03 February 2011

SITA SINGS THE BLUES, BUT RAMA DOES NOT

   I have not written before about my "experimental" lesson in World Lit, pairing the Ramayana and 2008's  Sita Sings the Blues. This is my third year teaching the unit, and each year I  have tried to add more Ramayana to the mix. It is a hard read for my classes, so often we read a detailed  summary and discuss themes, symbols, archetypes, etc. Then we watch Sita, which is NY artist Nina Paley's re-imagination of the Ramayana from Sita's perspective. I devised the lesson because when I first saw Sita Sings the Blues, I was dazzled by its artistry, and compelled by the  juxtaposition of Paley's love of the Ramayana and her arrogance in claiming it for her own, using American values and music.  I admit it, I just wanted them to see it.
   What great discussions we would have! I could use two cultures to discuss one epic and  the contrasting values! And what exposure to an unfamiliar art form! (The movie is entirely animated, using four different styles of animation and a mix of 1920's jazz and modern Indian techno pop). But...Paley's version showcases her own values, and changes the end of the original epic,and in doing so, changes the message and sacred power of the epic. Would I be able to play this properly? And would they lose respect for the Ramayana, the last thing I wanted? For two years, I agonized over it. I always spoke privately with my Indian students before I decided to include it. One year, we blogged about the two works, and another year we reviewed the movie. We also wrote a comparison/contrast.  It met my standards.
   But I could not get out of my mind that though Paley made the movie partly as a homage to the epic, she also wanted to work through personal issues, as well as revel in one of her favorite musical artists, Annette Hanshaw. And after the movie hit the internet, it became a cause celebre for Free Culture. That's a lot of intent for 17-year-olds to wade through.
This year, my Indian student was enthusiastic until she saw the movie. She felt it was disrespectful to her culture, and as a result, she wrote a GREAT review of the movie. And the best part was that everyone wanted to hear what she had to say, so it was a learning experience that both she and they needed.
   So what to do next year? I had decided to skip the movie...but then the student evaluation of the unit was overwhelmingly positive about the experience, even from the Indian student. So was it worth it to see the Ramayana critiqued negatively by an artist from another culture just so we could sample some music, animation and story telling? Do I need Sita to introduce my Free Culture discussion later in the year? What would you do?

2 comments:

Vanilla Chunk said...

I LOVE 'Sita Sings The Blues', but I didn't show it last year because I had an Indian student in my class; it was safer and more general to just focus on films written by William Goldman or some other theme. Did I chicken out? Yes.

(Have you seen my new blog post, about the 8 teachers getting fired for having personalities and souls?
I like teaching. It's a job, it's fun, it's a challenge and I can save a few kids every year from just giving up on any future. But it's not a place for me to indoctrinate the kids or wave my preferences as a flag. I climb rocks. I eschew most beers, organ meats and almost all jellies. Nobody needs to know that about me.)


Where were we?
Ah, yes, 'Sita'. As I recall, I recommended it along with some other movies my seniors probably hadn't seen. It's a great movie, but Paley definitely manipulates it to her own ends. To me, that is the most interesting part, that and her story of actually doing it all herself. She is my hero.

Vanilla Chunk said...

I LOVE 'Sita Sings The Blues', but I didn't show it last year because I had an Indian student in my class; it was safer and more general to just focus on films written by William Goldman or some other theme. Did I chicken out? Yes.

(Have you seen my new blog post, about the 8 teachers getting fired for having personalities and souls?
I like teaching. It's a job, it's fun, it's a challenge and I can save a few kids every year from just giving up on any future. But it's not a place for me to indoctrinate the kids or wave my preferences as a flag. I climb rocks. I eschew most beers, organ meats and almost all jellies. Nobody needs to know that about me.)


Where were we?
Ah, yes, 'Sita'. As I recall, I recommended it along with some other movies my seniors probably hadn't seen. It's a great movie, but Paley definitely manipulates it to her own ends. To me, that is the most interesting part, that and her story of actually doing it all herself. She is my hero.