For more than three decades, he lived under a tree, inside the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). His ragged appearance, dirty clothes and frail body fooled many. But Ramshankar “Vidrohi” was no ordinary man.
A poet and a cultural activist, Vidrohi was a regular at students’ movement inside and outside JNU; mostly seen speaking his mind through his Hindi and Awadhi poems. On Tuesday afternoon, he passed away.
“He said he wasn’t feeling well… he seemed very hungry and his hands were shaking a lot. After we gave him food and tea, he lay down. When we tried waking him up after half-an-hour, he didn’t respond. That’s when we called the police,” said Arvind from the All India Students’ Federation (AISF).
Vidrohi was rushed to a hospital, where the doctors pronounced him brain dead.
His poems revolved around caste and gender-based oppression, and traversed time. In Ek Aurat ki Jwali Hui Laash, he talks about the burnt corpse of a woman on the steps of Mohenjodaro, and also comments on the continuous exploitation of women in current times.
Noor Miyan Ka Surma, another one by him, is about Partition, while in Nayi Duniya, he aspires for a better world as he says, “Ek duniya humko gar lene do/ jahan aadmi-aadmi ki tarha/ rahe sake, kahe sake, sahe sake”.
“He spoke about the toiling peasantry and against the caste system… he was an atheist. A lot of students could relate to him and his words because of this. Vidrohi had a particular style, where he used metaphors extensively,”
Remembers Sandeep Singh, former president of JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) and an old associate of the poet.
Vidrohi never penned down any of his poems; all that’s left of his legacy are short video and audio recordings of his poems at dhabas and protests, shot by students, friends and fans.
There is also an award-winning movie on him titled Main Tumhara Kavi Hoon (2011), made by Gwalior-based Nitin Pamnani.
The 42-minute-long film follows the man from JNU as he takes trains to Chhattisgarh, Mumbai and Patna.
“I met him in 2000-01 through friends in JNU, and was intrigued by the passion with which he spoke. The aim was to just archive him since he never wrote down any his poems. Soon, I had enough material on him, and I turned it into a documentary,” says Pamnani.
In 1983, Vidrohi was rusticated from college due to his involvement in a students’ movement, but he never left campus. “He told me ‘Meri aatma yahi basti hai, meri audience yahi hai (This is where my soul lives, this is where my audience is)’,” recalls Pamnani.
In his late 50s, Vidrohi was financially helped by students, professors and his expansive fan base in the campus.
“In 2001-02, a bunch of ex-students from JNU requested the canteens here to give him food. He had been here for more than 30 years and everyone knew him. He was a simple man with very little expenditure anyway,” says Prakash K Ray, former JNU student and journalist.
Vidrohi’s death would be a huge loss to the Left students and activists of the campus, who had given him space to sleep at the JNUSU office.
“If there was any Left protest in the campus, you would find him there… nights were reserved for discussions on politics and poetry recitings at Ganga dhaba,” says JNU students’ union secretary Sandeep Saurav.
Vidrohi is survived by his wife and two children, who live in Delhi, as well as thousands of students in the last 30 years, who spent nights drinking chai and listening to his poetry. A condolence meeting will be held on campus today at 11 am.
(With inputs by Aranya Shankar)