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This review appeared in Volume 7 (1) of the Semiotic Review of Books.

India Signs

Ashok R Kelkar

Semiotica Indica: Encyclopaedic dictionary of body-language in Indian art & culture. By H K Shukla. 2 volumes. New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 1994. 683 pp; with line drawings and photographs in text; colour plates. ISBN 81-7305-046-5.

This encyclopaedic dictionary has numbered entries in the Sanskrit alphabetical order (5000, together with 492 addenda), it also includes the author's preface (p vi) and introduction (p xi-xviii), lists of works and authorities (in a chronological order, mostly Sanskrit) and of abbreviations, a subject index in the Roman order (p 621-83) , and of course many illustrations keyed by the entry number (black and white line drawings and photographs, coloured photographs and reproductions).

The book eminently illustrates the promise and, unfortunately, the peril too of the globalization of the Indian English-language book-publishing industry.

The promise of such an ambitiously planned work of reference intended for the broadly knowledgeable international readership is certainly great. The subtitle is somewhat misleading in that the scope extends beyond body language to other forms of non-verbal communication and beyond the symbolism itself to the analysis of that symbolism in the tradition. Something like 'Non-verbal communication in practice and theory' would be more appropriate. India of course stands for ancient and mediaeval South Asia. The dominant orientation is Sanskritic (from Vedic times to the present day); there is a sprinkling of references, however, to the India of the Sultanates and the Mughals and to the tribals of Madhya Pradesh. (The editor teaches comparative languages and culture at Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh). The format presupposes an acquaintance with Sanskrit (and the Devanagari script) but not thorough acquaintance. Thus, if the reader vaguely remembers the erotic category of deer women but not its Sanskrit name he could look it up with the help of the subject index, which has an entry on 'deer lady' (a Victorianism that survives in Indian English). The editor shows a welcome awareness of modern semiotics (though it is conceived by him as an extension of structural linguistics) and is free from any Victorian coyness concerning the erotic. The editor is imbued with a commendable zeal to introduce traditional India to the curious modern reader in India and abroad, and the publisher appears to share this zeal. The illustrations, pictorial and literary, are profuse and often well-chosen. The over-all quality of the production is fairly satisfactory.

Unfortunately, the book is not as much of a boon as it could have been to the intended reader. This is because of two deficiencies: deficiency in scholarly care and thoroughness and deficiency in scholarly sophistication. Use with caution - the intended reader has to be told, for there is nothing better of comparable scope and approach.

First, the lack of care. The list of works and authors has gaps (Yayaticarita cited but not listed; authors of works not always identified) and should have been supplemented with a list of primary and secondary sources cited occasionally like Abul, Fazl, Eliot, Elwin 1949, Srinivas 1952, Gumperz). The list of abbreviations has gaps (NV for 'Non-verbal' used but not listed). Figures are often wrongly keyed (2648, 3356); photographs are left unexplained in text or legend (1742, 4598); some appear to be merely decorative (153, 3175) though they could have been better placed; some drawings are reproduced with excessive reduction (4278). There is no settled policy about the citing and elucidation of Sanskrit quotations (compare 2149, 5152, 5154). Some of the Sanskrit entry headings are not authentic in that they apparently represent translations (1942) or coinages (1096) by the editor. The subject index has gaps 'deer ladies' are treated not only at 558 but also at 639, 3175, 3356, the last is indeed the main locus, there is no entry 'eagle 1327-33'. There is a fair sprinkling of misprints ('them' for 'the hem' at 2648) and misspellings ('proximics', 'quietitude' consistently for 'proxemics' and 'quietude'). The alphabetical order is occasionally at fault ('rape' on p 664). The spelling of the entry heading is occasionally dubious (633, 4407; 4402, 4403; 4482). There are cases of accidentally misplaced material (1337, 2202) apparently - they are irrelevant in any case. The English leaves much to be desired; the reader may be merely uncomfortable ('the' missing before 'prince' 2648) or amused ('biting her lower's lip' as 'preening behaviour' at 2649 a) or simply puzzled ('lovers have more gestures than sons' at 2649a) or misled (subjective and objective hoods at 634, manda can be slow or soft when applied to speech - this has to lead to confusion at 3175).

Then there is lack of sophistication. The illustrator Ravi should not have been allowed to sign obtrusively; like the other two he should have simply been thanked in the preface. The entry heading in a work of reference should be such as would readily occur to the potential reader. Fancy headings (3314, 4280) have no place; the information at 1942 could well go under 1682). There is almost a total lack of cross references; they would have been useful to the reader, say, between 541 and 2154; 909 and 3317; 1684 and 3322. The confusion between icon and index (p xvi) is unfathomable. There are bits of undigested Freud here and there. All of this kind of naiveté is not expected from the author of Dictionary of Kalidas (5v), Tribal folklore (3v), and many other such books.

Browsing through this work can bring rewarding moments of pleasant juxtaposition: Tantraloka and Bhili song (1089) on coitus philosophicus; Marston, T S Eliot, Kalidasa, Chattisgarh folk poet on the beauty of a woman's hair of the head (4285); Dryden, Herrick, Kalidasa, Vidyakara, and Oraon folk poet on honey bees and love (5347).

It is high time that Indian publishers and authors accept the need for publishers' reviewers and pre-publication vetting. 'Total Quality Management' is as much a desideratum here as it is in other industries. Enthusiasm, like sincerity, is not enough.


Ashok R Kelkar is a Professor of Linguistics at Deccan College, University of Poona, India. He has published widely in English, Hindi, Marathi on linguistics (general, variety of languages), literary theory, semiotics, and philosophy of language. He is the author of Prolegomena to an Understanding of Semiosis and Culture (1980).


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