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Meet Performance Studies Professor Pavithra Prasad

May 5, 2022

Pavithra Prasad
Image courtesy of Pavithra Prasad


There is a good reason why Communication Studies shares a home with the Departments of Art, Theater, Music, Cinema and Television Arts, and Journalism. Communication Studies teaches a variety of approaches to studying human communication, one of which is Performance Studies, the study of aesthetics as communication. The growing significance of performance in the study of communication is reflected in the innovative research and teaching of Communication Studies faculty members like Associate Professor, Dr. Pavithra Prasad. 

Dr. Prasad earned a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, under the guidance of pioneering scholar-artists like performance ethnographer D. Soyini Madison; performance artist, queer of color theorist, and oral historian E. Patrick Johnson; Latinx performance scholar and curator Ramon Rivera-Servera; and renowned theater director and MacArthur Fellow Mary Zimmerman. As a young scholar, Pavi was drawn to researching countercultures and performances that critiqued global geopolitics and racial formations. She spent over a year conducting ethnographic field work in India, documenting and analyzing electronic dance music culture, rave performances, and tourist economies in the coastal state of Goa. While her research and field work sound like it would have been a whole lot of fun and fun alone, her published work that came out of this fieldwork showed what an important role countercultural performance played in intercultural understanding and misunderstanding. The tourist party cultures she analyzed revealed not only how urban India was changing at the turn of the 21st century, but also how the racial politics of whiteness and coloniality persisted through practices through which bodies of all colors imagined problematic visions of a shared future. She interviewed foreign and Indian tourists, restaurant and bar workers, spiritual laborers and holy men, drug dealers, party promoters, local residents, law enforcement personnel, and many others to paint a vivid picture of how everyday performance and ritualized performance combined to generate and sustain an industry based on a heady mixture of psychedelic trance music, dance rituals, neo-spirituality, yoga, and racial tensions. 

Dr. Prasad taught performance, cultural analysis, and ethnography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Denver before arriving at CSUN in 2015. As a working performance artist herself, she taught students how to create multi-method work aimed at translating critical theory into performances accessible to the general public. Working across a range of performance and creative techniques her solo work and collaborations with students as a playwright, sound designer, and installation artist has been produced by theatre companies, art institutes, and universities in the United States. Having been born and raised in South India, her work has also traveled to India as well, where her current research on Indofuturism and performance practice take the form of collaborative projects with local artists. Her most recent work stateside, an immersive sound installation created on theremin (and experimental musical instrument), was exhibited in 2020 at a group show at Lux Art Institute (now the Institute of Contemporary Art San Diego) along with CSUN colleagues and fellow artists Beatriz Cortez (Central American and Transborder Studies) and Christian Tedeschi (Art). She also performed commissioned immersive multimedia solo work at the Roski School of Art (USC) and the Center for the Art of Performance (UCLA). In 2021, she was invited to collaborate with faculty and students at Arizona State University to create a performance designed for Zoom, which offered critical commentary on university life under conditions of the pandemic. 

Pavi is a futurist in orientation. She imagines what new or reimagined forms of communication can emerge (or re-emerge) from a deep investment in creativity, aesthetics, and collective remembering. As much as she takes her work on critical theory seriously, she is also a champion of deep play, humor, and pleasure as techniques of social change. Her artistic work takes place in unusual places: her bathtub, amongst wild bushes, swimming pools, and sometimes imagined in outer space.

As a teacher, Pavi works to impart a sense of curiosity and empowerment in her students through teaching performance and performance analysis. Her courses such as Performance, Language and Cultural Studies and Performance and Social Change teach students how to view performance as an integral part of culture and a powerful tool for social justice. She has worked with students as a former Director of CSUN’s Performance Ensemble and has collaborated with Canoga Park’s RUTH Youth Build Program, in which Performance Studies students mentor and coach underserved highschoolers in autobiographical creative writing and public performance. Her most recent Master of Arts advisees have gone on to prestigious Performance Studies PhD programs at UC Berkeley and UC Riverside, pursuing research projects that they developed over the years of working with Pavi as their mentor. Her students recently recognized her efforts in mentoring and supporting students of color, first-generation students, and queer and trans students by recommending her for an Outstanding Levels of Service to Students Award, which she won this year. 

As the Interim Associate Chair of Communication Studies and affiliated faculty in the Queer Studies Program, Dr. Prasad champions a holistic and inclusive education for CSUN students, knowing that doing so also means recruiting and supporting faculty who bring energy, verve, and intellectual innovation to the classroom. , both at CSUN and in their communities at large.