Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Wintersyana

Thanks to my new housemate I feel like I have really been getting a crash-course in Indian culture lately! (Just created an "India" tag for the blog.) This weekend, she has a friend visiting from New York, who is studying at Parsons School of Design and knows Nina Paley, the woman behind the animated movie Sita Sings the Blues. According to her, this is a must-see!

Sita Sings the Blues (a film championed by Roger Ebert, among others) is based on the Ramayana: Sita, the wife of King Rama, is a classic example in literature of the abandoned and rejected wife. Nina Paley uses Sita's story, as well as old jazz songs, to explore her own feelings after her husband rejected her.

Because I was not familiar with the Ramayana story, my friend told it to me, focusing on the parts that involve Sita:

Queen Sita is kidnapped by a demon and her husband, King Rama, undertakes an elaborate quest to rescue her. Once he has rescued her, though, he is haunted by the thought that the monster must have violated her, or that she otherwise has not remained faithful to him. Sita swears, several times, that she is chaste. She even undergoes a trial by fire in order to prove it: the gods rescue her from the flames because she is telling the truth. Nevertheless, people in the kingdom start to gossip about Sita, which infuriates Rama and stirs up his doubts again. Despite the fact that she is pregnant, he exiles her from the kingdom. Sita takes refuge in an ashram and gives birth to twin boys, raising them to adulthood with the help of a wise guru. Many years later, Rama's army invades the region where the ashram is, but is defeated by a force led by his two sons. Rama realizes that these must be no ordinary boys--they must be of royal blood. Thus he meets his sons for the first time and is reunited with Sita. Still, he continues to have doubts about Sita's chastity, the boys' parentage, etc. Frustrated by her husband's lack of faith in her virtue, Sita cries, "If I have always answered my husband's questions truthfully, then may the earth swallow me up!" The earth swallows her up and she is never heard from again.

When I heard this, I immediately thought, "This has the most fascinating parallels with The Winter's Tale!" To wit:
  • A jealous husband who will not listen to reason...
  • ...falsely and repeatedly accuses his wife of infidelity...
  • ...his cruelty not mitigated by the fact that she is in the advanced stages of pregnancy...
  • ...nor the fact that the gods themselves swear to her virtue.
  • The child/children are brought up in a distant land, in a pastoral setting, without meeting their father the King...
  • ...though they have an innate nobility that sets them apart and eventually brings them to their father's attention...
  • ...which also leads to their father being reunited with his long-suffering and virtuous wife.
I'm not sure what I should think about the different ways these tales end, though. My friend explained to me that for Hindus, Sita's being swallowed by the earth isn't suicide, exactly--it is more a reunion with the earth goddess, her energy being absorbed back into the earth. And there is something to admire about a woman who refuses to take her husband back if he is still just as jealous as he was when he exiled her in the first place. Still, to me it does seem like a kind of suicide, or defeat, or giving up. Meanwhile, The Winter's Tale has a much more hopeful and happy ending: Leontes realizes his mistakes and is given a second chance; Hermione forgives him. But it can't have been fun for Hermione to spend sixteen years in hiding, out of sight of everyone, in the hopes that her husband might one day forgive her. And, while the humanist in me appreciates the message that people can change, that Leontes can become a better man; the feminist in me wonders if it's a good idea to give women hope that their cruel and abusive husbands will eventually change, since so many of them never do.

Because of copyright/distribution issues Sita Sings the Blues is available as an open-source movie to watch online. I hope to find the time to do so soon!

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