‘I shed my clothes, my inhibitions, my conditionings by outdated social
norms so that you too can discover yourselves’
Protima Bedi famously said these words after she streaked in daylight on Mumbai’s Juhu Beach. 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.
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.
Less than a year back, I wrote an article for Mumbai Mirror where I spoke about my discovery. Needless to say the article created quite a stir.
I then spoke to the photographer and asked him to narrate the photo-shoot in detail. I discovered that the story of the photo-shoot is no less captivating than the photographs.
In this post, I will present the story (in first person) behind the iconic photo-shoot and present a few shots that have never been seen before.
Hope you will like the story. My sincere gratitude to senior photojournalist NK Sareen for sharing the photographs and the story behind it, exclusively for this blog.
An unforgettable afternoon
1975, 21st July, Mumbai.
It was a typical greasy and humid Saturday afternoon. My flight was late and I knew that this was the weather that would not work to lift my gloomy mood. I checked into a hotel near Bandra and ordered scrambled eggs for breakfast — my comfort food when I am down. I had an appointment that day at 3 pm at Juhu.
Somewhere down the line, I felt that that day was not perfect. The sky was overcast since morning and without a glimmer of sunlight, I knew I wouldn’t be able to shoot good pictures. Since I didn’t have any resource of a studio in Mumbai, I knew the sun playing hide-and-seek behind the clouds, would be a nagging cause for worry.
I hoped there would be better light before I reached her apartment in Mumbai. Unfortunately, it was that kind of day when the Mumbai sky made an awful face at me.
The sky was still overcast when I reached Juhu. I promised to myself that I would not ruin my picture by aiming the flash-gun at her. I could perhaps expose my aperture a little longer which could then perhaps, save my day.
My camera was without a exposure meter and there was no way I could figure out if the light was optimum. I decided to rely on my experience.
But that wasn’t any solace.
I could almost imagine the look of utter disgust when I would place those pictures on my editor’s desk. I could almost see how she would narrow her eyes and look straight into my face with a nasty smirk written all over her face. It was the look that every bone in my body hated.
I decided not to think about the editor and specially imagine her sarcastic face.
“There must be a terrace in the building and we can always shoot there,” I told myself as I took the lift to her apartment. Creating imaginary and non-existent comfort situations in my mind was a technique I employed to calm myself before shoots.
I took the lift to the third floor and rang the doorbell.
Protima Bedi opened the door with a smile.
Looking at the camera I was cupping in my hands, she smiled. She stood on one side holding the door ajar with her left hand. She stuck her face stuck to the wooden frame and shifted her gaze.
“Come inside! I thought you will get caught up in the traffic but look, you are on time!” she said as she pointed towards a sofa on the living room. She gestured me to sit down.
By that time, my trained eyes were already fixed on her. I was also scanning the surroundings, trying to get any information that would help me. But there was nothing remarkable that caught my eye.
Protima was about five feet, six inches tall. And dark. She had unusually large eyes that spoke before she actually spoke. If you fix your eyes on her eyes, you will always invariably know what she is going to say even before she actually said it. I had hardly seen such expressive eyes in my life.
That day her eyes were speaking a language my mind did not understand.
Protima was wearing a loose, white, translucent cotton kurta that extended to her knees. As she walked around the house, I could see her kurta clearly giving out the luscious curves of her body. If the day had been sunny and she would have stood in the tiny, cramped balcony against the sunlight, I bet you would have seen how beautiful the curves of her body were and perhaps even more.
My mind was speaking to me about something else while I was watching her move around the house, saying something that I was not paying particular attention to.
Anybody who knew Protima also knew that strutting around in her living room butt naked was something that could be easily associated with her. She had a near-perfect body and always liked to flaunt it. This was the time when the whole world was celebrating that she would wear her skirts as loosely as her attitude.
Any man looking at her would find it extremely difficult to move his gaze away and Protima somewhat enjoyed all the attention.
My mind was back to work again. Except for the kohl in her eyes, I didn’t notice any make-up on her face. As my mind was trained, I started wondering what would make my frame. Virtually at that point of time, my mind didn’t have any idea and that meant a bad frame. Protima perhaps sensed what I was thinking. Her eyes, as usual, gave out the words before she actually spoke.
“Don’t worry, what we are going to do today will be totally different. I want to wear something good today and you click me the way you want to. Good deal?” She raised her voiced a little in mock-sarcasm. It was a typical you-don’t-know-what’s-coming-next kind of an expression.
I nodded my head, looking at my camera and telling myself that today would be the day when I would go to bed unhappy with my work.
The photographer inside me was telling me that I will have to increase both the aperture and shutter speed to the maximum possible. That was of little solace, since the camera was without any built-in exposure meter. That meant that I had to depend entirely on my experience, judgement and the faint light trickling in from Protima’s balcony.
Protima got up and walked away towards the bedroom.
Maybe because she was accomplished dancer, this lady never made any noise when she was walking around, even with her chappals on. Her shapely feet would touch the ground like a feather and the next moment it would spring up from the ground.
She had a nice and strange way of walking that would make her shapely butts quiver as they swayed from side to side. I took a fleeting glance at them as she disappeared into her bedroom.
The blue lungi
Protima emerged from her bedroom wearing a white bikini top and a blue checked lungi. It was a combination that I had never seen in my life. She put her hand on her waist, looked at me straight in my eyes.
“Do you like this,” she said raising her left brow. She would usually raise her left brow when she was very serious about something. The look and the question was clear — ‘I am not looking for your approval but appreciation’.
I tried to hide the amazement that had gripped me. She was clearly in the mood.
Her shapely torso was almost teasing me and she was gently swaying her body while asking the question. I looked at her. Very closely.
I have heard about ‘being natural’ but today I was sure that this lady was taking it to a different level. Without further ado, I decided to start clicking.
But I gave her one last look that would clearly depict a question mark. I wanted her to do a little bit of makeup on her face. I knew that look of mine will make her understand what I am trying to tell her. But her defiant eyes hammered home the fact that she was not willing to listen.
She then took the blue lungi off.
“You like it now?” she asked me as she stood in front of me wearing a dazzling white two-piece bikini. I swear I had never seen such a beautiful body before.
The faint afternoon sunlight that was seeping through the small window of her living room almost made her look like a dark fairy who was standing in front of me. In the nude.
Her gaze was fixed on my face. I knew that she was expecting a certain expression in eyes. The expression was simple: you just need to stare at her lovingly and open your eyelids a little more. That was it. She was used to that expression and was expecting it.
Don’t make that mistake, that appreciative look was not a seal of approval that she wanted from me as a photographer. That look would merely make me fall in line with all the other men. And I did fall in line.
Just aim and shoot
She sat on a chair on her tiny balcony with her legs up on the armrest. She had a relaxed expression on her face as I clicked. The sky was still overcast and some light was sneaking into the room from her balcony. I still felt that it was not enough. Never mind, I felt that I was nitpicking about the light and decided to go on clicking. For a moment, it crossed my mind that that this was a ‘moment’ and I might not get such a moment again.
I could see her throwing an aimless gaze outside her balcony as I got my first frame. The sound of the shutter didn’t make her shift one bit. Her gaze was still fixed at something outside her balcony. It must have been the crows who were about to retire to their nest — another brutal reminder that the faint light won’t last long. I perhaps had an hour and a half at the best and I needed to make most of it.
I went on clicking and I must have exposed my reel for 15 times. I was getting good shots though I knew they wouldn’t brighten up the frame. But I knew that it would surely brighten up anybody’s mind who would be watching these pictures.
She sat on the chair, she looked at me, she stood up and she looked away. I never had to say thing as she had all those poses in her mind. I went on clicking like a man possessed and I didn’t have to tell her anything. She knew where to stand, she knew where to sit and she knew where to look.
Soon my entire oll was exposed. The film-count showed 34 and I could see the setting sun peeking behind the clouds. I paused to take the reel out of my camera.
It was over? Not quite!
It was evening and it must have been 6.30pm.
I had quietly walked out of her bedroom and was still recovering from a feeling that I won’t be able to describe in words. My head was still playing the images that I had got in my camera in a slide-show. I was allowing myself to pick up a few images. My best image slot was already taken. All I was doing was hand-picking my second and third best shot from the slide-show.
It wasn’t so hard.
I was looking out from the balcony when Protima’s voice knocked my mind again.
“You want some tea?” I heard her voice coming out from the kitchen. She had made tea and pouring it into two small white porcelain cups. Of course, the next question from her was whether I would like milk in the tea or not. Sugar and biscuits were served on the side.
As we sat down to chat over some trivial stuff, I could see that Protima had just slipped a long kurta over her nude body. The way she sat opposite me on the sofa and the way she was shaking her legs, exposed quite a bit of her thighs.
I was being very careful that she shouldn’t catch me looking at her legs. Not that she would mind, but still…
We spoke about mundane things — she spoke about her daughter while I spoke about my last assignment.
There was a joke that we shared frequently. It was about my chappals getting lost and she offering her stilettos as replacement. Not that it was much of a joke but somehow she loved to say it again and again and would smile each time. She again laughed out loud after the joke while I just managed a wry smile.
Then came the statement of the evening.
“Come do the dishes with me. I don’t have a maid now and you all do our own dishes. I hope you don’t mind that,” she said looking at me, the subtle command in her tone intact.
Like a true man that I would pretend to be all the time, I immediately got up and took my cup and plated in my hand and walked towards the kitchen sink.
The cold water trickled down my palm as I gently rubbed the tea-grime off the saucer with my fingers. I suddenly felt that the image of a nude Protima is refusing to leave my head…
The images that I clicked were to remain there for a long, long time to come.
First photograph: A portrait of Protima Bedi by NK Sareen. If you want to buy this portrait, click here All photographs are copyrighted to NK Sareen. To know more about him, click HERE To contact NK Sareen on his facebook page, click HERE Send him a mail at firstname.lastname@example.org Shortlink of the post -> http://wp.me/p3x1zT-IF
Categories: Bollywood Nostalgia