Associate Professor of Religious Studies
Leela Prasad's primary interests are in the anthropology of ethics, the theory and practice of Hinduism, poetics, and religion & modernity. Her work examines the lived, expressive dimensions of ethics in Hindu and other Indic contexts through various lenses such as narrative, art and ritual, and everyday practice. She puts these findings in conversation with wider debates in ethics on normativity, subjectivity, aesthetics, temporality and the public, for instance. Her ethnographic book Poetics of Conduct: Narrative and Moral Being in a South Indian Town (Columbia University Press, 2007) explores how ethical discourses and self-formation can be understood through a study of oral narrative, performance, vernacular material practices ranging from architecture to foodways, and the poetics of everyday language. (This book was awarded the “Best First Book in the History of Religions Prize” by the American Academy of Religion in 2007.)
Leela’s second monograph (in progress), titled The Audacious Raconteur, builds an archive from the unofficial anthropology and literary writings of three little-known Indian scholars in late colonial India. These writers, who constitute the figure of the “audacious raconteur,” published novels, plays, folktale collections, oral epics, and biographies in English and in Indian languages between 1880 and 1930. Through a close study of their key writings, the book will argue that these writers creatively used the very language, genres, and paradigms of the West to reclaim concepts of religion and history through indigenous understandings of the sacred, of the social, and of time. As such, the audacious raconteur was a political subject whose intellectual sovereignty displays the unreachability of the colonial knowledge-project. The book benefited from a surprising turn with the discovery of descendants of the writers. Conversations with families help us see why the audacious raconteur continues to be an ethical figure necessary in modern life.
A key area of Leela's interest is documentary film. She is currently co-directing an ethnographic documentary film called Moved by Gandhi that explores the Gandhi, not of the well-known chronologized biography, but of an affective presence that has outlived its historicity and simply moves people to be one way or the other.
Leela's work typically combines ethnography and ‘textual’ study to understand the dialogue and distinctions between early Indic constructs and modern formulations, such as “shastra” (or law, rules of conduct). She has also begun to explore the potential of modern science, especially physics, as she probes an anthropology of ethics, and is writing on subjects such as resonance, entanglement, and uncertainty.
Leela is fluent in the Indian languages of Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, and Hindi. She was the inaugural director for the Duke Center for Civic Engagement, served on the Board of the Center for Documentary Studies for many years, and served on the steering committee of the university-wide Mellon-funded transformative humanities initiative at Duke called Humanities Writ Large.