Leela Prasad

Finding Harmony: Ethics through Performance and Story


What might the study of ethics look like if we approached it from the perspective of unscripted stories or marked performance? Conversationally shared stories about “everyday” acts and a narrative performance tradition on idealized conduct in Sringeri, a well-known Hindu pilgrimage town in southwestern India, reveal that ethical thinking and practice are profoundly shaped by notions of propriety. Connecting 11th century Sanskrit literary theory on dramatic propriety to contemporary oral poetics, I show that appropriateness – both as a poetic and a principle – is critical to conceptions of the auspicious and the dharmic, and ultimately to moral persuasiveness.


Leela Prasad, Associate Professor of Ethics and Indian Religions, received her Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998. Her interests are in ethics and its “lived,” expressive dimensions, particularly in Hindu contexts. She also works in the areas of colonial and postcolonial anthropology of India, folklore, narrative, gender, and the South Asian American diaspora. In Poetics of Conduct: Narrative and Moral Being in a South Indian Town (Columbia University Press, 2006), she draws on a decade of ethnography in Sringeri, a pilgrimage town in South India, to explore relationships between oral narrative, ethical discourse, and the poetics of everyday language. Leela is currently writing her second monograph, titled Annotating Pastimes: Cultures of Narration in Colonial India, in which she studies how the collection and publication of Indian folklore between 1860 and 1920 intertwined with earlier Oriental interests and created a paradigm for the subsequent anthropology of Indian cultures and societies.