What’s Ramayana, Doc?

Wednesday, 24 June 2009 — 2:34pm | Animation, Film

Last week I finally got around to seeing Sita Sings the Blues, a majestic animated feature by Nina Paley that I would describe as the fulfilment of the postmodern promise. I had been curious about the film ever since Amid Amidi raved about it last year. In December, Roger Ebert wrote:

[Sita] has not found a distributor. Times are hard, and indie distributors are not rolling in available funds. To them, no doubt, this doesn’t have the ring of box office gold: An animated version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. Once they read that, and they’re like me: Uh, huh. And if you were to read that description in the mailer from your local art house, would you drop everything and race through driving rain see it? Uh, uh.

Are you kidding, Roger? That’s exactly what I’d drop everything and race through driving rain to see.

No matter. With the gracious assistance of the Creative Commons license, Ms Paley has since made the film available online.

I could go on about the endless charm of the musical numbers, the playfulness of the shadow-puppet storytelling sequences, the perfect partnership of Sita’s woes and the Jazz Age torch song, or how my apprehensions toward the stiffness of rigid objects often characteristic of Flash animation were washed away with frame after frame of gorgeous design. And there’s no lack of human-interest stories about the making and distribution of the film, either. But my recommendation is to go in cold, bathe in the sheer personality of this very personal project, and come back later to read about its accomplishment as a triumph for the copyleft movement.

Sita Sings the Blues is the epitome of what postmodern art was always supposed to deliver—and coming from yours truly, this is a high compliment indeed. It’s not merely a stylistic pastiche for the sake of being one: the pastiche is a joyful source of creativity that marries several artistic traditions and revels in showing us how the marriages unfold. It celebrates the instability of oral traditions and the diversity of interpretations of myth, while adding to both.

In that light, I’m baffled (but not surprised) that Sita has drawn the ire of academics of the postcolonial school. From an interview with Nina Paley:

On the far left, there are some very, very privileged people in academia who have reduced all the wondrous complexities of racial relations into, “White people are racist, and non-white people are all victims of white racism.” Without actually looking at the work, they’ve decided that any white person doing a project like this is by definition racist, and it’s an example of more neocolonialism.

This is an understanding of Orientalism, as Edward Said called it, of such undergraduate maturity that I wonder how its proponents made it that far in academia at all. If anything, Sita is the very model of where art can go when the narcissistic presumption that cultures can only talk about themselves has run its course: towards the syncretic and the globally aware. Bill Benzon is quite correct when he says:

And if your inner geek is thinking “ancient text + contemporary story = Ulysses,” well then your inner geek’s ahead of mine, because I didn’t think that until 10 or 20 minutes into my first viewing. But I wouldn’t count that as any more than a casual observation, one with a non-casual corollary.

By the ordinary method of reckoning such things, the culture of ancient Greece and Rome is in the direct ancestral line of 20th Century European culture which would necessarily include Joyce’s Dublin. The same mode of reckoning sees little relationship between ancient India and contemporary America, thus both Hindu nationalists and post-colonial Theorists have been criticizing Paley’s cultural miscegenation. Alas for them, cultural miscegenation has been the way of the world since whenever and it’s only accelerating in our era.

For my part, I wasn’t thinking of Ulysses at all, but of this:

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3 rejoinders to “What’s Ramayana, Doc?”

  1. All our mathematics above the level of “XII * II = XXIV” is in the direct line of descent from India.

    Thursday, 25 June 2009 at 7:02am

  2. It’s a real shame that mathematics is almost never taught within the historical context it deserves. Few things kindled my interest in maths more than reading popular histories of how we got from Archimedes or Pythagoras to what we have today. I think people would be more receptive to (and less surprised at) the international character of our intellectual history were they not pigeonholed into believing that cultural/political/regional divisions since 1789 are representative of all human civilization.

    But that’s a topic for another day.

    Thursday, 25 June 2009 at 1:17pm

  3. Bill Benzon

    Ditto on maths. I’m afraid so-called Western Culture would have been utterly impossible without Oriental math.

    As for the rest: Kill the wabbit!

    Saturday, 18 July 2009 at 8:45am

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