- Forest Tales: Restorying the Ramayana
FADE IN < It is a hot, sticky, summer day. The camera zooms out of my face, as beads of sweat trickle down it. I am on a shuttle bus on the campus of Pune University, heading back to the campus gate, after listening to Angela Davis speak. Her voice is the soundtrack to my shuttle ride, as I replay parts of her talk in my mind, over and over.1 I am seated by the window, and the sun is blazing in and spilling its heat onto my lap. The camera follows my eyes as I look up for a moment, and out the window. We are passing a wooded area: the trees are parched, the land baked dry—it is only the beginning of summer. They will have to endure the heat patiently, until the monsoons come and quench their thirst (will they this year?). In that moment, the forest awakens—or rather, it is I who awaken to its beckoning, its parched aesthetics jolting me into the present, into its presence. This is when Sita, speaks to me. This is where I begin to respond. > FADE OUT
Many forests inhabit this text: historical and contemporary, imagined and situated, metaphorical and material, literary and performed. Together, they make Forest Tales—a queer, sci-fi, ecofeminist retelling of the epic Ramayana2 as a Sitayana.3 Reimagined from the point of view of Sita, female protagonist of the epic (who is literally daughter of the earth), the tale acquires ecological significance. Originally intended as a film, Forest Tales planned on extending its green ethos into artistic practice by using human-powered energy solutions (bicycle power and hand-crank mechanisms) for the production. However, because the most environmentally friendly film is one that never gets made, the project now exists as a performance of the film. Although my practice has always straddled the cusp of performance and cinema, with Forest Tales I began to engage with the material impact of cinema,4, 5 and performance became an intervention into the cinematic process itself, not merely its representations.6 [End Page 130]
Cautioning us about the discursive limits of the prosthetic as metaphor, Vivian Sobchack states that, “millennial discourses . . . decontextualize our flesh into insensate signs or digitize it into bits of information in cyberspace,”7 seeking to replace the body as opposed to extend it. Forest Tales asks us to place our embodied selves at the center of the cinematic apparatus—the body as a medium that enacts our celluloid desires, and upon which these desires are enacted. Given the inescapably material nature of human existence, the screen image is “where the aesthetic and the ethical merge and emerge in the flesh.”8 Our bodily ability to sense the world is what Sobchack calls “sense-ability,” or sensibility—in other words, aesthetics. The range of our sense-ability in turn defines our “response-ability” or responsibility—in other words, ethics. In the rush to seize the pleasures of cinema and technology, Sobchack wonders if we have forgotten the “energies and obligations that animate our ‘sensibility’ and our ‘responsibility.’”9 Forest Tales takes Sobchack’s concern seriously, and urges us to pay attention to both the representational and the material ecologies of our cinematic practices. It has compelled me to take a deep look at the narratives and practices that scaffold my own identity as a media artist, a film curator, an arts educator, and a lifelong cinephile.
Following this logic, my work through Forest Tales has been to devise a series of performative experiments that can offer critical insights into issues of representational and environmental ethics, not just through textual analysis but also through process and embodied practice. For instance, in my first experiment (Forest Tales: A Proposal for an Ecological Cinema10), the cinematic took the form of a press kit for the film: given the narrative, the visual aesthetic, and design, audiences were asked to imagine what this cinematic experience could be. The second experiment (Forest Tales: An Eco-Cinema in Two Acts11) was the first performed iteration of this project: the first act was a character study of Sita, introducing...