by Prof. David Shulman

Thinking about Wickedness:  
From Nigamaśarma to the Palestinian West Bank

FICA, in collaboration with India International Centre (IIC), conducted the Annual Ila Dalmia Memorial Lecture 2018. It was presented by Prof. David Shulman, and the lecture was titled Thinking about Wickedness: From Nigarasarma to the Palestinian West Bank

The lecture was moderated by Shuddhabrata Sengupta.

In the lecture, Prof. Shulman explored aspects of human wickedness as seen, first, in a sixteenth-century south Indian text and then in the field, in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories in the South Hebron hills. In the major māhātmya texts about Pandharpur and the god Viṭhobā, including the Telugu Pāṇḍuraṅga-māhātmyamu of Tenāli Rāmakṛṣṇa (16th century), we find the tale of Nigamaśarma, a seemingly incorrigible rogue who turns out to be capable of becoming a human being. This transformation speaks to a transition within a person from ruthless egoism to a capability of feeling love-- a mysterious transformation, perhaps meant to model facets of the human mind as understood in early-modern south India.

Beginning with this suggestive story, he moved on to the speaker's first-hand experiences of wickedness enacted by Israeli settlers, soldiers and policemen in the occupied West Bank. Wickedness can involve acts of overt, sadistic cruelty, but more often, it is a subtle movement in the self, one that involves what can only be called a choice. Concrete examples of such moments illustrate the argument and speak to questions of universal moral choices. All of us face such decisions, seemingly minor but possibly heavy with consequence, every day. Unlike "evil," a term suggesting a somewhat abstract and impersonal force, wickedness comes from the whole person and bears the marks of her or his character. What determines the direction an individual chooses for his or her actions? How are we to understand the inner decision to inflict gratuitous cruelty on innocents? Is the human propensity for wickedness universal, or is heavily dependent upon situation and context? Does this mode of questioning resonate with Gandhian or classical Indian notions of what constitutes a human being?

The Lecture was presented in conjunction with The Ila Dalmia FICA Research Grant, a grant given in support of research in the field of modern and contemporary art with particular focus on Indian art. Both these platforms are supported by art historian Yashodhara Dalmia.

The Lecture is now available on YouTube for public viewing. Please follow this link:

About the Speaker: 
Prof. David Shulman is an Indologist and regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the languages of south India.  His research embraces many fields, including the history of religion in South India, Indian poetics, Tamil Islam, Dravidian linguistics and Carnatic music. He was formerly professor of Indian Studies and Comparative Religion at The Hebrew University, Jerusalem and professor in the Department of Indian, Iranian and Armenian Studies. He now holds an appointment as Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Prof. Shulman is a long-time activist in the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement,Ta'ayush, "Living Together," which practises Gandhian non-violent resistance in the Palestinian West Bank.

About the Moderator: 
Shuddhabrata Sengupta is an artist and curator with the Raqs Media Collective, Delhi.

Image Courtesy: Istvan Perczel
Action initiated by Ta'ayush, "LivingTogether," of sending water convoys to isolated Palestinian villages in south Hebron. These villages in south Hebron are beingstarved of water in hope that the Palestinians living there will give up and move.

The Ila Dalmia Memorial Lecture is organised in the memory of Ila Dalmia, a passionate writer of Hindi and English prose and poetry and her interest extended to art, music and theatre. Her home in Delhi, which she shared with her partner S.H. Vatsyayan, the legendary Hindi writer, popularly known as 'Ajneya', was to become a hub for literary and artistic activities. In addition, the critical magazine for arts and literature, Naya Pratik, was started by her and Vatsyayan and was regarded highly for its new and experimental writing. Apart from several essays and articles, she had written a biographical novel Chat par Aparna. A volume of her collected works titled Ila was published shortly after her demise. She was also a generous patron of the arts and supported many young artists and writers. Ila died prematurely due to a critical illness but will be remembered by her friends and supporters as one of the most compassionate and inspirational cultural personalities of her time.

The Lecture is supported by Ila’s sister, Yashodhara Dalmia. An art historian and independent curator based in New Delhi, Yashodhara Dalmia has written widely on art and her book, Amrita Sher-Gil – A Life (Penguin/Viking, 2006) is a comprehensive account of the life and work of one of India’s first modern artists. She is the author of seminal books like The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives (2001), of Memory, Metaphor, Mutations: Contemporary Art of India and Pakistan with Salima Hashmi (2007) and Journeys: Four Generations of Indian Artists (2011)