Folk-Lore/Volume 30/The Language of Gesture

The Language of Gesture.

Dr. J. P. Vogel has recently contributed to the Verslagen en Mededeelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde, 5e Reeks, Diet iv.,[1] a valuable note (in English) on the Sign of the Spread Hand or "Five-finger token" (Pancangidika) in Pali Literature. This sign seems to have originated in gesture, and though few races are so dependent on that mode of expression as not to be able to converse without it, like the Bubis of West Africa who cannot talk in the dark, as among them "language depends so much on gesture,"[2] few races exist who use nothing but the tongue to communicate ideas. Gesture, elaborately conventionalised, plays a great part in Indian iconography.[3]

And such conventions must be of great antiquity, as is gesture itself. In a curious passage of the Jātakas[4] the Great Being meets the lady Amarā and thought, "Whether she be wed or not I do not know: I will ask her by hand gesture, and if she be wise she will understand." So standing afar off he clenched his fist. She understood that he was asking whether she had a husband, and spread out her hand—to signify that she was married. It would appear then that the original meaning of the open hand was freedom or liberty. But in Persia the clenched hand denotes, besides austerity or violence, close-fistedness, just as the spread hand signifies open handedness.[5]

The spread hand, however, may express a very different sentiment in modern India, where gesture is still much used. Thus, in the Western Punjab, at least in two districts of it, some of the gestures are peculiar, although, as in Europe a nod of the head means "yes," or "come," and a shake "denial." A backward nod means inquiry, a click with a toss of the head means "no," jerking the fingers means "I do not know"; holding the palm inwards and shaking the head is a sign of prohibition, holding up the thumb means contemptuous refusal, wagging the middle finger provokes a person to anger, and holding up the open palm is a great insult. Why this last gesture should be insulting does not appear.[6] The tracts in question are peopled by dominant Muhammadan tribes, and the open hand is common on the standards of their Afghan co-religionists across the north-west frontier. In beckoning the hand is held up, palm outwards and the fingers moved downwards and inwards—just the reverse of our gesture. But these differences are readily explicable. The Indian's palm is always much lighter than the back of his hand, so the colour of the palm must attract the attention of the person whom he wishes to call to him much more than the less conspicuous complexion of the back would do. Then the extensor muscles being weaker in all Orientals than the flexor, a great many muscular opposites occur among them: notably in pulling instead of pushing a saw, and the like.

The middle-finger gesture seems to be an attempt to represent a snake's tongue. In Indian art we find a very similar gesture styled the Suchi-hasta or "needle-pointed hand."[7] This term is so translated by Mr. Gangoly, but the resemblance to a needle is not very great. The middle-finger seems to be intended for the tongue as the two fingers on either side of it seem to represent the hood of a cobra. Were putting out the tongue and hissing derived from a similar imitation of the poisonous snakes? Seeing that we find a Sinha-karna hasta or "tiger-making hand" and a gaja-hasta or "elephant's trunk" among the Indian mudras or finger-poses, just as we find children still making shadow-pictures of rabbits, etc., on the wall with their hands, this conjecture seems justified. Other mudras are the half-moomn (ardha-chandra) and kartari-hasta, which seems to be an attempt to represent the Indian katār or dagger hidden by the arm.[8] But it is quite possible that this pose, in which the index and little fingers are kept straight and the two middle ones lowered represents a deer as dancing-girls in Southern India still so represent that animal, curving the two upright fingers slightly backwards to indicate its horns.[9]

The diagrams given by Mr. Gangoly appear to represent the fingers in motion as well as in repose. Thus the Sinha-karna hasta seems to represent the index finger closing in on the thumb (Diagrams S), but in X it is the middle-finger which is so moving down. Similarly, the Kataka-hasta, from which Mr. Gangoly derives the Sinha-karna, appears to be always in quick movement. In fact, he speaks of the mudras as "actions of the finger." On the other hand all the open hands are apparently in repose, as in Diagrams D (Araya-hasta), and O (Arayamudra—Patāka-hasta). As when "all the fingers [are] spread out together, the thumb being curled up, it is known as patāka," there are doubtless other varieties of the Abhaya mudra, or re-assuring gesture, each with its shade of meaning. In the Abhaya the fingers are spread out: indeed, as a rule they are held close together but not all pressed together.[10] The open palm used to express contempt has, probably, the fingers radiating from it and bent slightly backwards. The hand held out horizontally with the palm upwards and the fingers in disarray, as it were, signifies resignation or despair—a gesture which has survived in modern Europe.[11]

While much in the gesture-language of India is still obscure, it seems to be clear enough that the so-called poses of Indian art include gestures as well as poses of the hands and that the conventionalised forms of both were based on a widely used, well understood and somewhat elaborate gesture-language.

  1. Available in an off-print. Amsterdam: J. Müller, 1919.
  2. Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa p. 439.
  3. The Bronzes of Southern India, O. G. Gangoly, 1915.
  4. Jâtaka, Cowell and Rouse, vi. p. 182.
  5. North Indian Notes and Queries, i. § 42.
  6. See Punjab District Gazetteer, Attock, 1907, p. 113, quoting Sir James Wilson's Shahpur Gazetteer. The local words for thumb, thuth, and middle finger, dhiri, may have some significance. In sitting the two most usual postures have separate names: athrūtha, "sitting on the heels," and patthalti, "squatting on the ground cross-legged."
  7. Bronzes of Southern India, p. 45. It is also called Suchi-mukha hasta, which suggests that it is intended to represent a mouth and fangs.
  8. Ibid. p. 44. Mr. Gangoly does not translate the term, but says it is identical with the Kartari-mutha. His diagram M is queried as a Kartari-hasta, but it strongly suggests the side pieces of the katār.
  9. The Arts and Crafis of India and Ceylon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1913, pl. 9, p. 51.
  10. See, for instance, pl. 5 at p. 31 of Coomaraswamy, op. cit. In plates 3 and 4 he figures two distinct forms of the vitarka inudra, which are. I believe, still commonly used in India, though their precise significances are not known to me.
  11. See "With the Five Fingers," by Samarendranath Gupta, in Modern Review, Calcutta, 1913, vii. p. 169.