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Protima Bedi — the model, dancer and ‘sanyasin’ who lived by her own rules

In her short life, Protima Bedi had a successful career, first as a model and then Odissi dancer. She refused to be put in a box, and made a name as a bold, feminist icon.

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In her memoir, Timepass: The Memoirs of Protima Bedi, which was published posthumously by her daughter, Bedi wrote, “I could not — and I would not — be a Sita to my husband or a Radha to my lovers. And I doubt if I have been a Yashodha to my children. In other words, as far as the world is concerned, I have been a total flop.”

She often felt that she failed as a “wife, a mistress, a mother, a daughter, sister and a friend.” But only so “as far as the world was concerned.” In her introductory note to the memoir, her daughter, former actor Pooja Bedi recalled how her mother would come to her school, pull her and her brother out of class and whisk them off on camping trips Alibag or Panchgani, and how she always taught by example how to live without caring what other people thought. “There was no reason for her to have felt that she failed as a mother.”

Her only crime, after all, was that she refused to be put in a box. In the 49 years that Protima Bedi, later known as Protima Gauri, lived, she made headlines by allegedly streaking for a film magazine, made a name as a bold, feminist icon for the choices she made, gave up a thriving modelling career to learn Odissi dance at the age of 26 and then gave that and everything else up when her son, Siddharth, who suffered from schizophrenia, died by suicide.

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The streaking that wasn’t

One of the first things people of a certain generation think of when the name Protima Bedi comes up is her ‘streaking’ along a road in South Bombay. But Bedi wrote that, actually, the incident wasn’t like that.

“The so-called streaking happened in Goa. I was spending a lot of time in those days with the hippies on Anjuna Beach. Everyone walked around naked there,” she wrote in her memoir, adding, “If you were in a swimming costume, you looked and felt odd. So I was a nudist like everyone else on the beach. Somebody must have taken a picture of me there, and what the magazine did was superimpose these pictures on a photograph of a Bombay street. And people were so gullible, nobody even questioned it. Wouldn’t have there been crowds in the picture if I had really done this in Bombay?”

She went on to say that she never regretted it, and in fact, found the media’s obsession with her every move after this surprising and rather amusing.

On his blog, Bollywood journalist Soumyadipta Banerjee wrote, “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.”

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The call of Odissi

In her late 20s, wearing a halter top, fitted jeans and flaunting colourful streaks in her hair Protima was on her way to attend a fashion show and rock concert, but little did she know her life was about to change. She had grown up mocking anything related to Indian culture as for the “middle classes, the locals, the frogs-in-the-well who were not aware of the outside world”. Yet, when she chanced upon an Odissi performance on the way to the concert, it was an experience she hadn’t had before.

“The beauty, grace, sensuousness and lyricism overpowered my senses. It had a tremendous aesthetic and spiritual quality,” she wrote. The very next day, Bedi flew to Odisha, ditching her modelling career which was at its peak. She soon commenced her training under Guru Shri Kelucharan Mohapatra.

After a major transformation and training rigorously for hours and hours every single day, Protima Bedi became Protima Gauri. “Dance became my dialogue with God. I was a medium for God to express His divinity. How else could my body get into these postures? My priorities had begun to change,” she wrote.

“I decided to take some kind of sanyas from the city life, my profession and children,” she said in an interview. Consulting her guru on what to change her name to, he said that since she had openly shown her Kaali form, it was time to show her Gauri form. “I just wanted a name that didn’t belong to my father or husband,” said Bedi, who was, by that time, separated from her actor husband Kabir Bedi.

Having performed all across the country, she opened up her own dance school at Prithvi Theatre in Juhu, Mumbai, and by 1989, she had laid the foundation stone for her dance gurukul, Nrityagram, in Bengaluru. “The idea was to build a village where the seven classical dance forms of India can exist in one place,” she said.

With an aim of nurturing the next generation of dancers and teachers in order to uphold the institution, Nrityagram was the destiny Protima did not know she had been searching for her entire life. Such was her determination and dedication that she refused to move out of a tent she was living in until all seven villages of the school had been constructed.

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She did it her way, right to the end

For some time, she found solace in dance. But her peace did not remain for long as her son, Siddharth, died by suicide in 1997. Dance no longer gave her the peace she so badly yearned for. And so she changed course once again.

Leaving everything at a high yet again, the Lord Shiva devotee chose an austere sanyasin‘s life and set off on a pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar. And it was there that she died in a landslide in 1998. While her belongings were located, her body was never found.

In the afterword to Timepass, her daughter Pooja wrote, “She had always wanted to die one with nature and used to wince at the thought of dying a common, painful death and being burned in some soulless crematorium. Well, I guess she had her way even in death.”

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