The Rebel’s Time – Remembering Vidrohi’s Poetry of Revolution

Bhargav Rani


 “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take

its poetry from the past but only from the future.”


This oft-quoted sentence from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, was the subject of much debate in a recent seminar on “Revolution” at Columbia University, whose problematics formed the basis of the first editorial of the Advocate this semester. The central point of contention between two of the guest speakers, Gayatri Spivak and Étienne Balibar, was over the specific meaning of “poetry” in Marx’s text. While Balibar interprets Marx’s choice of word as a metaphor for political imagination, for Spivak, “poetry” here signifies just that – poiesis, “to make,” a creative production in the form of theatre, songs, dance, literature, art. Spivak argues that Marx is here shifting from a discussion on the “form” of revolutions to the actual “content” of revolutions, and to her, “poetry” was what Marx acutely recognized as the privileged mode of infusing the concept of revolution with radical content.

The present issue of the Advocate stems from this tension between poetry and political imagination in the concept of revolution and its content, and explores its resonances in artistic, cultural and literary productions. This month’s features include an interview with members of the Freedom Theatre, a Palestinian theatre company that recently debuted their production, The Seige, in New York; the first of a two-part investigation of the oeuvre of the radical leftist documentary filmmaker Peter Watkins; and an essay on the revolutionary underpinnings in George Orwell’s writings. In the way of a prologue, this editorial explores the messianic quality that infused the words of the revolutionary poet, Vidrohi. What this issue offers is a particular “constellation” of creative productions in history drawn from the fields of theatre, film, literature and poetry, that we hope our readers will “make” meaning of by mediating it with the material conditions of their own lives, conditions that inform our understanding of art and revolution.

To understand the poiesis of Vidrohi’s words, we must first understand the space that produced him – Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. To be a student at JNU is, in the first instance, to be a student of history: to apprehend history not in its bowdlerized continuity and as it manifests in the annals of the dominant, but in the disarticulating discontinuities experienced by the dominated. Within the thresholds of the university’s sprawling campus, history breaks its imposed silences and the ghosts of the dead speak through the living. In the face of erasure, they are made visible on the walls plastered with political graffiti and they are given a voice in the slogans of “Inquilab Zindabad!” (“Long Live the Revolution!”) that reverberate like a refrain. A morning walk to class is itself a lesson in history imparted not just by Marx and Lenin, Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, Irom Sharmila and Che Guevara, but also by the indentured farmer and the dispossessed peasant gazing down from the walls of the university buildings. And an evening cup of chai at the cafeteria is accompanied by cultural protests, solidarity marches and demonstrations, and political-cultural groups commemorating revolutionary poets and writers, performing street plays, or singing songs of resistance. Subjugated histories are resurrected, forgotten heroes remembered, and the promise of revolution is kept alive in these songs.

If we are to go by Agamben’s thesis that “[e]very conception of history is invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time which is implicit in it,” it is unsurprising that this emancipation of history, albeit in the utopian enclave that is JNU, fosters and conditions a radically different experience of time. The temporality of its student life chimes in tantalizing proximity to the hour of revolution. Its romance is a romance of rebellion and resistance. The rhythms of its everyday are syncopated by dreams and political aspirations that transcend the everyday. At the core of this time capsule—its heart, where its beats are most palpable—is Ganga dhaba, one of the university canteens. In the liminal shade of the evening light, students sit perched on crude stone blocks and dissect history over chai and samosas. The usual banter and gossip of student life easily segue into serious interrogations of history, until the pleasant evening air is pregnant with the weight of competing philosophies. Althusser is invoked in the same breath as Ambedkar, just as debates on local and national politics seamlessly lead into Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry. In a space conditioned by free debate and intellectual exchange, a new temporality is produced. But these philosophical excursions are but cadences of the rhythm kept by the timekeeper, Vidrohi. From a dark corner of Ganga dhabha, seated under the shade of a massive tree, this frail, disheveled man in ragged clothes, a vagabond poet, spewed a dangerous barrage of words at the world. At those moments that they were not a relentless string of vile expletives, Vidrohi’s verse put history on trial.

Ramashankar Yadav, popularly known as “Vidrohi,” literally “the rebel,” was once a student of JNU. Born in 1957 in the small town of Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh, the Hindi-heartland of the country, he enrolled in the university in the early eighties to pursue a Ph.D. in Hindi. He was soon expelled for his participation in a mass student movement against the administration and his involvement in left politics. When the administration asked him never to set foot on campus again, Vidrohi’s rebellion was absolute: he simply never left JNU. He made the campus his home for over thirty years, breathing poetry into the students’ movement till his death. Present at every protest, march and demonstration, he kindled the historical consciousness of the students through the revolutionary force of his poetry. He spoke of class struggles and emancipation of women, attacked capitalism and religion, and in his poems, conflated histories of oppressions and uprisings that spanned an astounding temporal breadth. Vidrohi was a lokshahir, a “people’s poet,” in the true sense.

For Agamben, to be “contemporary” is not a social given of the present, but is a distinctive modality of apperception and existence. It is a “singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it.” To be a contemporary is, thus, to apprehend time “through a disjunction and an anachronism.” Vidrohi was, in that sense, Agamben’s “contemporary.” His contemporariness lived in his dogged resistance against the temporal regimes of the neoliberal everyday, regimes governed by the logic of productivity and deployed in the service of capital. It was a corporeal distillation of the temporality of resistance that the university produces in its most radical and austere manifestation. Vidrohi, in Agamben’s words, firmly held “his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness.” The astronomical metaphor of darkness in Agamben finds its material, political realization in Vidrohi, whose poems grasp at that “light that strives to reach us but cannot.” The darkness is, in essence, a darkness of history, its violent erasures and oppressive silences, and Vidrohi strives to ignite an insurrection through a radical archeology of the past.

One of Vidrohi’s most famous poems, “The Burnt Corpse of a Woman,” is an intense abbreviation of the entire history of violence and exploitation into a monadic condensation of revolutionary potential. The question that haunts the poet is this:

I think about it,

Again and again I think about it,

That why is it that on the stepping stone of every ancient civilization,

One find’s the burnt corpse of a woman,

And the scattered bones of human beings.

In a gallant effort at reclaiming the archaic, the origin, in order to rediscover the present, Vidrohi begins his poem by situating this image of the “burnt corpse of a woman” and the “scattered bones of human beings” in one of the oldest urban civilizations of the world, Mohenjo-Daro of the Indus valley. Charting a trans-historical trajectory of this image across geographies and temporalities, he constructs history as a spatio-temporal “constellation,” to invoke Benjamin, where this historical juncture is posited in relationship with every other instant of institutionalized violence in history even as it is mediated by the present. The burnt corpse of the woman on the last step by the canal in Mohenjo-Daro is the same one you will find in “Babylonia” and the scattered bones of humans is what you will discover in “Mesopotamia” as well, Vidrohi says. And it is the same story over again in the “jungles of Savannah,” in the “mountains of Scythia,” and the “plains of Bengal.” Those scattered bones could just as easily have been of “Roman slaves” as of “weavers from Bengal,” they could be of “Vietnamese,” “Palestinians,” or of “Iraqi children.” Vidrohi avows that the “fire of hatred” that has engulfed lands from “Asia” to “Africa” cannot be doused because this fire is the fire from all the burnt corpses of women in history, it is the fire from all the scattered bones of human beings in history.

For Agamben, messianic time, “the time that time takes to come to an end,” is “contemporariness par excellence.” He notes that, “insofar as messianic time aims toward the fulfillment of time…it effectuates a recapitulation, a kind of summation of all things, in heaven and on earth—of all that has transpired from creation to the messianic “now,” meaning of the past as a whole.” This echoes Benjamin’s assertion that “only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.” The temporal condition of “redemption” for Benjamin is a “now-time, which, as a model of messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in a tremendous abbreviation.” Thus, for both philosophers, any radical political project of the emancipation of the present from the oppressive temporal regimes of capitalism, of human “progress” premised on a “homogenous, empty time,” must entail not paralyzed anticipation of a promised future but rather active excavation of the past; to apprehend the past in a “messianic arrest of happening,” and to posit history not as a sequential chain of causality but as a “constellation saturated with tensions.”

Vidrohi engages in precisely such an archeology of the past when he constructs a constellation that concatenates histories of oppression spanning five thousand years of human civilization in a monadic abbreviation distilled into the image of the burnt corpse of a woman. Within the temporal parenthesis of his poem, its chronos, he brings into being a temporality of messianic force, a kairos, as a severe indictment of history:

An empire is an empire,

Be it the Roman empire, the British empire,

Or the modern American empire.

Whose only task is to ensure that,

On mountains, on plateaus, on river banks,

By the oceans, in the fields,

It scatters the bones of human beings.

Which promises to write history in three sentences –

That we have filled the land with mischief

That we have engulfed the land in flames

That we have scattered the land with the bones of human beings.

It is against this grain of history, this cursory summation of violence in “three sentences,” that Vidrohi deploys his dynamic constellation. While Benjamin and Agamben would have no doubt recognized the messianic force of Vidrohi’s poetry, Vidrohi himself would have probably scoffed at such a characterization. As a staunch atheist, the theological underpinnings of Benjamin’s and Agamben’s philosophies wouldn’t have settled well with him. While this theological scaffolding does not seem to deter their crystallization into secular political philosophies of radical potential, for Vidrohi, a steadfast materialist, religion itself is an institution whose complicity in the perpetuation of the empire must be critiqued. In a Nietzschean assertation, he proclaims god to be dead, and that “No one knows where God has been buried.” In another poetic interlude featured in Nitin Pamnani’s documentary film on him, Vidrohi recites, “He is no god/ Nor is He the Son of God/ It is a question of Mankind [sic], only Man will stand up/ I don’t believe in the coming of the Messiah anyway/ I just don’t believe that there can be anyone greater than me.” However, it would be inadequate to understand this interlude as simply a rejection of any possibility of emancipation through religion. Rather, in the demand for historical agency implicit in his call for “Man” to “stand up” in a rejection of the “coming of the Messiah,” Vidrohi is also critiquing eschatological conceptions of futurity and time. His rejection of God and his fiercely politicized atheism stem from a persistent disaffection with the political apathy that eschatological doctrines nourish in the present. In this respect, Vidrohi lands in the same political and philosophical plane as Benjamin and Agamben.

Moreover, insofar as religion functions as ideology in its efforts to pass off mythology as history, it allows Vidrohi to implicate mythology as well in his indictment of the histories of the dominant. The monadic constellation that he arrests in his poem, “The Burnt Corpse of a Woman,” not only interlinks histories of oppression from Mohenjo-Daro to Babylonia, from ancient Rome to modern America, but also establishes a network of linkages with mythologies that sanction violence against the marginalized. With this in mind, Vidrohi says that the first instance of femicide was perpetrated by a son at the behest of his father. He locates the archaic “origin” of the burnt corpse of the woman, although manifesting as far back in time as the Indus valley civilization, not in history but in the mythological tale of Parshuram’s matricide at the urging of his father, Jamadagni.

The tale goes that Renuka is the devoted wife of the sage, Jamadagni. She fetches water from the river every day in an unbaked clay pot that holds itself together only by the strength of her chaste devotion to Jamadagni. One day, Renuka is consumed by a fleeting moment of desire for a group of heavenly beings flying above her. The spell of her chaste devotion breaks and the clay pot dissolves away in the river. When she returns home, Jamadagni deduces all that has happened through his spiritual powers, and in a rage, commands his sons to kill their mother. Four of his sons, on refusing to undertake the heinous task, are turned to stone by Jamadagni. His youngest son, Parashurama, the “ever-obedient and righteous,” immediately severs his mother’s head with an axe. Jamadagni is pleased with his son and grants him two boons. Parashurama then demands that his mother be brought back to life and his brothers be turned back to flesh from stone. While the dominant interpretation of this tale is the moral lesson of a son’s duty, dharma, towards his father, Vidrohi, in a subversive vein, reads into it the very origins of patriarchy and declares, “This is how the son became the father’s and patriarchy came into being.” This insinuation of mythology at the origin of patriarchy in his monadic constellation is revolutionary to the extent that it not only abbreviates disparate histories and temporalities but also condenses conflicting universes and epistemologies.

Messianic time is not a time that exists outside of chronological time but is rather an integral part of it, a particular disambiguation of it. That is, as Agamben notes, “Kairos…does not have another time at its disposal; in other words, what we take hold of when we seize kairos is not another time, but a contracted and abridged chronos.” Agamben clarifies the tension between kairos and the eschatology of chronos implicit in poetry when he asserts that a poem is “an organism or temporal machine that, from the very start, strains toward its end. A kind of eschatology occurs within the poem itself. But for the more or less brief time that the poem lasts, it has a specific and unmistakable temporality, it has its own time.”

While Vidrohi invokes the messianic in his poetry, its rootedness in chronos is brought into sharp focus through his mode of delivery. Vidrohi never wrote his poems down. He always recited them from memory, as a relentless fusillade of rapidly succeeding words that strained towards their end with urgency. Apart from one collection of poems, Nayi Kheti (New Fields), published late in his life, his poems disappeared without a trace in the moment of their completion, to be apprehended by only those present in the moment of their articulation. In this sense, Vidrohi, in the tradition of the lokshahir, takes poetry back to its performative roots, and the temporality that he produces through it must be understood in relation to the temporality that performance brings into being. The image of the past that he grasps through his poetry literally stands suspended in a “moment of danger.” This danger of their performative disappearance in the apprehension of their messianic force is the danger of erasure, where the histories of oppression abbreviated as a revolutionary monad threaten to disappear in the very ephemerality of the words that realize them in the now.

Finally, the messianic quality of Vidrohi’s poetry that marks him as a contemporary runs the risk of fetishization if appraised in isolation from its material conditions of production. Agamben touches only cursorily on the “courage” that contemporariness demands of the individual, and does not quite flesh out the stakes involved in being contemporary. Vidrohi’s rebellion against the administration’s move is not an easy one to explain. He lived on for thirty years in JNU where he had no room of his own. He slept under the open skies on most nights and retreated to the students’ union office on particularly cold ones. He mostly relied on the kindness of the student community for his minimal needs. Students who knew him, respected him, and cared for him bought him clothes and food that the proud Vidrohi nonchalantly accepted. In 2001, alumni of the university appealed to the various university canteens to provide free food for their beloved poet. Vidrohi had, with great discipline, chalked out a life for himself outside capital. Agamben notes with astute precision that those contemporaries who locate themselves in time through disjunction and anachronism are, in a sense, rendered “irrelevant” to their time. Vidrohi acutely felt this burden of irrelevance. As he remarks in the film, “This is a bastard society. It neither rewards nor punishes the poet…I have made them eat the dust beneath their feet through my poetry. But these bastards are such that they simply ignore, they neither reward nor punish.” This is perhaps the real danger of contemporariness. It relegates all that exists outside the limits of capital into oblivion.

Vidrohi died on 8 December 2015, doing precisely what he did his entire life – protesting with his fellow comrades against the state’s repressive attacks on its people. Looking back at the many struggles, and the many defeats, that the students of JNU have endured to defend against the relentless evisceration of the idea of the university by the neoliberal, militant nationalist regime over the past two years, one can’t help but feel that Vidrohi’s death was a premonition of the world to come. Vidrohi was not just a product of the university. He produced the university. Vidrohi’s poetry was poiesis, in its original sense. His words were a radical act of creation that produced the temporality of resistance and liberation that defined JNU for so many years. His death thus was the death of an idea of the university. To summon the ghost of  Vidrohi in the darkness of our times is to stoke the “light that strives to reach us but cannot.” To invite our readers to think on him from the context of our lives here in New York is to incite our own collective desire for the poiesis of a radically new university; it is a call for our own poetry of the future.

(All photos by Tanushree Bhasin)

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