Protima Bedi: A Feminist Icon Who Defied Indian Societal Norms For Women

Posted: August 18, 2018

Its the 21st death anniversary of the legendary model turned Odissi dancer – Protima Bedi. On this occasion, the author explains what an exceptional feminist icon that she was. 

Defying every societal norm that every Indian woman was conditioned to believe as ‘normal’, Protima Bedi was an unforgettable woman.

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




Has she faded away from our memories? We last heard about her on August 18th 1997. She was only forty nine then. Even if you have forgotten her, I will make sure I remind you all about her as she deserves our respect, that is for sure.

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

Born on October 12th 1948 in Delhi, Protima was the second among four siblings. Her father was a trader and hailed from Karnal district, Haryana and her mother was a Bengali. That bong connection justifies her name as Protima and not Pratima. Her early life and education happened in Karnal and Panchgani, she later graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

Protima started her modelling stint in the 60’s and it was during that phase she met the veteran actor Kabir Bedi. The couple was in a live-in relationship which was considered anathema back then but eventually, she married him. She was truly independent when she chose to walk away from her parents’ house and settle with Kabir. Sadly, the marriage ended after a short span of five years with two children – Pooja Bedi and Siddharth Bedi.

A bold feminist icon in my eyes, Protima dared to streak in broad daylight on Juhu Beach, Mumbai for the pioneering Bollywood Magazine – Cineblitz. Soumyadipta Banerjee from Bollywood Journalist says in this piece, “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 with her body. 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 had shot way back in 1975.”

Soumyadipta Banerjee continues, “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 also something that was considered sinful and immoral. As I glanced through the photographs that Sareen mailed me, I realised that they should be treasured by every Indian woman who would like to know what courage is. Less than a year ago, I wrote an article for Mumbai Mirror where I spoke about my discovery. Needless to say the article created quite a stir”.

Protima was not only a sensational model, but also a talented dancer. It was in the year 1975, when she watched an Odissi dance recital that completely changed her life. She was only twenty six when she realized Odissi was her true calling. It is one of the toughest forms of Indian classical dance and I know that since I am an Odissi dancer myself. In this dance form, one needs to mould his/her body movements as per the beat.

The undeterred Protima went on to become a fine Odissi dancer. She forgot her modelling though she was at the peak of her career. She went on to undertake training from the Odissi guru Shri Kelucharan Mohapatra. Under his mentoring, Protima practiced for twelve to fourteen hours a day.  She transformed herself from a model to Protima Gauri. And later to Gauri Amma or Gauri Maa, as she was affectionately known amongst her students.

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

Her daughter Pooja Bedi has fond memories of her mother. In an interview on rediff.com, Pooja has said that she went to her mother once 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.” For which Protima 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.” She yelled back, “That’s disgusting.” And Protima replied, “What you’re telling me to do is equally disgusting.

Though her equation with her daughter was good, Protima’s life with her son was equally tragic. Siddharth was a schizophrenic and committed suicide in July 1997 at North Carolina where he was a student. She who could manage her anguish of divorce could not bear this blow. Death of her son caused an irremediable loss and she chose a saintly life and was no longer Protima Bedi.

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

Protima Bedi was only forty nine when she left all of us. But as I said, I will not let her fade from our memories and that is the reason I am writing about her. Her skills as a dancer got noticed after she passed away. Her memoir got published after her death but I will publish only the good facts about her. As she shines her light on us, let the entire woman kind look at her as an inspiration – be fearless, be bold and also be spiritual.

In conclusion I would say, universe answers in mystical ways. Life is too short for fighting, fussing 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 there are only a few who leave a lasting impression and Protima Bedi is one of them. We women will never forget you.

For more information about Protima Bedi, watch:

Protima Gauri Bedi, model and danseuse, founder of Nrityagram

Swati Bhise’s interview with Promita Bedi

Protima inaugurates NRITYAGRAM

Earlier published here.

 

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Rimli Bhattacharya is a First class gold medalist in Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of

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