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The questions for this interview were sent to me by an editor of Dinamani, a Tamil newspaper here in Chennai. My replies (below) were translated into Tamil, edited, and published in Dinamani's Sunday magazine on 2 July 2006, pp. 8-9.
"Please Meet Eric Miller"
What is your Background?
First of all, I want to thank the people of Chennai for their many kindnesses to me! In return, I hope I can contribute something to your city, state, and country.
I was raised in the centre of New York City. My mother was editor-in-chief of a magazine about dance around the world; after that, she directed a dance school. In her youth, she had been a dancer and choreographer. My father wrote a number of plays, both comedies and dramas. However, they were never staged, so for a living he wrote for a magazine about cinema, theatre, and music.
As a child growing up in NYC, I decided that to be a well-balanced individual I should seek to have another home on the other side of the world, preferably in or near a forest-jungle. I was interested in storytelling, so I chose India because of its rich storytelling traditions.
Interest in Tamil Literature and Cinema
I chose Tamil Nadu in part because I read an English translation of the Silappathikaram. This story, and the honour in which it is held, made me feel that the Tamil people respect not only women, but also justice, and every individual. I was very impressed that in this land one person – with no money, in a place that was not native to her, with no family in sight – could go before the highest civic authority, and speak, and win her case. The Pandian king should also receive a lot of credit. He listened to Kannagi, and he punished himself when he realised he had made a mistake. My love for the story eventually inspired me to conduct research about it by walking in the footsteps of Kannagi, from Poompuhar, to Madurai, to the western mountains -- a distance of about 400 kms. Here in Chennai I self-published a small book about the experience.
When I first studied ancient Tamil literature, I was shocked at how concerned it is with practical matters of everyday human life, especially morals and ethics, and the question of how to live a good life. Not just the Silappathikaram is like this, but also the Thirukkural, and many others. Before that, I had thought that all ancient Indian literature would only be about mythical adventures of gods and goddesses.
In the West, writers are often thought of as being lonely individuals, isolated and aloof from the rest of society, but here in India, both scholarship and art tend to be much more practical-minded and service-minded. Here, it is often thought that literature should be useful to people, and many writers seem to consider themselves to be social reformers. I admire Subramania Bharathi a great deal in this regard.
My favorite Tamil filmmaker is Kamal Hasan. I very much enjoyed Anbe Sivam. That was a very thoughtful and artistic film, and it discussed many social issues. I don't like films that show a lot of violence.
My field as a scholar is different styles of storytelling. There are many living storytelling traditions in Tamil Nadu, at all levels of society, such as Kathaiyum Pattum, Villupattu, and Katha Kalak Chepam. Together with others here in Chennai, I am helping to organize an International Storytelling Festival for next year, and possibly an International Storytelling Institute.
For this work, we are experimenting with numerous methods for simultaneous translation, including: as the performer speaks in Tamil, we are using a computer and projector to display the words in English on a large screen. Good storytelling is often performed in a local dialect of a language. We must work to make aspects of local cultures accessible to outsiders. Local cultures have much to teach to outsiders. Today, when one can telecommunicate from one side of the world to the other side instantly, and one can travel from one side of the world to the other in less than 24 hours, language is one of the last great barriers between people.
Children's Songs and Games, and Language Learning
I am doing my Ph.D. in the Folklore Program, at the University of Pennsylvania (in Philadelphia, USA). When the time came for me to choose my Ph.D. topic, I realized that my Tamil language listening ability would not be strong enough for me to do my Ph.D. about Tamil storytelling. Thus, I decided to first study Tamil children's songs and games, with the hope that studying these activities might help me to learn more Tamil, just as I believe playing these activities help Tamil children to learn the language.
Two examples of how children's songs and games may help one learn and practice language are: 1) The repeating of a line, and changing only one word -- as in, "Oru kudam thanni eduttu, oru puu puttacchi; rendu kudam thanni eduttu, rendu puu puttacchi," etc. ("One bucket of water take, one flower blooming; Two buckets of water take, two flowers blooming," etc.). 2) The saying of a word, and physically acting it out, at the same time. This work is helping me to develop a traditional-play-based method for teaching any language.
For this research, I visited for over a year with Kani tribal people in Kanyakumari district, near the border with Kerala. The Kani version of Tamil includes many Malayalam words, so I had to learn some Malayalam also. I had not been planning to work with tribal people for this project -- I just wanted to get away from the urban centres and the mass media, to get exposed to traditional verbal arts at a grass-roots level.
The Kani people I worked with were very kind and helpful to me. I am also very grateful to the Forest Department for giving me permission for this work. Actually, I am grateful to all of the people of Tamil Nadu, and of India, for making me feel welcome here.
Teaching and Videoconferencing
After I complete my Ph.D., I hope to teach (in English) part-time at a university in Chennai, just as I have taught at three universities in New York. I can teach about folklore, tourism studies, USA drama, and communication technologies, but regardless of the topic, here in India probably I am most useful teaching written and spoken (USA) English language rhetoric -- that is, methods of verbal expression and persuasion. I am also interested to learn more about the art of public speaking in Tamil language. I am a great admirer of Subbu Arumugam, the Villupattu artist, in this regard. When he speaks, everyone -- from any person on the street, to the most refined members of society -- can understand and appreciate what he is saying.
For some years in New York City, myself and a partner operated a video company. Many performing artists hired us to record their shows. We even videotaped weddings. In the course of this video recording work, I developed a deep love for the medium of videoconferencing. In a videoconference, people can see each other as they talk to each other. This is a relatively new medium. It has been used in business and government for some time, but now -- largely due to the increased speeds available on the Internet -- it is also becoming possible to use videoconferencing for education, the arts, discussions about social issues, and even for family reunions. Here in Chennai, I am planning to develop a Videoconference Centre for Teaching and Learning, Performance, and Discussion. It would need to be able to operate around the clock, as people in different time zones around the world would be our clients. Our first offering would be teaching and practicing Tamil language. I know there is a demand for this service, because when I was studying Tamil language at my university in the USA, my biggest problem was that I could not find people to practice with, as there were only a few other students in the class. So our target clientele will be university students around the world, and children of Tamil parents who have settled in countries around the world. After that we will teach Tamil performing arts, and whatever else there is a demand for.
I am also interested in developing videoconferencing as an artform, with actors, dancers, musicians and painters in different locations collaborating with each other at the same time.
Here in Chennai, I am working with members of fishing communities to develop a sea-fishing heritage center and festival, which we are calling the Kattumaram Festival ("kattumaram" literally means, "tied-together trees", and refers to a traditional type of boat). I think this could be interesting for both Chennai citizens and visitors, both Indian and foreign. The heritage of the fisherfolk must be recorded, celebrated, and developed. One doesn't want Chennai to become one big globalised shopping mall, with no local identity. Even multi-national corporations can hire local community artists to give some local flavor and color to large projects. As a part of the Kattumaram Festival project, the fisherfolk children are learning how to type the words of the old kattumaram songs into computers -- first in Tamil, and then translated into other languages.
I am a scholar, artist, journalist, and entrepreneur (regarding videoconferencing) -- such a combination is typical in my family. I am hoping to settle in Chennai. It is a great place from which to see the world.