Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ritual in Sita Sings the Blues, Part 2b

In my immediately preceding discussion of ritual patterning in Sita Sings the Blues I considered the Nina’s story up to the very end where “we see her in bed, cat cradled in her arm, and reading Valmiki’s Ramayana. She appears to be content with her life. And so we may say that that last scene functions as a rite of incorporation.” And that led to a series of questions:
Under what terms? If she’d organized her identity around her husband, and he’s left her, and she doesn’t have a new husband or even a boyfriend, then why say that she has become reintegrated into society? There is an answer to that, and a fairly obvious one, but I’d like to pose another question: What happened that she went from begging Dave to taking her back to being content with her new kitty and a book?
It’s now time to take up Sita’s tale. Not only is it more complex than Nina’s tale – more complex in that it involves more actors in more episodes over a longer period of time – it is presented in a more complex manner. Paley presented Nina’s tale in a single visual style while she presents Sita’s tale through three visual styles, one of them featuring three narrators and commentators who both tell us what happens and comment on the action. Another visual style, a classically “cartoony” one, is used for the Annette Hanshaw songs, and the other is based on Indian miniatures. Because of this complexity, I won’t run through her story event by event as I did Nina’s – though I may do so at a later time.

Sita’s Is Lost, then Found

Sita is married to Rama, heir apparent in the kingdom of Ayodhya. As a result of a promise his father had made to one of his wives, Rama is sent into exile for 14 years and Sita, the ever-dutiful wife, insists upon accompanying him. While in exile, Sita is abducted by Ravana and taken to his kingdom, Lanka. Though he wants to bed her, Sita refuses, and he, scholar and gentleman that he is, doesn’t force himself on her. With the help of Hanuman, the monkey king, Rama rescues Sita and returns with her to . . . just where is not exactly clear to me.

Wherever it is, what Sita had hoped would be a happy reunion is not. Rama is cold toward her. And Paley places this cold reunion (37:21 – 39:06) immediately after Dave’s rejection of his Nina’s charms (36:09 – 37:21), with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet sawing away on the soundtrack. In response to Rama’s unexpected and inexplicable rejection, Sita asks that a funeral pyre be built. And so Sita immolates herself to the tune of “Mean to Me,” sung by Annette Hanshaw (39:38 – 42:53).

She survives the flames unharmed, meaning that she is indeed pure, but Rama remains unconvinced. Nonetheless, he takes her back to Ayodhya with him by some means of air transport (which is much discussed by the commentators, 44:19 – 45:03), as his 14 years of exile have come to a close.

That’s where Sita’s tale stands when the film goes into intermission (47:55 – 50:56), followed by Sita’s being dumped (50:56 – 51:40), which is then followed by the Agni Pariksha segment (51:40 – 54:40).

Whoa whoa whoa! Didn’t you just say that Sita underwent trial by fire as Hanshaw sang “Mean to Me”?

Yes, I did. And she did. That episode is depicted twice in the film. The first time it’s presented in the context of the Sita story and in the cartoony style. More than any other style in the film, that one is based on clean clear lines and solid areas of highly saturated color.

The second time Paley presents the Agni Pariksha she does so in the context of Nina’s story, placing it, as we have seen, immediately after Nina’s husband had dumped her. This time through it is in a style that differentiates it from all other segments of the film and draws the viewer into something of a ritual experience within the ritual-like experience of the film itself. It is thus not something from which we as viewers are distant, as we are from the first depiction in the cartoony style. This time it is not only happening to Nina, but to us as well, transforming our relationship to the story and the characters in it.

Sita Ditches Rama

When we leave the Agni Pariksha, we’re in Sita’s world in ancient India. Stylistically, the world of Indian miniatures. Sita informs Rama that she’s pregnant. Then the three commentators chime in with brief remarks about “the mile-high club” (recall than Rama and Sita had traveled to Ayodhya by air) and speculation about who had impregnated her. Then we see, and hear, a woman being beaten.

In the course of beating his wife as punishment for her infidelity, a local laundry man remarks, “I'm not like Rama, who would take a woman who's slept in another man's house!” Rama’s treatment of Sita is thus glossed as the concern of a prudent ruler over his reputation. Whether we like it or not, it is a plausible account of his decision to banish her.

And so a pregnant Sita is banished to the forest. Once again she lacks a social identity. While in the forest she meets the sage and teacher, Valmiki, and tells him her story, which he takes down and, in due time, compiles it into the Ramayana. Long before that, however, Sita gives birth to twin boys and Valmiki helps to educate them. In time Rama discovers them, sends his sons back to the palace, and declares that Sita must once again prove her purity (71:08 – 71:47). Sita’s response is quite surprising: “I shall prove my purity to you. If I have always been true to Rama, if I have never thought of another man, if I am completely pure in body and soul, then, may Mother Earth take me back into her womb!” That is, she has framed this test of purity as one where success will free her from Rama and the impossible demands of his kingship rather than make her eligible to continue playing a role in his life-story.

The test succeeds on Sita’s terms and she is taken back into the earth. 

(Sita upside-down in Mother Earth)

And that’s the end of Sita’s story. The next scene in the film is the last one, which ends with Nina in bed and reading the Ramayana.

Sita and Nina

Let’s return to the question that I posed in the previous post: “What happened that [Nina] went from begging Dave to take her back to being content with her new kitty and a book?” Well, what happened in the film was that, first, there was a most interesting conversation among the three commentators.

Male Commentator:
If you had a girlfriend who was being treated really badly, by like her ex or her current boyfriend, or whatever. And she kept saying, ‘No, every day I'm gonna make sure I cook for him and send him a hot lunch at noon.’ Aren't you going to be like, ‘Listen he doesn't like you and talk to you. You've got to move on. Something's wrong.’ OK?

Male Commentator continues:
Sita's doing this pooja every day... I mean, I feel, I feel... Like this whole ‘good’ and ‘bad’ thing? That we always want people to be either all good or all bad? I think Sita also has her own issues. Like she didn't go back with Hanuman which would have saved hundreds of thousands of people from being killed.
The female commenter speaks up for Sita, pleading Sita's unconditional love. To which the male commenter responds
This is the part of the female perspective I disagree with. Because it's like then you can say, "oh, she loves him so she did this" You know it's like, yeah but she shouldn't love someone who doesn't treat her right. OK? That's her mistake.
While they were commenting about Sita, Paley surely means us to hear them as relevant to Nina as well. After all, this discussion was placed after Nina begged Dave to take her back and the first comment was made with Nina’s image on the screen. Thus we are to believe that Nina herself had some undefined responsibility for the situation in which she found herself. The fact that Nina choose not to enter into another love relationship suggests that she had come to terms with that aspect of herself, whatever it was.

After the commentators we have Sita singing an Annette Hanshaw song, “Lover Come Back to Me,” which grieves for a love that isn’t coming back. At this point, then, Sita is emotionally quit of Rama and, by implication, Nina is quit of Dave. When Rama orders Sita to prove her purity, which would allow her to return to him, she refuses and, instead, returns to the earth.

And Nina takes to reading the Ramayana, written by the man to whom Sita told her story and who helped educate her children. Now Nina will retell Sita’s story to us as Sita once told it to Valmiki. That is her new identity, as an artist, a singer of songs, a teller of tales. That is how she chooses to become incorporated, once again, into society.

Next Time

This does not finish our discussion of ritual in Sita Sings the Blues. Indeed, in this post, the topic seems to have been dropped rather than resolved. Nor am I sure that I can resolve it in another post. But I do want to take up two topics: 1) a comparison between Paley’s use of multiple plots in Sita and Shakespeare’s use of multiple plots in Much Ado About Nothing, and 2) the overall effect of interweaving cosmological ritual with mundane narrative.

‘Till next time.

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