Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ritual in Sita Sings the Blues, Part 1

I want to discuss ritual patterns in Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues. Specifically, I want to look at the beginning and ending of the film, the beginning and ending of the Agni Pariksha sequence, and the parallel progression of Sita and Nina through the film. But first I need to define what I mean by ritual pattern. Then we can return to the movies.

Ritual Patterns

The patterns I have in mind are an abstraction from structures anthropologists have found in rituals around the world. Here’s how I characterized that structure in my essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (abstract plus link to PDF):
In “Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time” Edmund Leach has described the ritual structure of Durkheim's “states of the moral person.” They are: 1) secular life, 2) separation from the secular world and transition to 3) the marginal state where the ‘moral person’ is in a world discontinuous from the ordinary world, often being regarded as being dead, and from which a return to the secular is made by a process of 4) aggregation or desacralization, often symbolized by rebirth. Arnold van Gennep talks of separation, transition, and incorporation in The Rites of Passage. The ritual sequence involves two realms of being, the secular and the sacred, and is designed to order the transition of initiates between these two realms.
As a simple example, consider the bride’s role in the now standard Christian wedding ceremony, a ceremony in which she will loose the surname she was born with and assume her husband’s surname, thereby changing her social identity. She enters the church with a veil over her face. She is thus faceless; symbolically, she has no social identity and is now separated from the secular world. Accompanied by her father, she walks to the altar where she is met by the groom; she is in a transitional state. She and the groom exchange vows and the officiate pronounces them to be married. Now that she has her new social identity, and a new name, the veil can be lifted and the new woman can be incorporated into society in that new identity.

This ritual is a relatively short, but anthropologists have recorded rituals that last for hours and days and even longer. Adolescent initial rites, for example, can last for months. There is an initial rite of separation where the young men, shall we say, are stripped on their ordinary identity. They may have to wear special dress and have special markings on their bodies. They may be given a different name as well. Once they have thus been separated from society, they’ll go live in some other place reserved for them and they’ll be taught things needful to be an adult man in their society. This process can easily last several months and may involve arduous physical tasks or a vision quest. During this period their friends and family may well treat them as being dead, which they are, socially. They are in transition, without an identity in their society. Once the proper things have been done another ceremony will be performed and the young men will be given new names, perhaps new body make-up, and will be incorporated into society as adults.

What’s important about the ritual pattern is not how elaborate it is, or how long it takes for the full ritual to run to completion. What’s important is the pattern itself: separation, transition, and incorporation. That’s the pattern we’re going to look for in Sita Sings the Blues.

Bounded by Ritual

First of all, we could see the experience of watching Sita Sings the Blues as itself a ritual experience, especially if one sees it in a theatre, preferably an old-time movie palace. Here you go to a building purpose built for movie watching, and you meet other people there who have come for the same thing you did: to watch Sita Sings the Blues. Once you’ve entered the building you’ve separated yourself from the mundane world and begun the transition to the magical world of Movieland. First you buy your ticket (that is, make an offering to the gods); then, perhaps, you buy some popcorn and a soda, whatever. You may hang out in the lobby a bit while chatting with your friends, whatever. But, when the time comes, you enter the theatre proper, take a seat, and watch the movie. You are now in a transition zone; your mind has withdrawn its attention from the mundane world and is given over to consuming the flickering images on the screen and the sounds coming from the speakers. This goes on for 90, 100, 120 minutes or more, and then you exit the theatre and become, once again, incorporated into mundane life. If the movie was a good one, you will be in a different mood from when you went in; you will have been transformed, if only for a few hours.

That, of course, is general to all movies, not just Sita Sings the Blues. Likewise, all movies have title credits and end credits that bracket the movie proper, and one might think of them as rites of separation and incorporation. And so we have a ritual structure (title credits, film, end credits) within another ritual structure (lobby experience, theatre proper, lobby experience). Sita Sings the Blues has one more layer of embedded ritual.

Starting at about 1:53 and running to 5:15 Paley presents us with a brief cosmology that starts with a cosmic explosion that gives way to a procession of Hindu deities, a beating heart, and finally, a heliocentric solar system. The (virtual) camera zooms in on earth and, ZIP! we’re in San Francisco, it’s night, and Nina and Dave are sleeping. That sequence lasted 202 seconds, and nothing that happened in it is necessary to the story told in the film. If you miss that sequence, there’s nothing in the subsequent story that will puzzle you. Why then, is it there?

Let’s skip to the end. Starting at roughly 77:32 and running about a minute to 78:31, Paley reprises that opening cosmology very briefly. There’s no explosion, and the procession of deities has been all but eliminated. But there is a tableau that was also in the opening sequence; one deity rubbing the leg of another deity, recumbent. In the opening sequence Vishnu (male) is the recumbent deity and Lakshmi (female) is ministering to his comfort. That, Paley tells us on the director’s commentary, is a traditional Hindu tableau.

When Paley reprises the tableau at the end, the roles are reversed; Vishnu ministers to Lakshmi’s comfort.

In a matter that is absolutely crucial to the narrative, the relationship between men and women, the concluding sequence reverses the opening one.

These two sequences frame the main narrative. The first is like a rite of separation in that it brings us from the mundane world to the magical world of the narrative proper while the second is like a rite of incorporation in that it brings back from the magical world to the mundane world. Most narratives, however, are not framed by cosmologies; in this respect Sita Sings the Blues is special. I suggest that Paley needed this framing in order to make the main narrative(s) work. It is not that she puts her own story in parallel with Sita’s but that the two stories, in some sense, become one story during the Agni Pariksha episode. Paley needs the cosmic context to allow for that confluence and convergence.

Across Space and Time

That confluence and convergence happens in the Agni Pariksha episode. The Agni Pariksha – purification by fire – is an incident from Sita’s story. But Paley introduces it through Nina’s story. Nina learns that her husband wants to divorce her, she screams in anguish and – WHAM! – we’re into the Agni Pariksha, with Sita front and center. She lights a match, drops it, and thereby lights the fire that consumes but doesn’t consume her; it transforms her. That, I suggest, is a rite of separation. And it is paralleled by a reversing rite of incorporation, when Sita blows the match out at the end of the Agni Parkisha. Note also that, after Sita lights the fire, we see the cosmic flame/explosion that had opened the initial cosmological sequence; in parallel fashion it reappears just before Sita blows the match out. Thus:
match+ → flame → . . . → flame → match-
Between the separation and incorporation Sita dances in a region that seems outside space. The images on the screen imply some kind of space, but it is not a well-defined three dimensional space. Things happen and move, but nothing goes anywhere in particular. Most importantly, those gods that appear in the opening and closing cosmologies, they reappear in this sequence.

Starting at roughly 53:13 and running to roughly 53:20 those deities cycle through the sequence:*

From 53:20 to 53:32 Sita is on the left and the deities are on the right. She is seeing them (Paley told me in an interview):

Finally, in a sequence that runs from 54:03 to 54:23 Sita and the deities merge:

(The skeleton is Sita.)

And then they disappear. Entirely. The next thing we see is the cosmic fire that signals that the sequence is about to close. Once Sita has blown out the match the Agni Pariksha comes to end.

And when it does, where do we go next? Do we go back to New York City and Nina’s story, where we were before the sequence began? No. We go back to the Sita story in ancient India. The two stories, thus, have become one, reaching through historical time and geographic space in the out-of-time-out-of-space zone of the Agni Pariksha.

Next Time: The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told

Now all we have to do is situate these two stories, that of Nina and that of Sita, within the narrative space bounded by the “outer” ritual of the cosmologies and the “inner” ritual of the Agni Pariksha. I will do that in a second post (I’ve got other matters to attend to in real life, and so must remove myself from cyberspace).

Things to think about: How is it that Nina becomes separated from her ongoing life? When does that happen & what is it that defines this separation? Correlatively, how is it that she returns to the world? Of course, we must ask the same questions about Sita. Note also that in the last part of the film, after the Agni Pariksha, Sita becomes a mother. Nina doesn’t. Does something happen in her life, however, that might parallel Sita’s motherhood. I’ll give you a hint: What’s Nina reading in her last scene?

* For bonus points: There's something very peculiar about this deity, what is it? It's not that it has many arms, that's standard for Hindu deities. There's something else going on, and it's mighty peculiar, and interesting.


  1. .
    Perhaps what you are referring to is another aspect of Nina's interweaving, William.

    The deities portrayed seem themselves to be androgynous -- the first illustration immediately after your initial asterisk features the head of Siva on a body one of whose four arms is presumably Kali's, holding her bloody sickle aloft -- I can't make out all the details or all the many reversals -- but this kind of melding of male and female deities is not so foreign to Hindu thought, where it is (for instance) represented in the androgyne Ardhanarisvara, whose right side is male (Siva) and left side female (Sakti).

    Eagerly anticipating your second installment...

  2. Yes, Charles, that's it. Those deities are mix and match, with each arm, the torso, the head, etc, from a different deity. And everything changes every other frame (12 per second). The images are cut-outs from devotional cards.