In my recent book, The Audacious Raconteur, I argue 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. Four Indian narrators of different castes and religious backgrounds who lived in colonial India—an ayah, a lawyer, an archaeologist, and a librarian—show that the audacious raconteur is a necessary ethical and artistic figure in human experience. In this talk, I will outline the literary strategies and other creative choices that each of these raconteurs made to evoke and represent “lived religion.” Their portraits of religion, rooted in their everyday experiences and intuitions, reveal the vacuity of the terms, categories, boundaries, and conclusions about Hinduism that came to preoccupy colonial scholarship and its legacy. These portraits show that when the study of religion considers forms and varieties of power without presuming that power is the exclusive privilege of the dominant, it is able to engage the dynamic creativity and courage of an embodied religious subject.
Leela Prasad is an anthropologist in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University, North Carolina, USA. She writes on everyday ethics, Gandhi, gender, prison and post-prison life, decoloniality, and narrative art and culture. Her articles have appeared in Numen, Journal of Religious Ethics, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Oral Tradition, Journal of South Asian History and Culture, and in various edited volumes. She is fluent in Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, and Hindi. Her latest book, The Audacious Raconteur: Sovereignty and Storytelling in Colonial India (Cornell University Press, 2020) argues that even the most empowered oppressor cannot suppress the creativity of politically colonized people who ultimately remain sovereign. The book engages the extraordinary narrations of Indians in late colonial India, and converses with descendants, to highlight the perennial presence of the “audacious raconteur” as an ethical figure in contexts of power and domination.