Leela Prasad

Leela Prasad

Professor of Religious Studies

External address: 
118C Gray Bldg, Durham, NC 27708
Internal office address: 
Box 90964, 118C Gray Bldg, Durham, NC 27708
(919) 660-3533
Office Hours: 
By appointment


Leela Prasad's primary interests are the anthropology of ethics, with a focus on South Asia, 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, 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 Aftertones: 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.

In 2019, Leela was awarded the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring by Duke's Graduate School.

Education & Training

  • Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania 1998

Prasad, L., et al. Gender and Story in South India. Edited by Leela Prasad et al., State University of New York Press, Albany, NY., 2006.

Prasad, L. Live Like the Banyan Tree: Images of the Indian American Experience. Philadelphia: The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies., 1999.

Prasad, Leela. “Raja Nal and the Goddess: The North Indian Epic Dhola in Performance.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 26, 2006, pp. 157–59.

Prasad, L. “Hinduism in South India.” Hinduism in the Modern World, 2015, pp. 15–30. Scopus, doi:10.4324/9780203362037-10. Full Text

Prasad, Leela. “Constituting Ethical Subjectivities.” The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, edited by Robert A. Orsi, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 360–79.

Prasad, Leela. “Ethical Subjects: Time, Timing, and Tellability.” Ethical Life in South Asia, edited by Anand Pandian and Daud Ali, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010, p. pp.174-191.

Prasad, L. “Sita’s Powers: ‘Do You Accept My Truth, My Lord?’ A Women’s Folksong.” Ramayana Stories in Modern South India: An Anthology., edited by Paula Richman, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Prasad, L. “Celebrating Allegiances, Ambiguated Belonging: Regionality in Festival and Performance in Sringeri, South India.".” Region, Culture, and Politics in India, edited by Rajendra Vora and Anne Feldhaus, Manohar Publications, New Delhi., 2006.

Prasad, L. “Anklets on the Pyal: Women Present Women’s Stories from South India.” Gender and Story in South India., edited by Leela Prasad et al., SUNY Press, 2006, pp. 1–33.

Prasad, L. “Bilingual Joking-Questions: Narrating Ethnicity and Politics in Indian Citylore.” Folklore in Modern India, edited by J. Handoo, Mysore, India: Central Institute of Indian Languages, 1998, pp. 211–25.

Prasad, L. “Ethical Resonance: The Concept, the Practice, and the Narration.” Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 47, no. 2, June 2019, pp. 394–415. Scopus, doi:10.1111/jore.12261. Full Text

Prasad, L. “Nameless in history: when the imperial English become the subjects of Hindu narrative.” South Asian History and Culture, vol. 8, no. 4, Oct. 2017, pp. 448–60. Scopus, doi:10.1080/19472498.2017.1371504. Full Text

Prasad, L. “Co-being, a praxis of the public: Lessons from hindu devotional (bhakti) narrative, arendt, and gandhi.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 85, no. 1, Mar. 2017, pp. 199–223. Scopus, doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfw040. Full Text Open Access Copy

Prasad, Leela. “Hindu Pilgrimage: Shifting Patterns of Worldview of Shri Shailam in South India.” Asian Ethnology, vol. 76, no. 1, 2017, pp. 180–82.

Prasad, Leela. “Maithil Women's Tales: Storytelling on the Nepal-India Border.” Journal of American Folklore, vol. 130, no. 518, 2017, pp. 478–80.

Prasad, Leela. “Unearthing Gender: Folksongs of North India. By Smita Tewari Jassal . Durham: N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012. xviii, 296 pp. ISBN: 9780822351306 (paper, also available in cloth and as e-book).The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 75, no. 4, Cambridge University Press (CUP), Nov. 2016, pp. 1157–58. Crossref, doi:10.1017/s0021911816001510. Full Text Open Access Copy

Prasad, L. E. E. L. A. “Cordelia’s Salt: Interspatial Reading of Indic Filial-Love Stories.” Oral Tradition, vol. 29, no. 2, Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, 2015, pp. 245–70. Open Access Copy

Prasad, L. “Text, tradition, and imagination: Evoking the normative in everyday hindu life.” Numen, vol. 53, no. 1, Jan. 2006, pp. 1–47. Scopus, doi:10.1163/156852706776942320. Full Text

Prasad, Leela. “Conversational Narrative and the Moral Self: . Stories of Negotiated Properties from South India.” Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 32, no. 1, Wiley, Mar. 2004, pp. 153–74. Crossref, doi:10.1111/j.0384-9694.2004.00158.x. Full Text

Prasad, L. “The authorial other in folktale collections in colonial India: Tracing narration and its dis/continuities.” Cultural Dynamics, vol. 15, no. 1, Mar. 2003, pp. 5–40. Scopus, doi:10.1177/0921374003015001107. Full Text


Prasad, L. “Gatekeeping “the Subaltern?” A Response to Frank Korom’s review of exhibit, Live Like the Banyan Tree.Journal of American Folklore, vol. 114, 2001, pp. 73–75.