Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Obsession with Sita and Sight, Part 3: The Backlash and Traditional Values

If you're new to this blog, this is the first of a 4 part series of posts trying to explain why there has been a great deal of performances in the Indian arts community from the female perspective starting from around the 80's.

In the last post, we alluded to the idea that some of it may have been the second wave of feminism.  However, the global trend of feminism does not explain why so many of these re-tellings concentrate on Indian epics, especially pinpointing Sita in the Ramayana...

This is something that I believe to be a combination of “the backlash effect” and “traditional values”.

The “backlash effect” is a constant in the world of trend analysis.  In every subject, whether it be music, dance, academics, math, or even socially, there is something I shall dub “the backlash effect” – the destruction lurking at the edge of every trend, the implication that its impending doom will result in the opposing idea becoming the new trend. As trends become more popular, the “backlash effect” comes in the form of opposition that becomes stronger and larger until the trend reaches an extreme and the opposition group reacts so vehemently that the trend crumbles and the opposition group becomes the new rising trend. Some come sooner than others (which can be as simple and small as the backlash in fashion over a year or two: in the 1990s high waisted jeans were the fashion and now it is super low waisted jeans) to something much more long and enduring such as the use of women’s bodies to tout Indian morals.

Gasp, what did I just say?

Women have been the subjects of much oppression in India; the rising feminist trend finally allowing for the backlash it was due for. Their subsequent rise in their oppression came during the fight for independence, where the trend became to fight the war over control for women’s’ bodies. People heading the conservative movement, also called the “traditionalist movement” -- opposing the British, and fighting for independence -- actually, in many cases, led the oppression of women.

Eg: The British tried to instate laws banning child marriages, and often spoke of the barbarianism of Indians for allowing things such as sati to happen.(7) Indians reacted by referring to their ancient texts such as the Vedas and the Manu Smriti to find proof that these acts were in fact Indian and banning them was an insult to Indian tradition. Many of these laws were fought over how women were to be dealt with: child marriages were young females to old men; sati was the act of a widowed women throwing herself on a funeral pyre under the pretense of unconditional love for the husband; dowry deaths were along the same line of thinking. And Indians were finding proof in ancient texts proving the essence of such acts to Indian culture. The government would even look to women within ancient Indian texts to use as role models for the country. The most significant figure of the women’s cultural and Indian nationalism movement during the fight for independence was the government’s use of Sita in the Ramayana. Lauded as the perfect wife and female, women were told to act and be like her.

Which leads back to the original question.  Why do so many of these reinterpretations deal with the Ramayana?. The reason for this is more than its popularity and lies in an inherent backlash against Sita. Sita, who threw herself into a fire when her husband questioned her purity. Sita, whose image could have been pointed to when a connection was needed to sati. Sita, whose image was pointed to when a woman decided to speak up in order to silence her. Sita, for all she was supposed to be an ideal of women, was in fact an oppressor during the independence movement. How can females of this age not blame her for so much of what happened to them during the independence movement?

Yet, when the backlash effect occurred, it didn’t happen as simply a rejection of Sita. It was a transformation of Sita outright. Just as African Americans in the U.S. changed the word “nigger” from a racial slur to a brotherly term (albeit amongst themselves) women turned Sita from a figure that signified oppression, victimization, and timidity to one that signified power and strength. Yet Sita’s transformation was for different reasons. An outright denunciation of Sita was akin to a denunciation of India and Indian values. The seeds of nationalism had been planted just a few years back and their resultant blooms had not ceased to flourish. Just because there was oppression doesn’t mean women resented the feelings of cultural pride being instilled in them. Nationalism is a pervading power all its own and the oppression of the British was far worse in their minds. So while many disliked Sita, rather than rejecting her outright, they tried to find a way to rationalize her.

This is also reflected in the duality of using Indian Classical Dance as a basis for these reinterpretations. It was, at this point, now considered a high art, the pride and joy of Indian traditions. So using "traditional" classical Indian dance was both a means of keeping the culture in tact while also using the art form to extol very non-traditional ideas. This methodology not only gave their arguments more acceptance, but also an argument technique: dancers were able to utilize the same lyrics, the same books, and the same music the conservative/independence movement used and find a completely opposing meaning to it.

Why was this argument methodology used?  Why not just create new characters, or use other mythological stories?  Again, the nationalism and pride people have in their own culture is not to be overlooked.  The beauty and importance of these books in Indian culture is something I - and many others - have fierce pride in.  By using the other side’s evidence in support of our own ideas we are able to both negate what we didn't like about their interpretation of the mythological Indian women and even praise them at the same time while exalting Indian literature, culture and art.

Very clever indeed.

(7) Maju, Daruwal. "Central Sati Act - an Analysis." PUCL. July 1988. Apr. 2008 .

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