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August 22, 1998


The Rediff Interview/ Protima Bedi

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'I have been a hippie all my life'

Protima Bedi is feared to be among the 202 people who perished in Tuesday's tragic landslide in Uttar Pradesh. Sandip Roy-Chowdhury spoke to the hell-raiser-turned-Odissi icon recently. A fascinating glimpse into the life and times of a truly astonishing woman.

Protima Bedi Protima Gauri Bedi is a grandmother now. But people still ask her about streaking on Juhu Beach in Bombay nearly 30 years ago. The celebrated Odissi dancer and founder of Bangalore's Nrityagram dance institute laughs, "Everybody wants to know about it. Even now. But look at what else I have accomplished since then which must have taken courage. Far more than what it took to streak. But because it's more immediate you think you could even do this. But you can't build a dance institute out of barren land."

Protima Gauri made it a habit of doing the unexpected. Nobody, least of all Bedi herself, ever thought she would immerse herself in classical dance. After all this was the bikini-clad go-go girl who had opened Hideout, Bombay's first disco. But one day on her way to a rock concert she wandered into the wrong theatre and encountered Odissi. She recalls "When I saw Odissi it could have been Kuchipudi or Thai for all I cared. No one knew Odissi then. I S Johar once introduced my performance saying 'Now for Protima Bedi's Udipi performance.' But when I saw it I knew that is what I wanted to do -- whatever it was. There was something so sensuously spiritual about it. I think I must have wanted that so much in my life."

Protima was then 26. She had already lived a full life. She had been thrown out of schools, run away from home with a film star and embarked on an open marriage with him that was the talk of the cocktail circuit.

For Protima rebellion started at home. "My first act of major rebellion that my parents saw was my wanting to work. Which was not OK. What did a Bengali bania girl have to do when her father was rich enough to give her whatever she wanted? And I said 'You don't understand. I want to earn my own with my own effort.' I decided that I was going to do modeling which was a big no-no." Eventually her father found out when one day he saw his daughter splashed across the front page of The Times of India modeling a nightie for Bombay Dyeing. He slapped her.

Kabir BediProtima, who was already seeing actor Kabir Bedi (right) and planning to start a life on her own, ran away from home and used her modeling money to rent a room. She was forcibly taken back by the police. "But I was over age and they couldn't really do anything. And I ran off after three days again. My father died ten days after that in a car crash. That was the only time I felt I had done something wrong. He must have been under a lot of stress. But I knew my motive was not to hurt them. It was to free myself. In that process they did not understand me and took the hurt. Their hurt was really born out of the fear of public opinion."

Having set tongues wagging with the sensational elopement, Protima now set them all afire with her much publicised open marriage. But for her the open marriage was not about shocking society. "My mother was very frustrated, but she did not have the courage to walk out. She blamed my father for the fact that she couldn't do what she wanted to. I knew the trap that my mother had put herself into was out of her own choosing. I can't blame her completely. I saw her environment. And I saw the marriages of my parents' friends. There were rules for husbands. And duties for wives.

"To my analytical mind this relationship of marriage was a very forced one between two people. I understood that for the security and upbringing of the child the parents need to be monogamous. Because then the child will have a secure home. But both people should understand and accept the fact that there would always be temptation. That's not bad in itself because what is temptation?

"You are tempted to enjoy and express yourself. It doesn't mean you hate the person you are with. It has nothing to do with the other person. We wanted to break down all the norms. We didn't know where we were going. All we knew was that we were not going to go the same way as my parents and no matter what pitfall we fell into it was worth a try."

They tried it for several years, but it did not quite work.

"Human nature being what it is, or at least conditioning being what it is I was so insecure. I always had to watch out for other women." She leans forward and laughs "Because he was so damned good looking, you know. When you are not the wife it's great but when you are…"

Meanwhile, many in their social circles took this talk of open marriage as a green signal to make the moves on her. "I had gone to a party with Kabir. I was dressed up in a sari and a proper blouse with sleeves. As we were leaving one of Kabir's producers came to say goodbye and Kabir introduced me. And he said,, 'Oh you are Protima. I have heard so much about you and have been dying to meet you. Anyway now that Kabir is going out of town I will come over.' I stopped right there and said 'What do you mean by that?'

"Kabir, realising what was going to happen, said, 'Darling, come on let's go.' And I said, 'No!' This whole thing about being a woman. You always feel you are being treated a certain way. I cannot go out on the street and buy myself a cigarette which is so normal for a man to do. So how do you tell males how difficult it is to do normal things as a woman? And here was this man, in front of my husband, going heh-heh-heh in a lascivious way. And my husband wasn't smashing him in the jaw!

"And I said 'What are you saying? Are you saying that you can just come and **** me? And what makes you think that you are worthy of that from me? Don't you as a man even look at what you are saying to whom. You can be fat, you can be dumpy, you can be ugly. But it will not stop you from approaching a woman and thinking you can have a night with her. Simply because you have a penis.' That attitude had been building up. And this man was the culmination and he got it from me in front of everybody.

"So I thought what is it -- it's the body, it's the boobs, it's the womanliness. That's all it is. What about the woman inside? No one thinks about the woman inside. So is this what they want? Let them see the ****ing thing." And she streaked on the beaches of Juhu and sent Indian society into a tizzy. What would that wild woman do next?

Protima would probably have not been able to answer that question. Certainly she did not see herself with her cigarettes, in torn jeans, with streaked hair begging to learn a classical temple dance from Orissa. "My guru said you are too old. I thought I was young -- I was 26. And he said you can't and I said I can. I'll show you. He said it will take many sacrifices. And I said I'll give up anything you want. I didn't realise I would have to give up my family for that. I realise now if I had not gone for three months to Orissa my husband would not have run off with Parveen Babi. So it was really a giving up. My children had to go to boarding school after that -- there was no family. I had to give up my lifestyle, my friends, my smoking, my drinking."

It was not easy and eternal rebel that she was, she chafed at the restrictions. "Firstly I had never touched anyone's feet. So I refused to do that for months. I had never been inside a temple. I refused to go for puja every evening. I said I have only come to learn dance. I don't have to do all that. But the dance brought the devotion and the spiritual understanding. I saw my guru's devotion because everything he did was by example. If I have built Nrityagram today it is because of what I took from him.

Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra"This great man (Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, right), a Padmashri and Padma Bhushan, would clean the gutter outside his house. He used to beat me. One slap from my dad and I had left the house. And my guru slapped me a couple of times because I was arrogant. I would be so angry I would pack my bags. But I knew I was there because I wanted to be there not because he wanted me to be there. And when I touched his feet it was not by rote. When I touched his feet he and I both cried because he had waited long enough for me to come to that."

Protima Bedi went on to dance all over the world. She settled down in Switzerland with her Swiss lover. The world was her stage but she started feeling this emptiness inside. "I felt I had nothing more to learn. It was the same thing wrapped up in different packaging again and again. I am not a brilliant dancer at all. But my packaging is great. You know, I have been a hippie all my life. And the dreams of the sixties that I had of living in a commune, of sharing, of never having more than I can use, of living life joyfully in nature -- that was the spirit that was inside me. And in the isolation of being a dancer I thought where is the giving, where is the sharing, with me sitting so far in a cold place? I knew I had to get back and I had to share what life had given me through dance. I was willing to give up my dance and work and beg to realise this dream. Because it would still be my dream, it would still be dance but how much joy it would give so many bodies."

Protima Bedi in performanceShe found a plot of barren land 30 miles outside Bangalore and started Nrityagram. The purists were shocked. They had just come to accept this hippie girl from Bombay as a dancer -- after all she was wearing a sari and putting a gajra in her hair just like the other students. "But as soon as I opened a dance school they went who does she think she is? She has become a guru! In their mind they could not accept that anyone could build a place not because they want to be a guru but because they want to give the best to a young bunch of girls. Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra was in charge of Odissi. Kalanidhi Narayan for Abhinaya. Kumudini Lakhia for Kathak. Kalyani Kuttiyamma for Mohiniattam. The Paul Taylor Dance Company did a workshop there. I was not the guru. I was the slave. I was working with my hands -- planting trees, digging the earth, typing, collecting the money. I gave up my dance."

Students started coming from all over India, from big cities and little villages, many of them disobeying their parents -- "a girl doesn't just go off. She gets married and serves in this house or that house. She is always serving in a house. That's why she is called a housewife, not a manwife. If they dressed up and danced in front of men, who would marry them? But still these girls would come and say what does it take for you to take us. And I would say it only takes a train ticket to land here. Then I will look into your eyes and I will know if you want to be here for seven years or eight years. And in a month you will know and I will know. For there are no malls here, no shopping places, no transport -- only dance and dance."

Embarking on a new life Bedi decided to take a new name. In Bangalore everyone called her Bedi-amma out of respect, but they would all start giggling whenever they said it. Eventually she figured out that in Kannada, bedi meant loose bowel motions. "I couldn't live the rest of my life being called the mother of diarrhea," she chortles. So she chose the name Gauri -- "it all came back to my guruji saying 'bahut kali-ka rup dekhaya tumne. (You have shown a lot of Kali in you) Calm down a little bit. Parvati-ka roop lo. (Take on the image of Parvati).'

Protima Gauri put Nrityagram on the world dance map and then almost as suddenly as she had created it out of barren soil, she decided to move on. "My creativity is over. Now it is only the question of maintenance. I have empowered the girls to look after themselves. To earn their own money, to be somebody. I need to resuscitate. The land has to lie fallow for the next crop. Whatever it is. I told the girls you need to spread your wings and fly. They kept crying and saying no you are deserting us. But I said my children said the same thing. But they had their own destinies. I don't want to control them. You want to be controlled. When you are in the nursery you need the shade. Now I must take the shade away so you can find your own sun."

Protima Gauri is at her favourite place these days -- at the cross roads wondering which road to take. There are reports that she is taking up the study of the Sama Veda. Others swear she is taking sanyas. After all she has shaved her head. "Everyone thought it was another crazy idea of Gaurima's. Everybody asked me why. I said I can give you many reasons but none of them would be true. And yet all of them would be true. And after I shaved my hair everyone would start laughing and half way through they would stop and said actually it kind of suits you. It just means I can't dance any more. Obviously for me dance as a solo dancer is over."

When she quit Nrityagram, Gauri wanted to spend the rest of her life looking after her son Siddarth who suffered from schizophrenia. But Siddarth ended up taking his own life. Gauri says gently "He gave himself freedom from the pain he was suffering. He did not want to live under medication using half his faculties. And I think what a great mother I have been to give him the courage to take such a decision. He set me free. Tremendously free. You know he was my only attachment. The monks in a monastery in Sikkim said the child in my womb was an incarnate lama and he was going to be called Siddarth but I had to give him to the monastery. I said I can't make up his mind for him. I will let him choose when he is old enough. And I'll just take it that my son decided he was an incarnate lama and he incarnated and that's all I can say."

Protima Gauri Bedi has spent her entire life fighting to be free, to love and let go. It has not been an easy lesson. When Kabir Bedi was living with Parveen Babi, his mother would go to visit them. Protima was so hurt she asked her 'Mom, the children are here. How can you be there and not say anything to him?' And she would say 'Darling I can't say what's right and what's wrong. I can't. All I can do is to love you. That's all I can do.' And it makes so much sense. Because even though Kabir was with another woman all I could do was love him. I couldn't say it was wrong because that was what he wanted."

But Kabir Bedi's mother was a Buddhist nun living in a monastery. Protima Gauri was living in the midst of society, running up against her conditioning at every step. And sometimes the rules were being broken not by her anymore but by her children. She remembers when her 15-year-old daughter Pooja came home one morning with a love bite on her neck. "I sat in my chair and looked at her and said 'I am very confused. Because I am feeling angry and I can't understand why. I know at your age I was doing the same thing and it seemed good to me and I knew I was in control.

"So why am I angry -- because you are a girl and a daughter? Am I threatened that you are now a woman? Am I envious of that? I need help here.' And Pooja put her arms around my neck and said 'Mom it's ok.' And it was. But I just needed to be honest about what I was feeling. No one is perfect. I am a product of my conditioning but I can question it. I don't have to perpetuate it."

Now Pooja Bedi has made Protima a grandmother. She proudly shows me a picture of her brand-new grandchild, beaming fondly. I wonder if this will be her new attachment and ask how she will bless her granddaughter. But she smiles and replies, "Just as I would bless any person."

Then she thinks and says, "Just be the best and the highest expression of who you want to become. Be that. Because if you are that there is no more unhappiness. All frustration and anger comes from being less. People say not everybody can be. But everyone can be. I trust life. The only person who stands in your way is yourself."

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