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Magnetic, stunning, Protima Bedi 'exposed' malice of sexual repression in society

By Harsh Thakor* 

Protima Bedi was born to a baniya businessman and a Bengali mother as Protima Gupta in Delhi in 1949. Her father was a small-time trader, who was thrown out of his family for marrying a dark Bengali women. The theme of her early life was to rebel against traditional bondage. It was extraordinary how Protima underwent a metamorphosis from a conventional convent-educated girl into a freak. On October 12th was her 75th birthday; earlier this year, on August 18th it was her 25th death anniversary.
Few women, however scandalous or controversial, so openly and boldly expressed their feelings or honestly disclosed facts about their lives, and daringly spoke out. Protima was a mascot against conventional social norms. She exposed the malice or plague of sexual repression in society, symbolising defiance against it. In her time, few more openly portrayed the sheer narcasm of the soul in day-to-day life.
Late Khushwant Singh selected Protima Bedi amongst his list of ‘Extraordinary Indians.’ Indeed, she may not be classified as a progressive person or a role model for women, considering for a considerable part of her career she projected image of a sex symbol, of a person who literally sold her body in seeking glamour.
Also, she split apart her marriage and had no idea of the hurt she caused people. She loved her men, liquor and drugs. She did not engage in progressive social causes, as many feminists have done. She went out of the way to hunt for publicity in media. She was a deep devotee of Lord Shiva, and professed loyalty to Hindu traditions, refusing to promote radical beliefs.
However, the fact is, Protima projected the image of female sex symbol as a rebel in the 1970s setting. Her sex appeal was magnetic and stunning, turning her into a cynosure in the eyes of the public. Few women broke all past conventions or norms so boldly or forthrightly, be it in the way she carried western attire or herself.
Her open streaking in 1974 no doubt was to pull crowd, but was also manifestation of the suppression or bondage of women, and their desire to rebel against it. This incident created a sensational uproar in the public.
Barely four years later, Protima reinvented herself as an accomplished classical dancer, a devotee of Goddess Kali, and chose sari over slit skirts and halter-necks. In her later youth, in the thirties, she frequently dazzled in ghagra cholis when posing for photos in glossy magazines like ‘Society’ and ‘Savvy.’
Protima was endowed with great talent as a kathakali dancer. She ventured into building her own dance school, Nityagram, in Orissa. It was truly remarkable the manner in which she blossomed into a highly artistic Odissi dancer. She put in painstaking work of over 12 hours per day, being tutored by her guruji.
Shortly before her death, she shaved her head and embarked on a monk's life. She died in August 1998 in a landslide in the Himalayas while on a pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar, leaving behind a monument -- a flourishing dance village, Nrityagram -- where students continue to learn classical dance styles of India. She sought to reveal her endeavours in liberating herself from the shackles of the material world and transcending the spiritual realms.


In her memoirs, ‘Timepass’, Protima’s revelations project the sheer hypocrisy, nascent bondage or suppression or what lies beneath the surface in marriages or conventional norms of society. One gets a deep insight into what is camouflaged in the world of glamour or crass nature and superficiality that lies under it. Ironically, however, she ended her life on the road of liberation of bondage from the material world in the quest of spiritual path.
In ‘Timepass’ Protima recounts with pinpoint boldness the events that turned her life: the humiliation she underwent as a child at being branded the ugly duckling, repeated rape by a cousin when she was barely ten, the failure of her open marriage with Kabir Bedi, her numerous sexual encounters, and the romantic relationships she engaged in with prominent politicians and artistes.
She also recounts her blossoming into an Odissi dancer, her relationship with her guruji and fellow dancers, the challenging mission of establishing Nrityagram, and the suicide of her son -- a tragedy from which she never fully recovered. In a heart-touching afterword to the book, her daughter, Pooja Bedi, dwells on how she set off for her heavenly abode.
Her memoirs reveal her controversial love affairs and the ups and downs of her marriage and then live-in relationships with frustration and despair a regular feature. Her revelations include her relationship with Kabir Bedi, describing the ebb and flow or fluctuations; her animosity towards Parveen Babi and Susan; and disillusionment with the marriage – all of which give a deep insight into the harsh realities of relationships in the glamour world.
Protima reveals how she was having an affair with a young German man living next door as a mother of eight-month-old Pooja, when Kabir was away shooting. She gives sensitive portrayal of how her children were affected by her conflict with Kabir, and how she paid heart and soul attention to their welfare. She portrays her metamorphosis into a dancer at Nityagram, being a departure from the previous world of glamour, where the soul was corroded. Her writing literally gives the effect of two different persons existing in one.
Protima sensitively touches upon how people like Jasraj and Rajni Patel penetrated her life and the effect and deterioration of her relationship with Mario. In depth she touches upon what she adored in Rajni Patel and Jasraj, and the touching moments in hospital before they passed away.
She describes how even after obtaining a divorce, she still loved her ex-husband Kabir Bedi, and they still had great fondness for each other. Fascinatingly, Kabir Bedi in his autobiography expresses high admiration for her. Says Kabir Bedi in ‘Stories I Must Tell’:
“I remember her dazzling smile, the large red bindi and her ever dancing eyes. We grew up with joy and laughter, pain and tears. He was my girlfriend, my wife, the mother of my children, my partner in an unconventional marriage, my yarr long after marriage ended. I thank her for the beautiful children she gave me, Pooja and Siddharth, being a good mother too. Her zest for life, bubbling humour and waves of infectious laughter always remain in my memories.”
In her book, Protima despises humbugs and hypocrites. She writes:
“Every woman I knew secretly longed to have many lovers but suppressed the desire for several reasons. I had the capacity to love many at a time and for this had been called shallow and wayward and a good-time girl.”
What is missing in the book is how at the end she bid farewell to her dance school to become a sanyasin, before being killed in A landslide while on a pilgrimage in Kailash-Manasarovar on 19th August 1998. It would have been heart-touching in reading about what made Protima embark upon abandoning the endeavour of glamour and transcend to the heavenly abode.
It took daunting courage of daughter Pooja Bedi, who edited and published her mother’s memoirs. She asserts that ‘passion, compassion and laughter’ summed up her mother’s character. To quote Pooja Bedi, “It is a book for every woman who endeavours to live life to the full... Timepass is a brutally honest book... It is just her being her.”
And according to Khushwant Singh, “'No one will be able to put down Timepass once he or she starts reading it”.
*Freelance journalist



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