Friday, July 23, 2010

The Obsession with Sita and Sight, Part 4: The Indian Interpretation

So now we know to a certain extent: why are we Indian artists so obsessed with reinterpreting epics, why women characters, and why especially Sita?

Which brings us to the interpretations themselves.  Each interpretation is vastly different from the last. 

Nina Paley, the director of Sita Sings the Blues, made a decision in her movie to completely exclude main characters such as Laxman on the basis that “Ram and Laxman were of one mind.”, especially because her interpretation was solely about Rama and Sita’s relationship(9).  She went on to telling the viewers that she chose the Valmiki version of events because it best suited her story. In the production of Her Story, however, the KambaRamayana was used because it was written in Tamil on the basis that regardless of which version of the Ramayana was used, the inherent reasoning and theorizing behind the choreography remained the same.

Most importantly, however, is the idea that neither Nina Paley nor I is wrong. Our evidence is based on highly regarded books, our interpretations simply offering different viewpoints of the same story. And there are hundreds more interpretations out there, each as different from the last as mine was from Paley’s.
This kind of proliferation and acceptance of such vastly different theories and tales is something that is the result of what is dubbed as “The Indian Interpretation”(10)

Indians, throughout time, have found license to reinterpret just about everything differently and still claim its legitimacy. From one set of Vedas, there are thousands of interpretations of what is being said in them known as the Upanishads, which to some extent are realized as “corollaries to the Vedas”.(11) From Valmiki’s one Ramayana there have spawned several other rewrites, such as Tulsidas’ Ramachitrakaranas and the KambaRamayana, etc, with at least 6 completely different books in 6 different languages with 6 different stories to tell. One Natyashastra afforded at least 4 different styles of Indian classical dance. In a land with over 200 regional languages, it comes as no surprise that such a phenomenon would occur. Thus, to reinterpret a story is simply to act as a “traditional” Indian would. When a dancer is reinterpreting stories in a 20th century fashion, this may be pointed to as proof for trying to spread a non-traditional idea: on the very foundation of Indian tradition itself.

Interestingly enough, just as we rewrite the stories for our day and age, the people who rewrote Valmiki’s Ramayana also changed the story and storytelling aspects around completely to reflect the attitude of the time. With each rewrite, Ram’s character slowly evolved from man to demi God and Sita became less and less truculent. For instance,
In Valmiki’s Ramayana, when Rama tells Sita he has to go into exile, and she asks him to allow her to go with him, he refuses outright. At first, Sita pleads with him and cries earnest tears, but when Rama remains adamant, she grows angry and rebukes him in shockingly harsh terms. She refers to him as a ‘woman disguised as a man’, says that ‘the world is wrong when they say that there is no one greater than Rama’, calls him ‘depressed and frightened’, ‘an actor playing a role’, and other choice epithets. It is one of the longer scenes in Valmiki’s Ramayana, almost equaling in length the entire narration of Rama’s early childhood years!
Tamil poet Kamban retells this incident in his more compressed, volatile, rich style, reducing Sita’s objections to a couple of brief rebukes: ‘Could it be that the real reason [for Rama not taking her into exile] is that with me left behind, you’ll be free to enjoy yourself in the forest?’
By the time we reach Saint Tulsidas’s recitation, Sita’s rebukes are reduced to a few tearful admonitions and appeals.(12)
So to add yet another layer of intricacy, when a dancer goes back to the original version of Valmiki, showing the strength of Sita in this version (as relayed above), by doing so, the dancer is implying a perversion of the other written versions at the same time, that they are somehow portraying Sita in an inaccurate manner. This becomes a paradox because by choosing one of the versions of the Ramayana as the “right” version there is a denunciation of the ability to interpret the stories in one’s own manner at the same time.

It is with this volatility that Indian Classical dance reflects the very nature of such epics. Indian classical dance remains at the center of arguments over traditionalism and culture and so too does Sita. The argument over the age of Bharatanatyam (50, 200, or 2000 years?) and its traditionalism can be paralleled to Sita herself. Who is Sita? Is she simply the woman from Valmiki’s Ramayana from thousands of years ago or is she a fantasy character evolved over time, no longer reflective of books but of the current female ideals? 

And with that, Indian Classical dance has truly proved itself to be ever changing as the ideas it extols.

(9) Sita Sings the Blues. Lecture with Dir. Nina Paley. May 2, 2008.
(10) Dubbed as such by me.
(11) "Vedas." Wikipedia. Apr. 2008 .
(12) Banker, Ashok. "Retelling the Ramayana: Author's Note to the Indian Edition." AshokBanker.Com. 2005. 15 Apr. 2008 .



  1. I think that Indian people tend to forget how much room there is for interpretation in the classics. It's actually possible to come up with a defense for almost anything, whether you want to be pro-choice, pro-life, or any other possible position on any topic. This female interpretation that you've been talking about has been a long time coming, and much needed. Like you, I love dancing, but I hate certain kinds of pieces. I avoided doing any sort of typical nayaka/nayaki pieces as much as I could just because I *hated* the implications of those narratives. I hated the idea of a girl just hinging every bit of her existence on a man and doing nothing but pine, while he went on his merry way living his life. As if there was absolutely nothing else in her life she could be happy about.

    Anyway, that's just my pseudo-feminist little rant. People are always more resistant to giving women freedom, so it's only now that the position of women is becoming more of a focus. The only way for it to stay relevant is for it to be reinterpreted for the modern ages. I know for a fact that I would never promote the idea of Sita in the traditional sense to my daughters, because I would dream of so much more for them. A reinterpreted Sita, maybe. The program that you came up with was a fantastic idea. Are you going to publish a video of any of the shows?

  2. Hi Karishma,

    Your passionate and well written response is much appreciated! The only video we have of Her Story right now is the Youtube preview, and I'm not sure we have a proper video yet to post full pieces.

    And as you said, it's hard for me to continue to be a "traditional" nayika in my pieces, because I think so many dancers these days portray them with little to no complexity - as 2 dimensional characters. It came to the point where I created a short piece called "The Nayika Reversal" where my dancers were the male nayaka instead lamenting over women who would give them no attention (which, truly, is how it is in places like the US today!). That should be on youtube within the next month or so. :)

    Cheers! And thanks for reading!