Remembering Protima Bedi, Feminist Icon And Dancer Supreme

Posted by Rimli Bhattacharya in Inspiration, Society
March 1, 2018

“Society always has problems with anyone who combines courage and curiosity with a strong belief in oneself.” – Protima Bedi, “Timepass: The Memoirs of Protima Bedi”

Has she faded from our memory? We last heard about her on August 18, 1998. She was only 49. Even if you may have forgotten her, I would like to help you all remember her, as she deserves respect – that’s for sure!

You heard me right. I am talking of Protima Bedi.

Born on October 12, 1948 in Delhi, Protima was the second among her four siblings. Her father was a trader who hailed from Karnal discrict, Haryana, while her mother was a Bengali. With her early life and education in Karnal and Panchgani, Protima graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

She started her modeling stint in the 1960s – and it was during this phase that she met the veteran actor, Kabir Bedi. They were in a live-in relationship which was considered an anathema back in those times. But eventually, she married him. Protima was truly independent when she chose to walk away from her parents’ house and settled with Kabir. Sadly, the marriage ended within a short span of five years, but Pooja Bedi and Siddharth Bedi were born out of the wedlock.

In my eyes, a bold, feminist icon, Protima dared to streak herself in broad daylight on Juhu Beach, Mumbai for pioneering a Bollywood magazine, Cineblitz. Soumyadipta Banerjee says in Bollywood Journalist, “It was an event that changed the way India looked at women. As a fierce debate raged for years between the moral police and the ultra-feminists, Protima Bedi went on defying every societal norm that every Indian woman was conditioned to believe as ‘normal’. But the streaking incident was not an isolated one. Protima, in fact, was one of the first women in India who was extremely comfortable in her body.”

Soumyadipta continues, “Last year, I got introduced to veteran Delhi-based photographer NK Sareen who said that he had some amazing pictures of Protima locked up in his closet that he shot way back in 1975. Now, in 1975 (I am sure a lot of you reading this article weren’t even born then), wearing a bikini was not only a taboo in India but something that was considered sinful and immoral. As I glanced through the photographs Sareen mailed me, I realised that these photographs should be treasured for every Indian woman who would like to know what courage is.”

Not only was Protima a successful model, she was also a talented dancer. It was in 1975 when she watched an Odissi dance recital that her life took a 360-degree turn. She was only 26 then – and she realised that Odissi was her true calling. Odissi is one of the toughest forms of Indian classical dance – and I know this since I am an Odissi dancer. One needs to mould his/her body movements as per the beat. The undeterred Protima, however, went on to become a fine Odissi dancer.

Leaving her modeling career behind (which was at its peak then), she went to train herself under the Odissi guru, Shri Kelucharan Mohapatra. Under the guru’s mentoring Protima practiced for twelve to fourteen hours a day. She underwent a radical transformation to become Protima Gauri – and later Gauri Amma or Gauri Maa, as she was affectionately known among her students.

She performed all over India and started her own dance school at Prithvi Theatre in Juhu, Mumbai. She coped with her divorce with Kabir through her dance which gave a true solace to her bruised soul. It was in 1990 that she laid the foundation stone of her dance gurukul Nrityagram in Bangalore.

Her daughter Pooja Bedi has fond memories of her mother. In her interview with Rediff, Pooja says that she went to her mother and told her, “Give me a deadline. Decide what I should wear and what I should not, which friends I should hang around with. Caring mothers behave this way. My mother retorted, ‘Fine, I’ll play the perfect mother if you play the perfect daughter. Every day, after coming from school, you must oil your hair and touch my feet.’ I yelled back, ‘That’s disgusting.’ So, she said, ‘What you’re telling me to do is equally disgusting.’ If I’d wear anything skimpy, she’d say, ‘Sexy, have a great time!’ It was too funny! […] My mom was the most fun person in the world. She was a hands-on mom who took us out for picnics, trekking and lit bonfires. Wherever we went, we would pitch a tent and mash potatoes. Whenever she went abroad on her dance trips, she’d return with suitcases filled with books for us. She led a very bohemian life”.

Though the relationship with her daughter was good, Protima’s life with her son was equally tragic. Siddharth was schizophrenic and committed suicide in July 1997 in North Carolina, where he was a student. Protima, who coped with the anguish of her divorce, could not bear this blow. The death of her son caused a sense of irreparable loss in her and she chose a saintly life. No longer was she Protima Bedi.

A devotee of Lord Shiva, she turned into a recluse and set off on a pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar. She got killed in the Malpa avalanche. Her body wasn’t traced but her belongings were spotted at Malpa village. It was only after her death that her autobiography was published by her daughter in 2000. The contents of that biography were based on her heart-tugging letters and periodicals. It also spoke about the tragic state of her mind after the death of her son.

Protima was only 49 when she left all of us. But that shouldn’t let her fade from our memory – and that is the reason why I am writing on her. She shines her light on us – and let us women look at her as an inspiration, and be fearless, bold and spiritual.

I believe that the universe provides answers in mystical ways. Life is too short for fighting, fussing over and living with regrets. Do not measure your life with profitability and balance sheets. Measure it with love and you will be richer than before.

We meet so many people in our life, but you know there are only a few who leave behind as lasting an impression as Protima Bedi. We women will never let you go!