Nina Paley

NinaCartoonist Nina Paley is the creator of Sita Sings the Blues, an interpretation of the Ramayana, the Hindu epic. The film was released online earlier this year and set to the music of blues singer Annette Hanshaw. In the difficult process of acquiring rights to use Hanshaw’s music, Paley became a free-culture advocate and chose to license her highly praised film through Creative Commons.

TMN: How did you come to notice the themes of longing and devotion in the Ramayana and Annette Hanshaw’s music, and then tie them to your own life?

NP: How could I not notice? These themes were screaming at me. It was like being smacked in the head. The surprise to me was that no one else had made this movie.

TMN: What’s the best advice you’d give to your childhood self?

NP: Have faith, I will always love you.

TMN: In the film you use several different styles of representation for the same set of characters, some classical and others very modern and idiosyncratic. Why?

NP: Ramayana art spans centuries and thousands of miles. By varying the art styles, I hoped to give a tiny taste of the breadth of Ramayana art that’s out there. Also, I varied the narrative technique throughout the film—some parts are told in song, others unscripted narration, others very stilted dialogue. Each narrative style has its corresponding visual style. And I didn’t want to get bored while working on the film. Varying the styles kept things interesting for me.

TMN: Do you feel that all art should be “free culture,” or is Sita a special case?

NP: Here is my official position on copyright:
Now that I’m a full-time free culture activist, some have expressed the concern, “You don’t think there should be any copyright at all! You want to take away my right to protect my intellectual property!”

Let me assure you this is not true.

I completely support your right to copy-restrict your works. The more you copyright (restrict access to) your work, the more wide-open the field is for free culture like Sita Sings the Blues. Open-licensed work has a tremendous competitive advantage over copy-restricted work. So by all means, please “protect” your “property.”
TMN: What is your favorite object in your office/workplace?

NinaNP: 1. My bed. 2. My cloisonne Sita pins, with which I fell immediately and unnaturally in love when they arrived a few weeks ago. They don’t need electrons to work! They’re real, solid objects. They blow my mind.

TMN: How have Hindu audiences responded to your interpretation of a Hindu text?

NP: Most Hindus have responded very positively. Most of the film’s collaborators are Hindu. The film has enjoyed tremendous support from Hindus in the U.S. and in India.

Hindutvadis are another story. Few actually bother to watch the film, but they strongly object to the very idea of it.

Be sure not to confuse Hindu with Hindutva. They are very different. It’s sort of like the difference between “Christian” and “Army of God.”

TMN: What’s something you’re not good at but wish you were?

NP: If I really wished I were good at something, I’d find a way. However there are many things I wish I could be good at with no effort. These include:
  • Playing guitar (I can’t even attempt it, because the strings hurt my fingers too much) or piano (I’m psychologically blocked from learning because my older sister is a brilliant, accomplished pianist and I could never compare with her—also, too much work, and potential hand strain).
  • Command line programming (I’m impressed when friends do it, but can’t be bothered to learn).
  • Touch typing (same as above).
  • Proper accounting (I simply hate it).
  • French. Actually, even with intense effort, I was unable to learn French. I am ashamed.
  • Taekwondo, or any respectable martial art. I’d like to have multiple black belts. But not so much that I’d actually take a class.
TMN: What are you working on next?

NP: I’m hoping to make a series of animated musical shorts about free speech. We’re still seeking funds, but I’m slowly starting on the first one anyway.

TMN: Who is your archnemesis?

NP: Myself, of course.

TMN Editor Erik Bryan is living the dream. He grew up in Florida, but he’s from all over. He likes playing chess, making cocktails, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan

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