Monday, 4 November 2013

Cultural Shorthand

When looking at a friend's Facebook photos, I came across one that was pretty striking - a lone man surrounded by women at a table, making a peculiar gesture with his hands. What was that all about?

(Faces partially pixellated for privacy, while preserving expressions)

I knew only one of the people in the photo. I had no idea what the occasion for the get-together was or who the other people in the photo were. Yet I "got" the reference immediately, and then I realised it was highly culture-specific. I had to marvel then at human civilisation. We have evolved into so many highly differentiated cultures with unique and specific situational themes that we can convey humour with a single word or gesture. We are masters of cultural shorthand.

The reference was of course to the Hindu god Krishna, traditionally shown as a cowherd playing a flute and surrounded by women of his village called gopis. There is even a special name for Krishna in that situation - Gopikrishna.

Krishna and the gopis - a popular Hindu motif

With one simple, eloquent gesture, the man in the photo conveyed enough to raise a chuckle among viewers like myself, who knew nothing at all about their group.

Obviously, one cannot imagine this being transplanted to another culture. A joke, to be effective, has to be a symbol drawn from the appropriate cultural repertoire.

"The only thorn among the roses!"

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