The intermammary fjord

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on October 17, 2014

The cover-up: Madhubala’s suggestive yet demure bodice in Mughal-e-Azam

Ambarish Satwik

The uncovered upper chest has reached a point where there’s an unabated supply of filmic tittage around us. In contrast, the community standards of modesty have dawdled behind

The Times of India’s tweet on Deepika Padukone that warmed the hearts and loins of a great many Hindustani men wasn’t a lapse of good form as much as the rendition of a national myth about the intermammary sulcus. As a people, we’re unversed in the cleavage; it doesn’t exist in the collective iconography of our past and therefore we don’t have a proper word for it in our many languages. It is anomalous and exotic, so there should be pageantry around it.

What we do have is a word in Braj bhasha that droops with vernacular loveliness: joban. Joban isn’t the post-pubertal stage or the prime or youth. It specifically refers to the oestrogenic blossoming of the rounded charms of a woman’s secondary sexual characteristics. Actually, joban is more manifold and complicated than anything encompassed by a single word. It is also the swell, the sway and the quiver. Sample this:

Us ras tapakti angiya mein ek umda joban

tanta hain

Us joban pe voh joban hain, jo bin banae

banta hain

(That luscious bodice detains a bursting bosom’s swell

Self-willed, the ensuant sprightliness of the bust on the belle)

It’s the sort of description that takes in everything (about the breasts) that beguiles. Except that joban is the bust under an intercessory garment. It is an appeal to sexual passions brokered by the poetics of presence rather than that of display.

For Hindustanis, till about the 1960s, the consumption of the body through filmic images was largely restricted to imagining the damned thing. That was the great cultural specificity of the Bombay film. The filmic breast fetish was handled by proxy. The point here was to see the angiya, aanchal, pallu, chunariya, choli or any other kind of subcontinental drapery not as a cover for the mammaries, but as desire itself.

Surkh aanchal ko dabaa kar jo nichoda usne

Dil pe jalta hua ik teer sa chhoda usne

This seems daffy and quaint even for those times, but that’s how it was, with absolutely no boobage on display. Madhubala’s chest would be covered all the way to the clavicles. Upon the blouse or kurta would be the supplementary second layer of the thoracic veil — the aanchal/chunariya. With such a fine specimen of bust, this was problematic at best and essentialist at worst. The obscured supplied the thrill of the obscene. And she was splendid with her aanchal. The performance of the covering seemed to be the most important thing rather than the idea that the cover might be covering something.

From the 1970s, the uncovered upper chest was gradually eased into our cinematic byways. The natural history of our mammary desire started with Rehana Sultan’s sideboob in Dastak (1970) and has in the present climate reached a point where there’s an unabated supply of sanctioned filmic tittage around us. In contrast, the community standards of modesty have dawdled behind. So though we do get to see fitted articles of clothing and a bit of galumphing of the breasts from time to time, even the occasional unwitting down-blouse, active décolleté displays aren’t exactly commonplace. The cleavage, at any rate, remains an epiphanically affecting spectacle. One doesn’t routinely get to see them on real women.

The principal function of the permanently enlarged breasts of the post-pubertal females of the species Homo sapiens is to solicit male attention and investment even when they (the females) are not fertile (Crawford et al, 1998). Males are meant to go into some sort of excitation upon seeing them. Breasts in other primates enlarge only during ovulation and pregnancy. For the other interregnums of their youth, they’re puny and pitiful. Also, females of other primate species do not develop breasts during puberty; instead, they sprout and develop them during pregnancy. If lactation were the primary function, breasts would have been mere glands; they wouldn’t have been enlarged with fatty adipose tissue. Fat is physiologically expensive.

Human females don’t have a defined and externally detectable fertile period in their reproductive cycle. Other primates do — it’s called estrus. So human males haven’t a clue about when she might be ovulating. For reproductive success, we need regular coital activity. For that to happen, we need a steadfast and dedicated set of attractants. Permanently enlarged breasts.

This near-tautology leaves wide open the question posed by that queen of her species, the matinee-photogenic, properly, old-fashionedly beautiful Deepika Padukone in her fulmination against The Times of India: hath not a woman cleavage?

No she doesn’t. She makes the sulcus. Cleavage is breast flesh pressed into service. And manifestly put on view. It is the bodice remaking the breast. For the delectation of the observer. Well, the bodice along with the modern western brassiere. The modern mammary cleavage would’ve never happened without the modern western brassiere (MWB). The MWB is, on that account, availed twice over — in the wearing and the viewing. Much like the bra-strap or the underwear that she likes to show, it reissues the old bogey that was first put out by George Berkeley about the possibility of unperceived existence: “If a tree were to fall in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Ex hypothesi, without the beholder, would the cleavage have an independent existence?

What she hath is a fjord; a region of separation between those numinous mammaries that find their centre of gravity not on the sternum, but much laterally.

( Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer)

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Published on October 17, 2014

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