Annelies Kusters: Preparing to investigate the use of gesture between deaf and hearing people in Mumbai

Posted on April 22, 2014



In India, there is a large number of conventional gestures that practically everybody knows, such as “water,” “toilet,” “how much does it cost,” etc.

We are investigating what happens when hearing people encounter deaf people who primarily use Indian Sign Language, and how both use gesture (and elements of speech and writing) to communicate. When deaf people go to a market, sell something in the city, or serve people in a coffee shop, the individuals involved in the resulting deaf-hearing interactions make use of the common gesture repertoire, but there is also the addition of spontaneous and creative gesturing.

This study is innovative because studies of gesture focus on linguistics, including psycho- and neurolinguistics; in addition, they typically concentrate on co-speech gesture, gesture development in children, and which gestures are incorporated in formal sign languages.

What we are doing can be instead regarded as “anthropology of communication” – we are investigating how the use of gesture works in actual interactions between deaf and hearing people in a gesture-prone environment. We also investigate what people think about the possibilities, limits, status and use of gesture and how it differs from Indian Sign Language. To this end, we are doing six case studies in Mumbai and following six deaf people around as they shop, do business, serve customers, and travel on the local trains where they engage in gestural interactions with fellow commuters.

This study is also a journey into visual anthropology. We are recording everything that happens and a selection of clips will be used to create an hour-long ethnographic documentary. The footage will also be transcribed, translated, and finally analyzed. The recording of the documentary thus serves as both output and as my research data.

We are a team of six people: the main researcher (myself), a deaf research assistant (Sujit Sahasrabudhe), a hearing research assistant/sign language interpreter (Amaresh Gopalakrishnan), and three deaf cameramen who work in turns (Rohan Satardekar, Prakash Khairnar, and Harish Chaudhary).

These young, deaf cameramen have been making their own movies and short documentaries for many years. To prepare them for making an anthropological documentary, they successfully received professional training from Visualbox, a sign language media agency from Belgium. We learned how the framing in deaf-made documentaries differs from hearing ones, and how we can best bring signing/gesturing people into focus and at the same time create aesthetically pleasing images.

This project marks the first time the four deaf cameramen worked with a large (and heavy) camera (Sony PMW EX3), which proved a challenge. We did a number of exercises in which Sujit (the deaf research assistant) engaged in gestural interactions. These exercises were exhausting, exciting, and very fruitful.  We made environment shots, focused on Sujit gesturing with hearing people, and practiced interviewing hearing and deaf people on the spot. The goal is to regularly hold a short, impromptu interview with the hearing person who just engaged in a gestural interaction with a deaf person and ask them about the communication that occurred, how they knew how to communicate, and so on. The deaf person who just interacted through gesturing is also questioned on the recent interaction.

We combined these exercises with a pilot study for my research by experimenting with how to approach people, observing how people react on camera, and learning to work together as a team. We learned which kind of environment shots did or did not work and when is a good time for an impromptu interview. Sujit is now practiced in interviewing hearing people and can also empathize with the six people that will be followed by the camera. Last but not least, we also recorded some footage for a short movie on the pilot study that can be viewed here.

I was pleased to see that most people are accepting of the camera’s presence and go about their business as though it wasn’t there. We don’t need to announce that we are filming – we just film. When we get questions about our recordings (which happens in only a few cases only), the interpreter assists in getting consent. This aspect of the project was surprisingly easy. However, it is somewhat challenging to shoot in Mumbai; it is very often crowded, people are interested in what is happening and crowd around us, there are many glass and mirrors to avoid when filming, most filming happens in small spaces, and there are many differences in ground levels. In addition, the cameraman must be fast to record gestural interactions when they happen as completely as possible.

To be continued!

Annelies Kusters is a deaf anthropologist from Belgium who’s currently working at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and doing research in Mumbai, India. She also has research experience in Surinam (South-America) and Ghana (Africa). Between 2010 and 2014 she has lived in Bristol for 4 years where she studied her MSc and PhD in Deaf Studies. She is passionate about deaf-related ethnographic research and is interested particularly in deaf space making, (sign) language ideologies, and deaf transnationalism. She is also member of the WFD Expert group on developing countries and leads the next International Deaf Academics and Researchers conference which will be organized in Belgium in February 2015. 

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