Tag Archives: East-meets-West

“Faiza Butt in ‘The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan'”

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s review of Faiza Butt’s show at the Aicon Gallery London, “The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan”, in the February 2010 issue of “Modern Art Asia“.

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“Faiza Butt in ‘The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan'” by Kavita Ramdya (Issue 2, February 2010 of Harvard University’s “Modern Art Asia”

Faiza Butt is obviously well-versed in talking about her work. She has done it countless times, breathless and quick, at ease yet also distant. Not once in the evening we spend together at the show or at a café afterwards where we continue our “conversation” does she let herself look me in the eye. It seems she has saved her gaze for her canvas.

In The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan at Aicon, Butt’s paintings are distinct from those of her peers’ for their focus on the feminine: children playing, turkey dinners and kitchencleaning supplies. Clearly her role as a mother and wife inform her work. Tellingly, in both our phone calls prior to our meeting I could hear the voices of laughing children in the background. I later learned that her marriage to an English national and role as a mother inspire an autobiographical flavour in her work, as does her youth growing up in a matriarchal family with five sisters.

Born and raised in Lahore, Butt spent a few years teaching in South Africa before attending London’s Slade School of Fine Arts, her first time living in Europe. In East London, she began what she describes as “a crash course in learning the fabric of society”. Here Butt started painting canvases that spoke to her “feminine” concerns but with a politicized and global perspective.

Ironically, two of her three works on show at Aicon Gallery are of hyper-masculinized, fundamentalist Muslim men and yet the feminist concerns which have inspired Butt are loud and clear. Two tales of Whopped Fantasies, a series nspired by the photorealism of Gerard Richter’s work, are two separate realist paintings of traditional Muslim men. The viewer is forced to scan the canvases horizontally due to the visible and linear color lines that layer the subjects. This linear repeated linear pattern is meant to replicate the movement of a printing press, she tells me. In addition to the linear
swathes of pastoral colors that sweep Butt’s canvases, the “western, edible beauty” which each man carries (one wearing plastic, yellow cleaning gloves while holding a cake decorated with a generous amount of frosting and the other proudly presenting a traditional Sunday roast) points straight away to the artist’s original concerns: fitting gender expectations to cultural and religious traditions and making them compatible though they may in reality be polar opposites.

The two portraits are humorously paradoxical through their fusion of religious images with secular values. One the one hand, they wear old-fashioned clothing, but on the other hand they carry opulently-decorated Western dishes as a result of engaging in what is traditionally deemed ‘women’s work’. The contrast is inspired by Butt’s identity as a Pakistani-Muslim woman who married an Englishman and faced the pressures of integrating into an English, Christian family. The image of a Muslim man humbly yet eagerly offering his Sunday roast to the viewer, presumably after many
hours of slaving over a hot oven, expresses Butt’s own personal story in trying to win over her in-laws
and the cultural and religious sacrifices she made along the way.

Butt’s art work and biography remind us that some stories, like one of a woman trying to win over her inlaws by attempting to recreate their seductively succulent cuisine, are universal. Her work is refreshing in its appeal to the most petty yet powerful conflicts young wives all over the world face as a metaphor for the changes that occur with globalization.

About Aicon

Faiza Butt’s works showed at the Aicon Gallery, London until January 9th. The Aicon Gallery is the best place in Europe to view and learn about contemporary Indian art. The gallery, formerly known as Gallery ArtsIndia, originated in the United States, where it began as an online gallery of contemporary Indian art before opening the New York (2002)
and Palo Alto (2004) gallery spaces. After exhibiting the works of established artists such as Laxma Goud, F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain, Aicon has collaborated with such artistic institutions as Tate Britain, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum. On both sides of the Atlantic, Aicon Gallery is noted for its mission of promoting contemporary Indian art.

The London gallery opened in 2006 to serve as a “launch pad for Indian art in the capital” and showcases the works of radical and experimental artists rather than the Indian Modernists whose work is most commonly shown in the Aicon New York gallery. Located in a swanky part of town, off Regent’s Street, Aicon Gallery London is a cultural refuge amongst high-end stores and restaurants where people dine to be seen. As an Indian-American Hindu who moved to London almost four years ago, I remain amazed at the city’s established and well developed South Asian cultural scene.

Kavita Ramdya received her PhD from Boston University. She is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating,
Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”, visit www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Blackness in India” (notions of beauty in India)

I recently met Lucia King at her film screening of “At Play” at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in West Kensington, a documentary of film director Roysten Abel’s adaptation “In Othello” of Shakespeare’s play “Othello” (talk about meta texts!). “At Play” got me thinking of the recently black-faced model Lara Stone and  how skin color continues to determine people’s perceptions of beauty, class and education in India.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Blackness in India“.

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“News India Times” December11, 2009

“Blackness in India” by Kavita Ramdya

“Blackface” as a performance tool is not solely relegated to nineteenth-century minstrel shows or early-twentieth-century films such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). Most recently, the use of blackface re-surfaced when French Vogue published Steven Klein’s photos of a blacked up Lara Stone. Cynical yet true, blackface has a shock value that generates free marketing and publicity unmatched by YouTube promotional videos and Google advertisements. Blackface, in addition to remaining relevant in today’s fashion circles, is also topical on stage. In Roysten Abel’s production of “In Othello” (2004), an adaptation of the Shakespearean classic performed by Indian actors and actresses and interspersed with Hindi, the actor who performs the part of Othello blackens his skin in order to suggest that his color is what results in Desdemona’s murder and Othello’s own suicide.

In “Othello”, Shakespeare’s anti-hero is a foreign man who has won the heart of fair Desdemona. Despite his military success which places him in high esteem among the men under his command and poetic language with which he woos Desdemona, the insecurities of his status of an outsider, a Moor, get the best of him. Shakespeare, rather than write a seminal play about racism had in fact written a psychological study of the effects freedom and democracy have on an individual making the transition from the pre-civilized world where social hierarchy is determined by violence and war to modernity where education and language skills define success.

Lucia King, film-maker and painter, whose documentary of the making of Abel’s “In Othello”, entitled “At Play”, documents the use of blackface by the Kerala-born director who transformed the play into one about racism against northeast Indians. While working as a set designer during the filming of “In Othello”, Lucia decided to take her role as a “fly on the wall” amidst the actors, actresses and director one step further by filming while on set.

The introduction of “At Play” is a few minutes worth of video footage of the actors and actresses in full costume and make-up quietly poised and motionless as they model for the film’s publicity shots. It is initially striking to watch Indian actors wearing long, wavy moustaches and Indian actresses sober from the weight of heavy, velvet gowns.

Abel chose to focus on the anti-hero’s color rather than the psychological tensions that climax in the brutal murder of Desdemona. However, in the case of the film “In Othello”, Indians’ widespread prejudice against dark-colored brethren is the crucifix upon which Othello hangs himself. Every Indian woman I know has been subjected to comments about the fairness or darkness of her skin by family members raised in India where skin color among Indians plays a significant role in the politics of marriage. Whereas growing up in America, I was envied by friends for my “year-long tan”, I was also conscious of NRIs assessing my skin color.

Bloomberg reporter Saikat Chatterjee’s article “Fair-Skin Fashion Boosts Sales of Whitening Creams in India” describes how major global consumer product companies such as Unilever are marketing products such as the popular Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream, providing the growing middle and upper classes with an alternative to the old-fashioned “turmeric and sandalwood paste” remedy for dark skin. Hindustan Unilever is not the only company marketing skin whiteners to Indians. Blockbuster brands such as L’Oreal SA, Beiersdorf AG and Emami Ltd. Have have found success in selling “fairness creams”. Chatterjee reports how “sales of whiteners increased 17 percent to 20.5 billion rupees ($432 million) in the nine months to September from a year earlier, according to research by Haarlem, Netherlands-based Nielsen Co.”

Browsing my parents’ copies of “India Abroad”, the back pages which contained the Personal Ads inevitably advertised single women “with fair skin” and “well-educated” men. The significance of having fair skin, like “wheat”, for a woman is equally as important as completing a graduate education is for a man. Skin-bleaching creams remain popular among Indian women in the subcontinent. Of course, the easiest way to interpret the nation’s obsession with fairness is in relation to India’s social history with regards to the caste system.

Before banishing the caste system, the Untouchables (India’s lowest class), were relegated to the jobs that brought them outdoors, thereby exposing them to the sun whereas Brahmins, the priestly class, worked within the confines of the holy temple. Fairness is more a determinant of class than it is beauty. According to T.K. Oommen, professor emeritus of sociology at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, “Indians traditionally associate fair skin with aristocracy and not having to work outdoors in a menial job.”

The irony is that in looking at Indian-Hindu temple art, Krishna is always depicted with blue-colored skin; in fact, “Krishna” means “the dark one”. Additionally, the Sanskrit meaning of “krish” is “to draw to oneself, to attract”. Krishna is dark skinned yet attractive, contradistinct from ideals about beauty in mainstream Indian society.

It makes sense that Abel produced a version of “Othello” where the main character’s regional origin and skin color result in his unravelling. The story of Othello’s self-hatred and violence is foreboding even seven hundred years after Shakespeare penned the original play. Let’s hope Indian consumers recognize Krishna’s beauty, transcend the antiquated caste system and refrain from purchasing skin-bleaching creams; unifying India despite its regional differences, varied dialects, disparate customs and religious sects may depend on it.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Worshipping the Common Man” (art review of Subodh Gupta) by Kavita Ramdya

It was great to interesting to see how Subodh Gupta integrates humor into his art work. In his sculptures, Gupta pokes fun at the western art world’s description of his work in relation to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as if there is no way to understand eastern artists without a reference towards western art.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Worshipping the Common Man“, an art review of Subodh Gupta’s show “The Common Man” at Hauser & Wirth.

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“News India Time” 30 October 2009

“Worshipping the Common Man” by Kavita Ramdya (review of Subodh Gupta’s art show at Hauser & Wirth)

Subodh Gupta, known as the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” and “India’s Jeff Koons”, worships the “common man” as opposed to, respectively, hyper-commoditized morbidity and the mass consumption of name-brand art. Hauser & Wirth’s Old Bond Street and Piccadilly galleries are currently showing Gupta’s work in a show entitled “Common Man” which pays homage to India’s labourers rather than the Hindu gods and goddesses typically displayed in museums and galleries exhibiting art from the Indian subcontinent.

“Common Man” integrates everyday objects, from mangoes and chappals (slippers) to tiffins (steel lunch boxes) and thalis (pans used during worship), to create thought-provoking yet aesthetically-profound sculptures. His attention to detail combined with his commentary on India’s labor population confirm why Gupta is currently India’s most celebrated living artist.

There are a number of untitled works, including a seven-foot wide stainless steel thali pan filled with kitchen utensils, tiffins, and pails, a work meant to pay respect to the way labourers eat: employing re-usable eating utensils and tiffins brought from home to the work site. In another untitled yet striking piece, Gupta’s team took a mould of a tree growing out of a window from the artist’s hometown of Bihar as a way of highlighting how nature forms around and in spite of man-made objects.

What differentiates Gupta from his contemporaries is not only his worship of the common man but also the humor in his work. In another untitled work, the viewer recalls Damien Hirst: a large fibreglass skull is ringed with stainless steel eating utensils. Here, the artist makes fun of the western media’s description of him as “the Damien Hirst of Delhi”, as if contemporary Indian art can only be understood in reference to western artists.

Likewise, in an attempt to recognize the western media’s description of Gupta as “the Jeff Koons of India”, the artist took two years to create fifty aluminium boxes bearing the Jeff Koons “Puppy” branding in a work titled “Jeff the Koons”. In a marketing ploy, Koons had created an “unlimited” rather than “limited” edition of his art work as a way to turn the economic model of supply and demand on its head which Gupta subsequently pokes fun at for Koons’s obvious effort to position his art for widespread, mass consumption.

Perhaps the most poignant and devastatingly hard-hitting piece is “I Believe You”, another large thali pan, this time covered with battered shoes worn by day labourers. While visiting an Indian village, Gupta traded the labourers’ old shoes for new ones. The shoes are served on a thali pan normally used to carry coconuts and candles as well as other assorted fruit, rice and spices as offerings when worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses. In a clockwise motion, worshippers will move the thali pan in front of a Hindu idol or photograph as a way of doing arthi, or making an offering. In Gupta’s sculpture, he places worn shoes on the thali pan as a way to worship and pay tribute to “the common man”.

Likewise, “Aam Aadmi” (Hindi for “man people”) is a collection of mangoes surrounded by hay sitting in a wooden crate. It was only after reading that the mangoes were painted bronze that, upon looking more closely, I could see the reflection of the overhead lights in the mangoes; the reflection was the only clue that betrayed the mangoes were not made of their original organic materials, a true testament to Gupta’s craftmanship. I remembered eating mangoes every summer, mangoes my parents brought home from the Indian grocery stores in Jackson Heights. When visiting my in-laws in Trinidad & Tobago, I remember rejoicing in the juicy mangoes which grew from the trees in their yard, quickly wiping the sweet juice escaping from my mouth after each succulent bite. Gupta talks about how he chose to highlight mangoes for their accessibility to the wealthy and poor alike in India, but he forgets the fruit’s universality in South-Asian communities globally.

The only piece which is romantic in nature is “Spooning”, a play on the western term. Two nine-foot long stainless steel spoons nestle, or spoon, on the gallery floor. “Et tu, Duchamp?” is yet another comedic poke at western culture. Gupta, also known as the “Subcontinental Marcel Duchamp”, upon seeing Duchamp’s “Mona Lisa with Mustache and Beard” (1919), sculpted a bronze rendering of the painting in an effort to “have a dialogue with [Duchamp].”

“A Penny for Belief II” is one of the few pieces global in scope rather than a commentary on India’s “common man”. The work is an oversized thali pan which gallery employees and Gupta threw coins into, coins from all over the world including British sterling, American quarters and Euros, before pouring olive oil into the pan. When I bent closer to the pool of coins, I smelt a strong odor of olive oil which is more popularly used in European and American cooking rather than Indian. Maria de Lamerens, the Press coordinator at Hauser & Wirth, explained how throwing a penny for good luck is a universal practice which Gupta wanted to capture in the work. Clearly the practice has benefited Gupta whose name and work are counted among the best contemporary, living artists in the world.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html

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“An Indian in Paris” by Kavita Ramdya (Sakti Burman at Aicon Gallery London)

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s profile of artist Sakti Burman and a review of his show at the Aicon Gallery London.

A few weeks ago I discovered Aicon Gallery, a space completely devoted to promoting Modernist and contemporary Indian art. I must confess that the exhibits at Aicon Gallery are a welcome change from the typical South-Asian shows in London. In mainstream museums, art of the Indian subcontinent is typically focused on Mughal/North Indian royal paintings, so much so that one wonders if any art was produced by Indian nationals after the British Empire extended its reach into India. Sakti Burman surprised me with his friendly approach and frankness in admitting that he is inspired by French Impressionist art. Thank goodness the Aicon Gallery exists to show that there is a community of artists in India producting contemporary and modernist art.

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News India Times October 2, 2009

“An Indian in Paris” by Kavita Ramdya

If you’re a second-generation Indian American like me, you probably grew up hearing “Well, you know the concept of zero originated in India!” or “The Crown Jewels are all originally from India!” Only good things came out of India – family values, royal jewels, mathematical and scientific concepts, art. So you can imagine my shock meeting Modernist Indian artist Sakti Burman who openly and enthusiastically admitted that he and his contemporaries were inspired by “tremendous” French Impressionists such as Renoir and Monet. Born and raised in India, he “dreamed of moving to Paris.” More than 50 years after moving to Paris as a graduate art student, he continues to live and work in the City of Lights.

I met Burman at the Aicon Gallery London, the best place in Europe to view and learn about contemporary Indian art. The London gallery opened in 2006 to serve as a “launch pad for Indian art in the capital” and showcase the works of radical and experimental artists rather than the Indian Modernists whose work is most commonly shown in the Aicon New York gallery.

Located in a swanky part of town, right off of Regent’s Street, Aicon Gallery London is a cultural refuge amongst high-end stores such as Burberry and Ralph Lauren and restaurants where people dine to be seen. As an Indian-American Hindu who moved to London almost four years ago, I remain amazed at the city’s established and well developed South Asian cultural scene… the hip and friendly South Asians I’ve met who comprise the South-Asian art community.

I attended the gallery’s private viewing of “Archetype: Two Solo Exhibitions by Ashish Avikunthak and Sakti Burman”. Avikunthak, whose sole piece on display is an 18-minute film about three girlfriends in India, is a “contemporary” artist whereas Burman, who had a dozen paintings on display, is considered a “modernist.”

Niru Ratnam, the gallery’s hip (as denoted by his beatnik glasses) and friendly director who also works as a curator of Indian art, explained to me how Burman’s works include “Indian iconography in the style of Italian mural art.” Jagroop Mehta, an equally hip (as denoted by her unapologetically orange dress) and friendly sales associate, distinguished between the two artists’ works: Whereas Avikunthak’s film symbolizes “contemporary” art, it has been inspired and informed by “modernist” works created by the likes of Burman. The show is meant to “marry modern and contemporary” art, Mehta continued, and inform people about the “history of Indian art in the West.”

Burman stands out in a crowd. He is a diminutive man with little hair, but he has an aura of energy that emanates in a crowded room. I was struck with how he always appears to be moving, even while standing in a group and talking about his work. I found him refreshingly earnest, and was completely taken aback by his friendliness and humility.

Friendly demeanor aside, what I loved about Burman’s art was not only the Western aesthetic (a pastel color palette and the juxtaposition of Hindu gods with ordinary people) but also his disarming charm when he spoke about how his work is informed by iconic European artists, painters whose countries were only tribal groups during the days when India was a set of scattered kingdoms ruled by maharajas. Talking to Burman reminded me that, as in literature, no art is created in a vacuum.

What captured my initial attention was Burman’s use of mythological figures in his paintings: Hindu religious characters are central in his works. Hanuman, Ganesha and Shiva function as the sun around which secondary characters and objects revolve on the fringes of the canvas. However, their dream-like qualities instigate questions about Freudian and Jungian concerns rather than spiritual ones.

The use of a pastel color palette and creating highly-textured canvas recall a European Modernist aesthetic and Italian fresco style. When I asked Burman about it, he freely admitted that while French Impressionism lured him to Paris, it is “Marc Chagall’s works in conjunction with the Ajanta murals” which inspire his paintings.

After completing his art education in Paris, Burman tried his hand at having an art career in India. However, when he realized he couldn’t sell his work, he returned to Paris where, he tells me, “I thought I might succeed… It is a not an easy job”. Of course, Burman is not the first artist to flee to Paris to establish himself as an artist. Following World War I, African-American musicians settled in the capital where their music and identity were embraced rather than rejected.

In writing about contemporary Indian-ethnic culture, I have picked up on a trend. I recently wrote about Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues”, a film that re-imagines the myth of Sita and Rama through Sita’s perspective.

Likewise, in Burman’s art, he presents Hindu mythological figures with a European Modernist sensibility, another twist on East-meets-West. A successful Indian artist in Paris, Burman’s work is an experiment in incubating ideas about Hindu mythology in a tandoori oven filled with European scents and spices. I wonder what other examples of fusion art and culture will come my way in exploring popular South Asian culture in London.

Aicon Gallery, New York

Aicon Gallery, formerly known as Gallery ArtsIndia, originates in the United States, where it began as an online gallery of contemporary Indian art before opening the New York (2002) and Palo Alto (2004) gallery spaces. After exhibiting the works of established artists such as Laxma Goud, F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain, Aicon has collaborated with such artistic institutions such as Tate Britain, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum. Earlier in the summer, Aicon Gallery New York exhibited “Experiments with Truth,” a collection of works by Debanjan Roy. This show included fiberglass sculptures of Gandhi engaged in modern activities such as listening to an iPod and working at a call center. This exhibition was meant to spur conversations about the growing middle class in India and the apathy that has resulted due to their increased material wealth. Aicon Gallery New York has also exhibited the works of Pakistani artists, including Hasnat Mahmood’s “I Love Miniature” collection that comprises of miniaturist copies of Pakistan’s greatest paintings. The accompanying captions are engraved in Braille to further drive home the idea that the viewer cannot fully comprehend these miniature works of art unaided. On both sides of the Atlantic, Aicon Gallery is noted for its mission of promoting contemporary Indian art.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html

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Review of Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues” by Kavita Ramdya

Sita

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s review of Nina Paley’s animated film “Sita Sings the Blues”.

A few days ago I interviewed cartoonist Nina Paley for a review I wrote of her animated film “Sita Sings the Blues”. The movie is fantastic – it’s funny and smart. “Sita Sings the Blues” is a modern take on the ancient Hindu text “The Ramayana”; the movie picks up when Rama is banished to the forest for fourteen years with Sita accompanying him. However, the story is told from Sita’s point of view; she emerges as an intelligent yet gullible ingénue head-over-heals in love with an effeminate Rama who is overly concerned with what other people think of him. He’s clearly not good enough for her.

I was surprised by how much interest my review in “News India Times” generated; readers e-mailed to tell me that they were eager to watch the movie which is available for free on YouTube. Even readers of my parents’ generation, a generation that didn’t grow up with home computers and are considerably less computer literate for it, were inspired to take advantage of the free, on-line creative content.

Apart from the colourful animation, diverse soundtrack and the East-meets-West look and feel, what does the success of Nina Paley’s film indicate? I propose that there is clearly a market for modern, updated versions of classical and religious stories, myths and beliefs we’ve all grown up whatever our faith. People have an innate desire to listen to stories which explain their origin and their past. In a world where media has exploded to include graphic novels, the internet, HD-screen TVs and mobile phones, we’re seeking stories from non-traditional outlets that also recognize that the world is a much more complicated place now than it was when many of these myths, stories and beliefs were formulated.

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“News India Times”  September 11, 2009

“Rama, Sita and the agony of separation: An animated film presents the epic story of the Ramayana in a format accessible to a generation that has grown up in the Digital Age” by Kavita Ramdya

I recently discovered Nina Paley’s animated film “Sita Sings the Blues” and am compelled to share it with anyone and everyone interested in what happens when East meets West, ancient mythology intersects with popular culture, and artists create “interdisciplinary art.”

Paley’s 72-minute movie tells the story of Sita and Rama from Valmiki’s Ramayana in a way that can only be described as accessible, fun and modern. Her project – to provide an animated reinterpretation of Hindu mythology from a modern and a female point of view – is a risky one but has proved fortuitous for her career: the film has received global media recognition and an enthusiastic response on You Tube, where you can watch the film for free.

Like many great works of art, albeit typically poetry and fiction, Paley’s inspiration for creating the film stemmed from challenges in her love life. After she moved to Trivandrum, India, for her hus-band’s career, he dumped her, leaving her alone to navigate India. However, the hardship she endured as a single, heartbroken woman in India gave her the insight to understand the nature of Sita’s devotion for Rama.

Rather than serve as a “sexist parable,” she writes in her blog, the Ramayana describes “the essence of painful relationships” and provides a “blueprint of human suffering.” Paley likens her husband and his cowardly abandonment to Rama and her own blind love as analogous to Sita’s.

The film, although an animated feature, is by no means a children’s movie. Instead, Paley has interwoven four disparate plots into her film. The viewer is first introduced to Paley’s autobiographical rendering of her failed marriage. The second is the comical back-and-forth between three shadow puppets who debate the mythology’s details and characters’ motivations in the Ramayana. Third, the viewer benefits from a retelling of Sita and Rama’s love story. In this story line, Sita is portrayed as a sickening goody-two-shoes, Rama as a spoiled and effeminate prince and Ravana as the prototypical Bollywood villain.

Finally, Sita sings the blues. Paley appropriates the music of Annette Hanshaw, a jazz singer from the 1920s and ‘30s, for Sita to croon in episodic bursts of song throughout the film.

In order to distinctly divide the four story lines, Paley not only provides a different sound track for each story but also a different “look and feel” in order to visually distinguish the plots from one another. The autobiographical scenes of her disintegrating marriage take place with the background of lonely yet cramped cities. The three hand puppets discuss the facts of the Ramayana while textbook-like images pop up to accompany the debating. The story of Sita’s love for Rama is told from her feminine point of view; the scenes are drawn in the style of traditional Mughal art. Finally, Sita’s musical numbers where she fawns over Rama and sings the blues have a comical and cinematically dramatic feel appropriate for the sound of early 20th-century blues music and film.

“Sita Sings the Blues” is by no means the first attempt at dramatizing the ancient love story of Rama and Sita in a modern way. Like many of my peers, I grew up listening to my mother reading Amar Chitra Katha comic books that depict the religious Hindu myths for Indian-American children to learn the ancient stories. It was through these comic books that we learned who the various gods and goddesses were, their relationships with one another and their religious significance.

And who can forget the horn that blows in the beginning of every one of Ramanand Sagar’s television episodes based on the Ramayana? The series, although revolutionary in the way it depicted a significant Hindu text and made it accessible via free mass media so that Indians from all classes, occupations and regions across the subcontinent could enjoy the shared religious story, was somewhat painful to watch as a young child. Even to a young child, Sagar’s special effects were clumsy and the acting overly dramatic compared to Nickelodeon and MTV programming.

In 2003, my husband and I were lucky to see a dance performance of the Ramayana performed by the Lotus Fine Arts Productions. The choreography was stunningly sensual, the costumes vibrant and the tabla sound hip. Significantly, the production was among my first experiences watching dance accompanied with a story line.

Alas, Lotus Fine Arts Production no longer exists, but today’s youth can benefit from Paley’s animated depiction of the Ramayana for the same effect: conveying ancient Hindu mythology with innovative technology and a modern sensibility. You, too, will find “Sita Sings the Blues” worth crooning about.

Kavita Ramdya is the author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America.”

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