The Audacious Raconteur: Sovereignty and Storytelling in Colonial India

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Can a subject be sovereign in a hegemony? Can creativity be reined in by forces of empire? Studying closely the oral narrations and writings of four Indian authors in colonial India, The Audacious Raconteur argues that even the most hegemonic circumstances cannot suppress "audacious raconteurs": skilled storytellers who fashion narrative spaces that allow themselves to remain sovereign and beyond subjugation.

By drawing attention to the vigorous orality, maverick use of photography, literary ventriloquism, and bilingualism in the narratives of these raconteurs, Leela Prasad shows how the ideological bulwark of colonialism—formed by concepts of colonial modernity, history, science, and native knowledge—is dismantled. Audacious raconteurs wrest back meanings of religion, culture, and history that are closer to their lived understandings. The figure of the audacious raconteur does not only hover in an archive but suffuses everyday life. Underlying these ideas, Prasad's personal interactions with the narrators' descendants give weight to her innovative argument that the audacious raconteur is a necessary ethical and artistic figure in human experience.








Leela Prasad

Professor of Religious Studies

Leela Prasad's primary interests are the anthropology of ethics, with a focus on South Asia, Hindu worlds, gender, colonialism & decoloniality, prison pedagogy & Gandhi, and religion & modernity. Her work is at the intersections of religious studies, anthropology, history and literature.   

Her 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, gendered knowledge, 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.

Leela’s second book titled The Audacious Raconteur: Sovereignty and Storytelling in Colonial India (Cornell University Press, 2020) builds an archive from the unofficial anthropology and literary writings of three little-known Indian scholars in late colonial India, and from the recorded oral narrations of a Goan Christian ayah. Through a close study of these narrators, who constitute the figure of the “audacious raconteur,” the book argues that audacious raconteurs wrested back concepts of religion, culture and history through experiential understandings of those concepts—and accomplished this re-appropriation using the very language, genres, and Enlightenment paradigms of the West. As such, the audacious raconteur was a political subject whose sovereignty in the realm of creativity 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 and televisual media. She is currently co-directing an ethnographic documentary film called Moved by Gandhi, a film that explores the poetry of ethical resonance. In her other project, she examines how the concept of entanglement drives the ethical imaginary of a televisual publics in modern India. In this documentary vein, Leela guest-curated the first exhibition on Indian American life called Live Like the Banyan Tree, on display during 1999-2000 at The Balch Institute (now the Historical Society of Pennsylvania) and co-directed an accompanying film titled Back and Forth.

Leela's next book project has emerged from her film on Gandhian resonance, and from her experience teaching semester-long courses on Gandhi in the state and federal prison systems in North Carolina. This new ethnographic project, called Being Human at the Margin hopes to understand how ex-prisoners who have been exposed to Gandhi’s writings during their prison terms re-figure Gandhian influences in their post-prison lives. She has been awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Fellowship for this research project. 

She has published in journals such as NumenJournal of Religious EthicsJournal of the American Academy of ReligionOral TraditionJournal of South Asian History and Culture, and in various edited volumes. 

Leela is fluent in the Indian languages of Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, and Hindi. She was the inaugural faculty director for the Duke Center for Civic Engagement, and has served on the Board of the Center for Documentary Studies for many years, the steering committee of the university-wide Mellon-funded transformative humanities initiative at Duke called Humanities Writ Large, the Executive Committee of the Graduate Faculty, and on the American Academy of Religion's Board of Directors.

She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Religion and the Fulbright program. 

She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2023.

In 2019, Leela was awarded the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring by Duke's Graduate School. She is Vice-President of the American Academy of Religion, and will serve as its President in 2024-25.

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