Sita Sings the Universal Blues


by Jared Powell
Jared Powell is  a senior from Canton, Mississippi
majoring in English and Religious Studies. This post
was originally written for Steven Ramey’s REL 419 class.

Any college student would agree that the last thing we need is another Netflix suggestion to distract us from our studies… but that is exactly what I’m going to offer. Put down your English readings, forget about that MathLab assignment, and–dare I say it–skip the football game and watch Sita Sings the Blues. Nina Paley’s animated retelling of the Ramayana is humorous, charming, visually captivating, and–as will be explained after the preview below–incredibly insightful for thinking about narrative formation.

To begin a discussion of narrative formation in this film, I’d like to look at what first struck me as I began watching it–the collection of animation styles. Instead of choosing one style of animation and using it throughout the film, Paley chooses a mixture of forms and techniques to tell her story. Two of these recognizable styles are the figures in profile with large eyes (the figures at the beginning of the preview), which show many similarities to the Rajput style of painting, and that of the narrators of the story (pictured at the top of the page), based on Thai shadow puppets. One style from the film that is not represented in the preview is the more modern cartoon animation which Nina Paley uses to weave her own autobiographical storyline into the story of Rama and Sita. Sure, these various art styles provide a feast for the visual senses, but they also point to the fact that “timeless” narratives, such as the Ramayana, are not actually coherent, unchanging wholes, but are instead pieced together and continually constructed throughout time. The story has been read and retold for centuries, and with each retelling a new mark is made on the narrative. The various artistic renderings are meant to represent some of the cultures, both from the Indian subcontinent and beyond, in which the Ramayana has been read and who have therefore continuously created the narrative and passed it down to present readers.

Paley even leaves her own mark on the story by incorporating her autobiographical love story into that of Rama and Sita, which is presented in a drastically different animation style than the rest of the film, as previously mentioned. This seems to make the statement that the Ramayana is not only a patchwork narrative created over several centuries and handed down to us, but that it is also still being created by us today. This is further reflected in her incorporation of American jazz and blues songs by Annette Hanshaw. Paley sees these songs as reflections of the Ramayana‘s themes, and so they become material to add to the narrative tradition. As the preview states, it is “The greatest break-up story ever told,” and as long as human experience can relate to the tale, it will continue to be read, recreated, and retold. So to my fellow students who can relate to the experience and need a release, or just need to take an hour-and-a-half study break, I recommend watching Sita Sings the Blues and deciding what additions to the narrative you can make. (Don’t actually skip the football game though, that’s a cardinal sin in these parts.)

Image Credit: “BhavanaSitaContaminated.jpg” licensed
under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons,
CC BY-SA 3.0