for Sita among Indian women and men alike, cutting across caste, class, regional, religious and educational divides. I found it very puzzling that while most feminists hold her in contempt and treat her as a negative role model, the vast majority of women across the country admire Sita as a symbol of perfect womanhood. The feminist mission or counter obsession is to ‘cure’ Indian women of their tendency to idolize Sita and instead urge them to adopt Western notions of women’s equality and freedom, or else adopt Durga and Kali as their role models. However, they tend to overlook the fact that Durga is not just a warrior goddess, a slayer of evil demons but also a compassionate mother who is nurturing and forgiving. People respect her wrath because it is focused on combating evil rather than being a permanent state of being. They reach out to her to seek her love and protection. No one would go near a woman who is permanently wrathful, who has no compassion or love to counterbalance it.
A lot of my writing, including the essay on Sita as well as the special issue on the lives of women saint poets of
Our goddesses believe in peaceful co-existence, in graceful acceptance of each other’s worth rather than claiming or establishing superiority over one another. For example, a martial goddess like Durga does not consider herself superior to a patient sufferer like Sita. Nor is Radha treated with disdain for being lost in
The range of moral exemplars available to Indian women is indeed spectacular. Apart from goddesses who work hard to win respect as wives, at the other end of the spectrum are those who consider it an affront that any male should dare consider them sexually accessible or that they should condescend to be mere consorts. Radha’s complete abandon to her extra-marital love with
My experience tells me that women who display strength and courage come to be revered with much greater ease by traditional sections of society in
Nina Paley (b. 1968, in the US) is a long-time veteran of syndicated comic strips, having created Fluff (Universal Press Syndicate), The Hots (King Features) and her own alternative weekly Nina’s Adventures. In 1998 she began making independent animated festival films, including the controversial yet popular environmental short film The Stork. In 2002 Nina followed her then husband to Thiruvananthapuram in India’s southern state of Kerala, where she read her first Ramayana. This inspired her first feature Sita Sings the Blues, which she animated and produced single-handedly over the course of five years on a home computer. Presently, Nina teaches at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan and is a 2006 Guggenheim Fellow.
Malashri Lal (ML): Sita Sings the Blues has been immensely successful in both the US and UK.
Nina Paley (NP): But it hasn’t been released in either country yet! In fact, it’s having its North American premiere this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. So far, the complete feature has only been seen at the Berlinale in Germany and the NatFilm festival in Denmark. And no, I haven’t made any money yet; I’m still spending my own money to make film prints, do sub-titles, ship things . . .
ML: We understand from interviews that your personal experience led to your reading Sita’s story in a contemporary light. How can the film reach out to women in India across cultural differences?
NP: That is a good question. I can’t tell you how curious I am to discover how the film will be received in India—or if it will get shown there at all. Some people may love it, some may hate it. Every viewer brings his/her own experience and perspective to a film, and every interpretation is valid, be it critical or adulatory. We can only wait and see.
ML: Sita has traditionally been revered as a figure of ideal wifehood, though new and critical opinions are calling attention to the denial of ‘choice’ in several episodes of her life. In particular, the agni pariksha sequence calls for a review in terms of a feminist understanding of woman’s agency and action. Do you think Sita in the Ramayana was a passive person, or do you believe that it was merely a patriarchal interpretation which highlighted the submissive aspects of her character?
NP: The latter—I do not see Sita as passive. The agni pariksha I see as a metaphor for grief. I wanted to kill myself when my husband dumped me, and the unbearable pain was like fire—I thought it was going to kill me and I’m still kind of amazed it didn’t. Sita’s walk through fire is actually an active expression of a heartbreak experience. In this way Sita is far more active than most of us. In fact, Sita is a model for expressing what we often repress. She loves Rama actively, without censure or shame or any limits. And when he breaks her heart, she expresses her pain with her whole being. How many of us mere mortals can do that?
ML: What remedial measures did you take in your version to emphasize the strength of Sita?
NP: I am not trying to take any ‘remedial measures’; I am just showing it like I see it. I think Annette Hanshaw’s voice is the best emphasis of Sita’s strength: strength in vulnerability, honesty and yes, purity. Hanshaw’s voice rings clear as a bell after almost a century, and its sweetness is devastating. Sita’s ferocious love for Rama is an unstoppable force, a true source of power, if not empowerment. At the end, Sita’s own power takes the fore, when she calls on Mother Earth to take her back into her womb. Here she displays supernatural powers exceeding those of any other mortal character, even Rama. But this is all there in the Valmiki text; I am not making it up.
ML: What made you choose animation as the innovative method of portraying Sita’s story in a modern context?
NP: I’m an animator. I used the skills and tools at my disposal to tell the story.
ML: Using shadow puppets is another highly effective device as it reminds the viewers of the popularity of the Ramayana in vast areas of Asia. Did the creative and production work involve researchers from south and south-east Asian countries?
NP: The only researcher on the production was me! I was also the writer, producer, director, designer and crew. But it’s not hard to find reference to shadow puppets. A friend bought me a few in Indonesia, and I found pictures of shadow puppets from Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and India in books and online.
ML: I am intrigued by your choice of colours: Sita wears pink, and Rama is painted blue. This is a very elemental colour coding for the male and the female. Rama is described to be in the lineage of Vishnu and blue could be justified from that viewpoint. Sita’s wearing of baby pink from the beginning to the end of her tragic story seems to make an ironic comment on the notion of female innocence as such. Do you agree? What would be your interpretation of the colours you use?
NP: Sita is called ‘The Ideal Woman’ and Rama ‘The Ideal Man’. So, in their designs I wanted to emphasize Sita’s female-ness and Rama’s male-ness in every possible way, to a ridiculous extent. In the West, pink is considered a colour for girls and blue for boys, and this did fit in nicely with Rama’s blue visage in many traditional paintings. More than the colours, the shapes emphasize gender. Sita’s hourglass shape is impossible to achieve; if I had made her waist any thinner, I would have had to bisect her. Likewise, I gave Rama enormous biceps and an impossibly broad chest. The characters’ silhouettes unmistakably say ‘female’ and ‘male’.
Ideal doesn’t just mean a ‘desirable role model’. It has other meanings, as in ‘Platonic ideal’—an abstract essence. These extreme poles of masculinity and femininity are how I see Rama and Sita, and how I convey them in both the narrative and the art.
ML: Sita Sings the Blues blurs the distinction between the tragic story of the epic and the comedy of modern lives, especially of women caught in the binds of marital conventions.
NP: To be clear, Sita Sings the Blues isn’t a critique of marriage or sexist social conventions: it is an anguished critique of romantic love itself. I didn’t love my rejecting husband because society told me to. What blew my mind while reading various Ramayanas in the midst of my own break-up was how primal and universal the problems of love are, and have always been. I do not see Sita as a victim of society. She was not ‘forced’ to be loyal to Rama. She could have stayed at the palace during his forest exile; she could have walked away when he rejected her in Lanka (when he declares, ‘You are free to go wherever you want’; he also gives her permission to remarry). It was Sita’s essential nature to love Rama, regardless of what the rest of the society expected of her. At the end, when she finally gives up on him, her life can end. The way I see it, she attains moksha at that point—liberation not only from her congenital love for a man who breaks her heart, but from all of life’s sucker punches.
ML: Did the mix of technology that you used offer this contrast better than conventional cinema or theatre?
NP: I used animation because I’m an animator. I just wanted to tell this story, using the skills and sensibility I have.
ML: In India, some of the Rama Lila performances enacted at Dussehra attempt to impart a contemporary slant to the story but they may not innovate in any extreme form because the context is religious. Do you see your film as rewriting religion or creating a secular text based on religion? Maybe you have another category in mind that you wish to describe?
NP: I’m certainly not rewriting religion. I understand that for Hindus, the Ramayana is a religious text, but the Ramayana belongs to hundreds of millions of non-Hindus too, and has for centuries. It belongs to Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia, Buddhists in Thailand and Cambodia, and to everyone in India regardless of religion. My Christian friend in Kerala told me her family always exhorted her to ‘be like Sita!’ The Ramayana was clearly important to her and her family, but was it a religious text for them? I don’t think so. So a secular interpretation of the Ramayana is nothing new at all.
Check out this You Tube link for the Sita Sings the Blues!
Behavioural patterns are linked to counter thought patterns within the mind. Deeply entrenched ways of behaviour, even in modern-day society, have their supportive myths and legends that pass on the collective thought forms. If we look back at our history, we could claim that Dravidians were the founders of the earliest Indian civilization that was matrilineal and shared an attachment with the great Mother Goddess. The traditional confrontation between the sexes in contemporary India has traces and mindsets that were established during the initial subjugation of the patrifocal (Aryan) system over the matrifocal (non-Aryan) one. Patriarchy was established via Brahmanization/Sanskritization, wherein most of the spiritual disciplines were ascetic and life-denying. This patriarchy relegated the female to the position of a devotee. It used mythological weaponry and religious licence to transform culture and induce a societal and sexual shift away from the strong matrilineal position that women had originally occupied. The epic struggle for moral supremacy can be observed through the centrality that the Ramayana has occupied and which lasts up to the present day. The Ramayana is the exponent of rigid Brahmanic standards of male–female relationships. Although it draws inspiration from a broad canvas, that is, the confrontation between non-Aryan and Aryan cultures, it can be interpreted as an encounter between the patrifocal social systems and the matrifocal ones, with the former subjugating the latter. The sexual initiatives of both Ravana, the Rakshasa (the darker-skinned Dravidian) king and his sister Surpanakha have to be curbed or better still, destroyed.
Looking at the matrilineal Dravidian social system in ancient India, and drawing from a layered fabric of our multi-cultural strands, one can identify traces of heavy resistance in the Aryan tribes towards the mother-right features that were strongly implanted in the existing society and religions. ‘The threat lay partly in the diametrically opposing sexual patterns of the natives, specifically their recognition of woman as central in familial and social orders,’ [Heimsath (1972), p. 27]. Classical Hindu tradition abounds in intriguing examples of the confrontation between patrifocal and matrifocal societies. ‘If one earnestly approached this study in India, one could probably discover an epic struggle of mother-right and father-right traditions based entirely on an intellectual reconstruction of the history of the Indian people in the form of their myths and legends,’ [Heimsath (1972), p. 28].
The Ramayana therefore symbolizes a cultural, historical as well as a socio-anthropological material which deals with the right kind of normative, prescriptive behaviour. On the other hand, while scanning the Mahabharata, one can see that many of the important characters are illegitimate, that is, they are born out of wedlock or outside conventional morality. The most prominent system is the polyandrous union of Draupadi with the five Pandava brothers, with all of them being married to one woman, each having a child with her, but never remaining faithful to her. Throughout the epic, one also finds Aryan noblemen marrying non-Aryan women because they are seduced by the latter’s beauty, boldness and a certain sense of security that these women embody.
With the spread of the Brahmanic norms, intellectual indoctrinations and interpolations sterilized even portions of the older compositions of the Mahabharata. A lot of the folk traditions and cultural diversity was lost in the North Indian version of Valmiki and Tulsidas’ Ramayana came to be published, which became the dominant versions influencing the collective consciousness of a majority of the people.
What we will be focusing on is the material dealing with the man-woman relationship within the myth. We will be examining the story that acts as an organizing agent, explaining the way natural instincts behave in a cultural context, and its resulting experience which brings out the depths of emotions and records experiences that are archetypal and, therefore, recognizable. Reality can only be understood experientially, and the best way to convey it to the masses in a culture is through a myth or a tale.
We see how the union of Rama and Sita becomes the ideal monogamous model for the Hindu marriage. The woman must henceforth regard her husband as a near god. The ideal of womanhood is projected onto Sita, who becomes the perfect role model as partner and mother. She, like her Western counterpart, the Virgin, is sanitized and made out to be or rather forced to become an asexual being as a higher and purer self, but one who is constantly separated from her husband. Sita’s alleged infidelity, when she is abducted, is a major theme that preoccupies women even today. It is not truth that matters to Rama, but a kind of collective cultural conditioning, because even today, ‘in most religions of the country’, says psychologist Sudhir Kakar, ‘male folk wisdom offers similar overt reasons for man’s perennial war with woman. It agrees in portraying the female sex as lacking both sexual morality and intelligence’. Kakar goes on to quote a number of ancient texts which are exponents of this belief, and which stem from various regions of India. Is it any wonder then ‘that with such a collective fantasy of wife, the fate of sexuality within marriage is likely to come under an evil constellation of stars? Physical love will tend to become a shame-ridden affair, a sharp stabbing of lust with little love and even less passion.’ [Kakar (1989), p.12]
What are the covert messages that such a traditional mythological epic conveys to a woman? Men have complete dominance in every domestic and public relationship. Sexual activity is restricted to marital relations within the marital bond only, and it is deemed correct for the purpose of procreation alone. It suppresses women from undertaking any independent activity and nurturing self-confidence. Women are denied participation in important religious rituals and are exiled from the political arena and important decision-making; they do not inherit the properties of their fathers and widows are not allowed to remarry.
Till date, many Indian women, like Sita, are subdued in their marital homes, and their spirits are broken and minds enslaved. They have learnt to subordinate themselves to the male ego; they must love and worship the man and must believe that they are dependent on him, and provide him psychological backing by seeming to support him even though he may deem it right to abandon the woman along with her children as the Ramayana myth portrays. Why? We may ask. Is it because both the fate of the woman and her children depend upon him?
When the energy of the Great Mother in a culture is suppressed in such a way, the shadow of the Great Mother appears in a different form—the feminine, when not venerated as an equal partner, is venerated instead as the mother. Swami Vivekananda, a social reformer of the last century, told an audience during his famous speech on 18 January 1900, at the World Conference of Religions: ‘In the West woman is wife. The idea of womanhood is concentrated there—as the wife. To the ordinary man in India the whole force of womanhood is concentrated on motherhood. In the Western home the wife rules. In an Indian home the mother rules.’ Modern anthropologists testify the exalted position that the human mother, especially the mothers of sons, and not the Mother Goddess, occupies among Hindus. She, in turn, strengthens the umbilical cord during childhood, knowing that it is her only means of gaining a status in her new family and society.