"S, are your breasts in front of your waist?" "No."
"Then keep your hand under where your breasts are, not in front of your waist."
That was my Odissi teacher to me, while I danced in our class. Me, suitably in culture shock. I was just 18.
Today I see the popularity of boudoir photography and hear Bollywood actresses using phrases like 'body-shaming' and taking up Twitter wars against newspapers that publish headlines about their cleavages. But back then as a young woman, I knew that all my conscious life, I had been taught - through a strange kind of social osmosis - that a woman shouldn't draw attention to her breasts. Like, never ever. Peeping bra straps must be hidden away quickly. Dupattas must cover blooming chests entirely. The more loose and unshapely the outlines of your clothes, the better.
There was definitely no template for woman-who-shows-her-breast.
So imagine my shock, when the women in Odissi, based on the beautiful damsels of temple sculpture, were totally okay with their breasts. Hell, they were in love with them. They had no qualms about drawing attention to them - by swaying their chests with abandon, keeping slightly cupped palms under their breasts gracefully, draping their pallus across torsos without trying to hide anything. So much for typical 'Indian cultural heritage' ideas that I had started out with, and ended up shattering, fortunately.
While emulating the body language of these women over the years, I learnt something very quietly, instinctively, experientially as a woman: that strange pleasure of self-love. This was something no one ever taught me - not sex education, not my liberal parents, not even my lovers - that the body is a beautiful thing. It is more than just what is viewed from outside, glimpsed in a mirror, or gazed at by a man. It doesn't owe belonging to any culture - Indian, western or martian. Like a beautiful home we inhabit, every part of it, is functional and aesthetic all at once. Its lines and curves and contours are to be admired, enjoyed, lived in, and taken care of, not to be judged. Nothing 'haww ji' about any of it. (1/2)
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