Art & Photography

Deft Digits

Hand gestures have facilitated a tactile, unspoken language for thousands of years. The following photo-essay from Tami Aftab and Simar Deol looks at the trickle-down impact mythology, Bollywood and dance has had on communication and expression in South Asian culture

All photography Tami Aftab

I distinctly remember my first Kathak lesson. I was 10 years old, standing in the back of the dance classroom with 20 other girls. Maybe there were a few boys, but I don’t remember them. All the walls around us were adorned with massive posters of women in various classical dance poses, except the front wall, which was entirely mirrored and shot back a reflection of some 80-odd limbs practising their mudras asynchronously.

Kathak, Bharatnatyam and other classical dances in India and South Asia heavily depend on narrating stories through effective use of facial expressions and hand gestures, otherwise known as mudras. A mudra can depict nature, animals, inanimate objects, activities and – perhaps most powerfully – emotions. An introductory mudra such as Suchimukha may reference lightning, earrings or anger. Or Shukatunda, which denotes the beak of a bird or the shooting of an arrow. This seemingly disjointed set of meanings barely scratches the surface of the secret language mudras can communicate through.

Language feels most powerful when it requires no speech. South Asian communities are known for their expressive gesticulating, but sadly, western stereotyping has limited us to head nods and shoulder shrugs courtesy of Apu from The Simpsons. This not only confines us into a caricature, but it also actively erases the nuanced manner in which the use of hand gestures (which can be traced back to Vedic times) facilitates an unspoken language.

I think of my nani, her obsession with Bollywood, her flare for the dramatics. She was perhaps the most expressive person I knew. Anger, for example, darted not only through her eyes but was almost always paired with the raising of her left hand, each finger attached to the next one as though superglued together, threatening to slap me for sneakily drinking the last Frooti. Or at the vegetable market where she confidently beckoned shop vendors to carry her bags with a few swift movements of her fingers. The dexterity with which she peeled, sliced and pickled a mango whilst simultaneously helping my mother properly tie on a saree. I vividly remember hating playing a game of charades with her, as she could reference most animals by contorting her fingers: a deer, a tiger, a bear.

My memories of my nani are probably shared by most South Asian kids even if they themselves lack the proficiency with which to communicate through gestures – as I do. While I, especially as a writer, fixate on expressing myself through words, my grandparents possessed the ability to communicate thoughts and feelings with gestures they learnt through dance, theatre, yoga and meditation. But most importantly, they learnt so much from Bollywood films; from the amalgamation of dance and music that took from classical Indian and other western styles of choreography and expression.

Bollywood music and dance has had many influences and iterations, but the fundamentals are derived from Indian classical dance. Mudras remain an essential element when training in Bollywood dance, since elements of it are still used for enhanced storytelling. Madhuri Dixit, Bollywood’s sweetheart, and a trained Kathak dancer, is still remembered across generations for her mesmerising performance of ‘Ek Do Teen’, a song from the 1988 film Tezaab. And while Bollywood movies today have moved away from solely using classical and folk music, these elements have withstood the influence of cabaret in the ’70s and disco after that. This multi-generational understanding of symbols is why my nani always won charades; the trickle-down impact Bollywood films and dance videos have had on South Asian culture cannot be overemphasised.

Communicating through hands and gestures is a dance form in itself. It relies on a type of kinetic energy: through tempo, pace and beats. It is the gentlest of movements and the harshest emotions; it is playful, and it is powerful. When wielded correctly, it is a form of attaining enlightenment in Bharatnatyam, in finding the perfect flow between form and synchronicity. Hands in South Asian mythology can move mountains, and hands in Bollywood films can stop tsunamis. Other times, hands can simply portray romance and friendship.

Photography Tami Aftab

Models Nine, Amrit Singh

Movement director Raimu Itfum

Set design Jessica Thorpe

Fashion assistants Marta Gardi, Marta Lada

Visual consultant Jahnavi Sharma

Photography assistant Rhys Williams

Make up Sunao Takahashi

Hairstyling Masayoshi Fujita

Production Harleen Sian

This article is taken from Port issue 32. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here