Introducing Sita Sings the Blues

[My mostly unedited and uncorrected remarks for movie night 13/02/13.]

The movie you are about to see was almost entirely written, directed, produced and animated by American artist Nina Paley and released in 2008. I’ve been a great fan of it since I first became aware of it and watched it, shortly after its release.

The ostensible purpose for this showing is as part of my course this semester, Sacred Texts in the Religions of the East. Among the themes we are considering there is virtue in Asian religion. I wanted to include something narrative from Classical Hindu tradition and it dawned on me that the movie would serve as well as anything else, and in some ways better.

The film is especially interesting for a couple of reasons, both of which entail controversy: the first is its copyright status and the other copyright issues that arose from the release of the film; and second, its use of materials from the Valmiki Ramayana tradition.

The rest of my presentation outlines these two matters (note: I’m not going to bore you with such things as a synopsis of the Indian Epic which the movie is based upon – the film itself tells you most of what you need to know – and for that matter, neither am I going to comment much upon the film’s contents).

As a fierce copyright warrior, Paley originally released the film under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license. This meant that anyone or any entity was free to view, exhibit, broadcast, or copy it – and even for charge – without any permissions from or compensation to Paley. Although, compensation is certainly encouraged and appreciated.

To that end, Paley in concert with the organization Question Copyright, developed a scheme whereby entities which share any revenue with her from showings, duplication or sale of merchandise may attach the Creator Endorsed logo to any materials associated with such enterprises.

You’ll notice that logo on the posters for tonight’s showing, and you’ll notice the can before me. Whatever you might wish to contribute I will be sure to get to Nina via her Paypal account.

Now, Paley’s stand as expressed through the creation and distribution of her film might appear to most as a mere eccentricity if not for her subsequent copyright problems.

The film uses a number of Annette Hanshaw recordings from the 1920s. While these were no longer subject to federal US copyright, through assorted State laws governing recordings, compositions, and the syncing of recordings with images which predated Federal law came into play as several entities came forward to demand royalties from Paley. Initially these entities demanded a combined US$220,000 from Paley but eventually settled for a mere US$50,000. Paley borrowed the money in order to pay up. She’s paid off the loan and made a little extra through speaking engagements and merchandizing.

Now, another condition of the settlement was that additional royalties would have to be paid in the event that 5,000 or more copies of the film were to be made and distributed. This applies to anyone who would produce +4,999 copies; the regime of the royalty payments is a byzantine arrangement involving 8 copyright holders each with their own royalty formula.

The copy were are to watch tonight is a limited edition numbered and autographed version I purchased when Paley opened her store of Sita merchandise. (I also have a graphic tee of a rishi playing the violin, but it doesn’t fit so well anymore.)

This we’d consider the major copyright issue, given the money involved and whatnot, but subsequent issues that have arisen that are perhaps more telling.

About a month ago, Paley changed the license for the film to simple public domain. This was the result of the fact that broadcasters and others simply refused to acknowledge the legally defined terms of the Creative Commons license and continued to pester Paley to sign agreements freeing them to show or use the film for whatever purposes; she`s consistently refused to enter into these agreements informing the parties in question that they had every right to do with Sita whatever they wished. The result was that they’d simply not use the film at all without such agreements.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was that our own NFB demanded that a friend of Paley`s remove all references to the film from a documentary he’s making since Paley refuses to do the paperwork to give the NFB and the documentarian permission to employ anything from Sita as they wish (all of which is given according to the Creative Commons license).

Now these issues are close to my heart as an objector to the copyright regime in North America and Europe, but they are probably not so important here. Still, with Paley, I’ll assert: copyright is broken.

Moving on, it’s probably more important here to acknowledge and discuss issues around the substance of Paley’s film.

Sita Sings the Blues has generated some controversy for its contents and its treatment of the Valmiki Ramayana.

Hindu nationalists have declared the film to be insulting to Hindu culture and derogatory to the story’s principals, especially Sita, a goddess.

Paley has also been criticised for the cultural appropriation her film represents. In an interview for the magazine Wired she said:

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.

As you watch the movie you might find yourself sympathetic one or both of these criticisms, but – without going off on a pedantic rant – I caution you against that. For these particular materials Paley employs are fraught with respect to such issues as sacrality and scripture, and identity and colonization.

For the Sacred Texts class, the reading assigned to accompany the movie is the Introduction to an anthology of essays from 1991 entitled, Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia.

The broad lessons this volume seeks to impart are, first, it’s simply no longer tenable to consider the Valmiki Ramayana as some kind of Ur-text from which the others are merely derived or to which they are responses. Derivation and reaction has certainly occurred, but the contexts in which this has taken place are far more complex.

And so secondly, and subsequently, Many Ramayanas shows us that substance(s) and spatial and temporal location(s) of Rama-narrative materials are, on the one hand, stand each alone, and on the other hand, stand as threads in an immensely complex tapestry covering all historical time and a wide space extending well beyond South Asia.

Thus, the accusations against Paley – from the right and from the left – backfire or rather are, as the kids say, an EPIC FAIL. Sacralizing Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, as well as defending it as the culture of the Other, is to reify some particularity which is problematic on numerous levels.

Indulge these remarks on the Valmiki Ramayana which are intended to bring this to a conclusion.

First, to assert that anyone is guilty of blaspheming against the Valmiki Ramayana by questioning anything about Sita and Rama is to do violence against the Sanskrit text:

Sita, upon her marriage to Rama, no one in the West could view relatively without simply abandoning any claim to moral seriousness – she is a paragon beauty because she’s just lost all her milk teeth; alternatively, she is just a petulant tween who loses her protection in the forest because having seen the deer (a demon in disguise) she demands that Rama acquire it for her because she adores it.

Furthermore, Valmiki (and whoever else might have put their impressions on the Sanskrit text) stuffed it with moral paradoxes that the tradition wrung its hands about for centuries and could not resolve. And these are set up by the very fact that Rama, the legitimate king in succession to his father, is put aside by the keeping of a promise his father made to Rama’s stepmother. From there the (Sanskrit) story proceeds with a set of moral paradoxes which Indian tradition has never really resolved (Rama’s killing of Vali, king of the monkeys, for example).

All’s to say, Valmiki’s text seems to invite contestation, and other Ramayana traditions seem to heed to the call. To suggest that anyone is capable of, culpable in, offending against this particular narrative is to try by  violence to suppress efforts which this particular text implicitly, if not explicitly, invites.

At the same time, there’s no small irony to the accusations of neocolonialism leveled against Paley. For the Valmiki text is itself a story of Othering and colonization: the historian Romila Thapar has demonstrated quite persuasively, particularly in her 1978 book, Exile and the Kingdom: Some Thoughts on the Ramayana, that the cultures of the rakshasas (demons) and the monkeys closely resemble the cultures of certain South Indian tribals (so-called scheduled castes and adivasis, fìrst dwellers) which remain today. (The representations of Ravana and his followers as demons, and Hanuman and his followers as monkeys, were troublesome for the Jains who explicitly framed their versions by mocking the idea of demons and talking monkeys and rendering those groups as merely human.)

And it’s worth noting that in the Independent period South Indian (read Tamil) nationalism has viewed Rama vs. Ravana in inverted terms – Ravana is, at the least a tragic hero, at the most, THE hero of the story as a figure resisting Sanskritic colonization of the Dravidian South.

And again, anyone who desires to, in effect, sideline the fact that Ramayana is problematic with respect to gender issues is a fool or a fascist. Paley joins a long venerable tradition of women’s perspectives – the folk songs of Telugu women for example – on the story.

Those are all the points basically I’ve wanted to make. But let me conclude with a brief point on a new discovery for me about the film. Rereading the Many Ramayanas introduction, apparently for the first time since I first saw this film, this paraphrase of the essay on South Indian shadow puppet Ramayana performances stuck out:

Unlike the Ram Lila of Banaras, performed before huge crowds, the spectators at the Kerala puppet plays are few—and those few often doze off soon after the performance begins. As a result, the puppeteers perform principally for one another. Aficionados of the genre, they strive to outdo each other in voluminous commentary and witty remarks, incorporating into the telling of the Ramayana verbal treatises on grammar, local references, and satire of pious ideals. This internal audience has thus shaped the many layers and frames of the drama, giving rise to yet another kind of diversity within the Ramayana tradition.

I ask you to bear this in mind when the shadow puppets appear in the film. And consider the following from Paley’s Wired interview about the shadow puppet scenes in the movie:

Those are friends of mine from India. That’s all unscripted, all improvised, and that’s their natural speaking voices. They’re not scholars — they were laughing, saying, “Oh, I should have read up on the Ramayana before I came,” and I was like, “No, no! I want you to go with what you remember.”

Though I can’t say for sure, I think it’s apparent that Paley was aware of the Kerala tradition and decided to take the playfulness of it and kick it up a notch as you’ll see.

With that, let’s get to the business at hand. I hope you enjoy the movie as much as I have (the 9 or 10 times I’ve seen it).



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