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Cultural connection behind gesturing

Rajnikanth - Tamil Movie 
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In January 2014, I moved from Pune to Chennai with my wife for new job in a local IT company. It's was very first time of coming into contact with native South Indian population since I never traveled this part of country ever before. I was really excited yet little bit nervous because I didn’t know local etiquettes, mannerism and normal (or socially acceptable) nonverbal behavior. Though I've few Tamil friends living in Pune, facing and interacting with people in their own territory is very different because they tend to behave very naturally and comfortably.

Knowing the fact that gestures have different meanings and purposes in different culture, I started to investigate one particular hand gesture which I found completely different. I never saw people from any other cultures especially people from other parts of India making this gesture in exactly the same way. It’s a typical gesture that Tamil men and women make during face to face conversation. One of my colleagues turned close friend makes this gesture a lot of time during conversation so I could pick enough details about same from very close distance.


Questioning Gesture
How this gesture is made? One hand is stretched out, held above torso (upper body), thumb is kept jutting outside partially or fully, other fingers are clenched and finally this whole formation is abruptly shaken 2 or 3 times vertically at elbow. Through a stranger’s point of view, it appears as if a person, who makes this gesture, is trying to hold and shake something quickly by one hand. I didn’t see by Tamil friends living in Pune making this gesture. Has this gesture tight connection with local population, culture and geography of Tamil Nadu (or South India) only?

I was very intrigued to observe this gesture at very first time because I really didn’t know that exactly why native Tamil people make this gesture. After few instances, I realized that a Tamil person makes this gesture only while asking (seriously) or emphasizing something. Finally, true nonverbal purpose behind the gesture was disclosed. Even though I no longer find this gesture as an offensive or weird, as people from other cultures might assume it to be, investigating it further became necessary. Why and how this particular gesture might have evolved at first place?


‘Shikhara’ gesture
To my surprise, I found Bharatnatyam (classical dance form of Tamil Nadu) dancers also use this gesture for exactly the same purpose - asking question or demanding answer in a symbolic way. In Bharatnatyam, this gesture is called as ‘Shikhara’ (शिखर/शिखरा, Sanskrit word synonymous to ‘Peak (of a mountain)’) and it’s made in a slightly different way. Unlike common way of gesturing, dancers don’t shake hand at elbow but just hold it stationary and raise their eyebrows significantly. Bharatnatyam might have adapted this gesture from native people’s nonverbal vocabulary and later modified it.

As per my own speculation, this gesture might have evolved out of a very normal yet an effectively threatening practice which ancestors might have developed. Perhaps, they might have become used to ask questions by holding a tool or weapon e. g. chopper, knife or stick to bring seriousness in conversation (Enough is enough! Now come to the point.). My own strong speculation is that it might be tightly related with agricultural/occupational background of Tamil community. People carrying and using ARUVAL (handy chopping tool with a long and thick steel blade which is curved at it outer end) can be watched to shake their clenched fist over the tool (by jutting out thumb) same way during conversation to emphasize or put stress on something during face to face conversation.


Aruval - a tool and weapon
Even today, we make many gestures in absence of same or similar kind of objects which our ancestors might have used to hold in or handle by their hands. One very good example is ‘beat you with stick’ gesture which is made by wagging an index finger in front of the person to be warned off. Also, both thumbs up and thumbs down gestures are used to convey OK or Not OK respectively but they evolved in such a way that we can’t imagine in today’s context. In ancient roman Colosseum, spectators used to send signals to winning gladiators for killing (Thumb Down) or letting go (Thumb Up) their loosing opponents. Thumb was representative of a sword so pointing it downward conveyed stabbing and pointing it upward conveyed keeping the weapon into non-harming upright position.

Not only cultural but historical, social, educational and genetic aspects also influence the way certain group of people gesticulates normally and unconsciously (during conversation). There can be many distinctive gestures people from different cultures might be making. What all we need to do is to pick and analyze them in different contexts than jumping into misinterpretation. So next time you watch any distinctive gesture, please check its cultural, social and geographical background first. Feel free to write an email to me on sachchidanand.swami@gmail.com.

[An article was posted in world's largest English daily Times of India on 9th June, 2014. Senior Editor from daily's office had contacted me to write an investigative write-up. Follow this link to read same.]

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