It Ain’t Over Until the Systematically Oppressed Woman Sings

Valmiki’s Ramayana has maintained, over the course of several millennia, as an incredibly cherished, traditional Hindu tale. The piece, to this day, exercises substantial influence over the ideologies of the Indian people. Namely, the idea of dharma, or the Hindu concept of virtue and morality. The epic centers around the Vishnu-incarnate Rama, his tumultuous exile, his quest to save his chaste wife, and the topic of this analysis, Sita. The Ramayana is valuable not only to the people of India, but to their worldly neighbors as well. Nina Paley is one such person that found the Ramayana to be a rewarding narrative.  Paley created the unapologetically quirky, irreverent, and unconventionally animated film Sita Sings the Blues after her own partner left her. The film includes five different animation techniques, four different time periods, three different stories, and two different cultures both unified and juxtaposed. Her interpretation, however, differs significantly from the original tale. Paley’s feature-length retelling of the Ramayana, produces an interesting westernized interpretation of the ancient Indian epic. The plot is adapted to fit Paley’s personal interpretation of the Ramayana as “the greatest breakup story ever told” (Paley, Sita Sings the Blues). The interpretation centers on the plight of Sita and parallels Paley’s own romantic quandary. Sita Sings the Blues creates a subjugated, but ultimately feminist, Sita. The thematic change from dharma to gender dynamics and relations exposes a narrative of societally conditioned male domination.

When read traditionally, the Ramayana offers Sita as an earthly embodiment of divine beauty, tenderness, wisdom, and courage- traits that served her well in captivity, as she  constantly asserts herself for rights as defined by her value system. However, when critiqued through a feminist eye, like in Sita Sings the Blues, one would assert that Sita’s ideal feminine traits are merely tools for which to insure her unquestioning subordination (Murty). Where Rama represents ideal man in all respects of life, Sita is characterized only by the embodiment of the ideal wife. Throughout the film, Sita is shown almost constantly as crying, a victim, rather than the resilient, understanding wife that she is in the myth. This sort of feminist literary critique is a rebellion against male ideas of female identity and experience. Female experience is transformed into female consciousness, often in response to male paradigms for female experience (Goel). The Ramayana chronicles the experience that Sita is supposed to have had: strength and courage, but also undying subordination and dedication to Rama in a less than romantic sense. Instead, Paley’s account of Sita’s experience explores her consciousness while in exile and while being chastised by the man she loves. Because Paley delivers Sita’s suicide, or recession into mother earth, as it occurs in the Ramayana, she infers that happiness and success are not necessarily found in the family sphere of marriage, children and unconditional love – a point of view in strict contradiction with female dharma and in alignment with the western idea of female autonomy.

Paley’s integration of western cultural, or relational, ideologies into the character of Sita transforms her from a strong, dutiful wife to one of scorn and victimization. In the Hindu culture, communities are patrilineal and patriarchal. One’s identity “stems from one’s relationship with primary males in the family and social, legal, and communal power is assigned to and through males” (Bhatt). A woman’s value is designated first through their viability as a wife, then through marital status,  and then through motherhood. From birth, Hindu daughters are seen as merely guests in their family homes and her family considers it their responsibility to prepare her for her role as a wife and a mother. In western society, women have nearly full agency over themselves and their lives and young girls are not raised in preparation for marital function, but for autonomy. Most of what is understood about domestic violence is derived from analyses of Euro-American/western, nuclear family structures.

Domestic violence is defined as when a partner tries to physically or psychologically dominate or harm the other (Bhatt). By this vein, Rama certainly mistreats Sita. He says, sternly, to her, “my purpose has been accomplished… I wish to let you know that all this was done for your sake, but for the sake of preserving my honor” (Valmiki, 1229). This sort of psychological degradation should not be regarded as healthy behavior, especially in a marriage that has been depicted for millennia as perfectly ideal.  His flaws as a husband are excused as the sacrifices required for kingship, where treating women kindly isn’t a priority. Sita’s submissive nature has long been held as a model of wifehood in India. Indian women are urged to adopt her virtues of in order to attain that flawless wifely status that Sita endorsed so well in her multiple sacrifices for her husband. Paley found in Sita a resonance of her own marital frustration. Sita Sings the Blues makes use of irony by crossing between multiple timelines, giving the audience a portrait of women, across time and place, being mistreated by men and not having the ability or agency to do much of anything to advocate for themselves. While the patriarchy of ancient Hindu myths may be readily apparent, and their congruence with some facets American culture unsettling, Paley urges women to be cognizant of unconscious  misogynistic internalization.

In a culture where divorce is rarely an option, and where women are often given little to no power in the fate of their marriages, Sita occupies the status of an everywoman.  Paley deals with her grief for her own husband’s betrayal by channelling a fierce sympathy for Sita’s treatment at the hands of Rama. Paley does this by not so subtly criticizing Rama, stripping him of his supposed divine virtue (Luthra). Rather hilariously, Rama’s estranged sons, Lava and Kusha, sing a song in praise of their father, as taught to them by the sage Valmiki. This song, starting out with “Rama’s great, Rama’s good, Rama does what Rama should,” quickly descends into the twins’  lament: “Sing his love, sing his praise,/ Rama set his wife ablaze./ Got her home, kicked her out,/ To allay his people’s doubt” (Paley, Sita Sings the Blues). Just as Sita’s role as a human is secondary to her role as  house-maker, her role as, and his idea of her as, Rama’s wife and truest love is secondary to the opinions of his people.

Along with the imposition of western ideologies on the eastern tale, Paley parallels the epic with the story of her own failed relationship. Our romantic proclivities are part of tacit culture. Sita, the wife of righteous Rama in Ayodhya, who is stolen from, saved by, and then rejected by her husband versus Nina, the wife of an animator in modern California who is rejected when her husband goes to India for work – the plot joins the two women emotionally by applying the thematic notion “unconditional love for someone who does not treat [them] right” to both of their situations (Paley, Sita Sings the Blues). The chastity through fire scene in the film is contrasted with Nina’s heartbreak and abandonment– a very moving scene and sentiment that explores unconditional love that spans the cultures and centuries.

The effect of seeing these stories with almost identical plots side by side but from different eras and cultures makes apparent the vast differences in what the themes of each story are. While Sita is viewed as a dutiful wife for giving her life up for a man who treated her horribly, Nina’s situation appears unhealthy and she would be told by any of her friends that there are plenty of other fish in the sea. Sita’s story, which is ancient, says that everything that Sita did, from following her husband into the wilderness, burning herself alive, praying for him, and then sacrificing herself a second time to prove her worth, are just the natural, submissive ways by which a wife should behave. Nina, who gave all of herself to her partner as well, is happy without him by the end. The selflessness that Nina had for her partner was the wrong way to behave, just as Sita, in accordance to western ideology, should not be dependent on Rama for fulfillment. She did nothing for herself and even when her partner, who did not treat her very well in the first place, left her and broke her heart, and she still wanted to be with him. The theme of dharma in the Ramayana is turned on its head in Sita Sings the Blues, where Paley presents both Rama and Sita as lacking the infallibility that they should have. Much like the human proclivity to strive for an ultimately unreachable perfection. Nina eventually realizes that she can be happy without him because she is an autonomous person with agency that need not the approval of another. This is an implication by Paley that Sita, and women like her, should do the same. The two women had similar experiences that are interpreted completely differently by the taking into account culture and zeitgeist.

The film ends with Sita’s death, in which she passes the second purity test and a personified Mother Earth takes Sita back into her womb, paralleled with Nina alone in an apartment in New York reading Valmiki’s Ramayana, preparing herself for an independent life in womanhood. Sita chooses to ask the Earth to receive her, rather than asking for her name to be cleared in order to once more, be with Rama. This action can be interpreted in one of two ways: first, Sita is finally succeeding in redeeming her name as a chaste and pure wife by her eternal and transcendent acceptance by the gods, or, second, Sita rejecting the husband and world that has thwarted her. Paley does directly assert that Sita represents an archetypal feminist, but by comparing Sita to her own experience, Sita becomes a woman of a similar status of newfound independence.

Paley, throughout her film, petitions for alternative, personal interpretations to be drawn from myths. She dislocates the Ramayana from its status as religious doctrine and brings it back to the realm of myth, which is malleable by imagination. She takes this reclamation one step further, reclaiming it not just for herself, but for every viewer. The opening credits for Sita Sings the Blues read, “Your Name Here presents…” and then goes on to display its producers, “Funded by You”, causing the audience to become stockholders in the narrative. Paley urges the audience to make the story their own, a reminder that the Ramayana is humanity’s as much as it was Valmiki’s. Myths are, by nature, meant to display motifs of human characteristics for all readers to understand and relate to on a basic level. Where many myths deal with the hero motif, Nina Paley instead sees and cultivates a more modern motif in Sita, that of the scorned, but independent, lover.

The altered thematic principles between the stories do not necessarily denigrate one another, but, indeed, they add a depth of understanding to each piece. Reading the Ramayana from a feminist literary perspective subjugates Sita, and doing so while experiencing Sita Sings the Blues exposes her as a weakened, but resilient feminist archetype. Dharma is presented in both pieces,  but quite differently. In the Ramayana it is a guideline by which to live ones life, but in Paley’s work, it highlights the flaws in expecting perfectibility from anyone. Paley’s recount of her own failed relationship causes the myth to transcend culture and time, making the Ramayana easily understood and accessible by women, nay, people, of all walks of life.

Works Cited

Bhatt, Archana Pathak. “The Sita Syndrome: Examining the Communicative Aspects of Domestic Violence from a South Asian Perspective.”  Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 9, no. 3,  2008. pp. 155-173.

Goel, Shilpi. “Feminist Literary Criticism.” Language in India, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 18, Apr. 2010. Accessed 11 Nov. 2017.

Murty, JRK. “Sita in Valmiki Ramayana: A Feminist Archetype!” IUP Journal of English Studies, vol. 8, no. 4. 2013.

Paley, Nina, “Sita Sings the Blues”. Online movie. 2008. Youtube.

Rashmi, Luthra. “Clearing Sacred Ground: Women Centered Interpretation of Indian Epics.” Feminist Formation, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 135-157, 2014.

Valmiki. “the Ramayana”. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. A. Edited by Martin Puchner. Norton, 2012. pp. 1170-1207, 1226-1234. Print.


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