Sita’s Side of the Story

I was introduced to the wonderful animated film Sita Sings the Blues by some friends a couple of weeks ago. The film is a retelling of the Ramayan, with a perspective sympathetic to Sita’s. Sita Sings the Blues won me over with its gorgeous artwork, inventive narrative techniques and borderline-irreverent unpicking of the Rama-Sita story.

Animator Nina Paley retells the story with a mixture of documentary-style personal reflections from shadow-puppet figures and music sequences set to songs by 1920’s jazz singer Annette Henshaw. There are also a number of little songs like this one:

It’s catchy, no?

I had Sita on the brain this past week because work took me to Janakpur, which is known as the birthplace of Sita (also known as Janaki) and the site of her marriage to Rama. The Janaki Temple is a popular pilgrimage site for Nepalis and Indians alike. Janakpur is a rather oppressive town for the female traveler, where you will see few women out and about on the streets and bazaars, but the Janaki Mandir is one of the only places where you can see groups of women out in public.

I visited the temple one evening during the nightly aarti (fire) ceremony and found throngs of women pushing and shoving to get close to the inner sanctum of the temple where Sita’s idol is housed. Judging from the enthusiastic level of elbowing going on, females seem to make more ardent devotees to the goddess than males. She clearly evokes an enormous devotion and affection in women round here. From my side I find Sita, and the example that she holds up for Hindu women, to be rather unsettling. On one level she is the archetype of female passivity, suffering in silence to preserve the patriarchal status quo. After she is captured by the demon Raavan, she is initially welcomed back by her husband, but is then exiled into the forest to preserve Rama’s reputation when rumours start to circulate about a liaison between her and her captor. Sita can be read as an example of female stoicism to be emulated, or as a figure of quiet but persistent female strength in a male-dominated world.

Rama and Sita’s wedding is a popular theme in Mithila painting, which Janakpur is famous for. These paintings are normally executed by groups of women and can be found on the walls of homes and public places -such as this mural at Janakpur airport

There’s certainly no getting away from Rama and Sita in these parts, which is why, for me, Sita Sings the Blues was such an engaging take on their story.

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