16th April 2012, 10:33 AM
A storyteller’s story
Nochikuppam, the ancient and bustling fishing hamlet just a little way southwards of the more glamorous Marina beach in Chennai doesn’t give another glance to the incongruous looking, burly New Yorker, who strides in between the tangled heaps of fishing nets and the catamarans parked on the sands.
But then, Dr Eric Miller, director and co-founder of the World Storytelling Institute headquartered at Chennai, is not a tourist at Nochikuppam. He is very much part of the local crowd, and counts among his friends fishermen like Muthu and Arulmozhi. Right now, Miller is working to set up a fishing museum that narrates the story of the hamlet. “It will be a living museum, one that displays the tools of the trade currently used as well,” Miller mentions.
So, why has this New Yorker made his home at Chennai? “When you are born to two educators, and have been in the company of a lot of books, you do get the urge to have an adventure; India seemed just the place for it,” Miller quips. And Chennai specifically, because he happened to read a translation of the great Tamil epic Silappadhigaaram (Epic of the anklet).
“Later, I read more Tamil literature — stories of righteous kings who held justice well above their own lives and other heroic people; I was simply blown over by Tamil literature. Do you know, nowhere in the world is there such a deep reverence for women goddesses as in Tamil culture. In Tamil culture, I came across village guardian goddesses, goddesses of wealth and wisdom, women saints…” he finishes.
So, 23 years ago — Miller was 30 then — he headed out to India, to walk the trail that Silappadhigaaram’s Kannagi took, as part of the dissertation for his Master’s program. Miller went on to write a book on the subject. But that was not the end of the trail. Miller stayed back in Tamil Nadu and studied Kuzhandhai paattu (children’s songs); local storytelling genres like the Villupattu (the Tamil village storytelling tradition, with stories told to the accompaniment of music created by a bow or a ‘villu’ when drawn upon a string tied to a stick like contraption); Harikatha or tales of Lord Hari, which is liberally interspersed with bhajans; therukoothu or street theatre; and of course, grandma’s tales.
But Miller remains besotted with the fictional Kannagi who figures in the Silappadhigaaram epic. The epic character of Kannagi is famous for taking the courage to question the then Pandian King for accidentally executing her husband, even as he mistakes him for the thief of his wife’s anklet; Kannagi’s anger finally sets the Pandian king’s capital on fire. Miller nurtures the dream of setting up a Kannagi Museum, right there in the Western Ghats, where Kannagi is supposed to have trodden, as per Tamil literature. “But it is not that Kannagi is special; she is just representative of the fiery women of Tamil literature,” he quickly puts in.
Then, there was the Silappadhigaaram trail that Miller organised with a busload of people setting off from Chennai and stopping over at Poompuhar on the East coast, Madurai — the capital of the erstwhile Pandian empire, and Valparai (in the Western Ghats) besides the stopping at wayside hamlets and other sites connected with the story. Incidentally, Miller reckons that the Western Ghats should be renamed the ‘Kannagi mountains’, because the people there have so many cultural connections with Kannagi. “They even believe that their unique way of tying the sari to safely cradle their babies while walking on treacherous trails had been taught to their ancestors by Kannagi,” elaborates Miller.
In 2007, Eric Miller set up the World Storytelling Institute (WSI) with the mission of ‘rediscovering the joys and benefits’ of storytelling. The institute conducts storytelling workshops for children and adults. “We tend to bracket storytelling with kids. But storytelling is certainly not just for kids. In the US, storytelling is part of the adult mass culture, because it opens windows of understanding into other peoples and their cultures.”
At the WSI, Miller ropes in traditional Tamil storytellers like Subbu Arumugam, as also fishermen and tribals living in the historic sites. For instance, during the Chennai Sangamam (the annual folk extravaganza in Chennai), Miller had fishermen telling stories at beaches. Likewise, he got tribal children from Western Ghat hills to teach spoken Tamil through stories to Tamil NRI children over video conference, which he dubbed ‘Ethnographic video conference between people in Chennai and Bloomington (Indiana, USA), concerning an episode of the Mahabharata’. “I have found that stories are a great way to pick up language nuances,” shares Miller, adding, “There are four aspects of language learning — repetition, acting it out, questions and answers, and role playing. Storytelling provides them all.”
In 2010, he obtained his PhD in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania for a dissertation on Ethnographic Videoconferencing as applied to songs, chants, dances and games of South Indian children and language and learning.
Miller also researches on forms of storytelling. As you would expect, he is into teaching, and has taught courses in writing, literature, drama, public speaking, and storytelling at St John’s University, Fordham University, and New York University.
Miller believes that storytelling therapy should be given a place alongside music therapy, dance therapy and the like, as one of the expressive arts therapies.
16th April 2012 10:33 AM
16th April 2012, 12:23 PM
May long live the great man! The storyteller's story fills me with pride and joy!
Eager to watch the trends of the world & to nurture in the youth who carry the future world on their shoulders a right sense of values.