“Storytelling is a persuasive art. If it is done well, it gets people thinking,” begins Dr Eric Miller of the World Storytelling Institute.
Raised in New York City by parents who were involved in the arts and journalism, Dr Miller says he was drawn to the arts at a very young age. Trained by Laura Simms, acclaimed performer, writer and professional storyteller, he then chose to study ancient literature from India. Now with a Ph D in Folklore, he is also pursuing his master’s in psychology.
Having come to India over three decades ago, Dr Miller took to studying the famous epic from Sangam literature, Silappadikaram.
Dr Eric Miller in one of his sessions
“It still remains my most favourite stories of all time. It amazes me that this ancient story from India is about human beings and not about Gods. I love the way Kannagi is able to speak up for herself and the way the Pandya King listens and later apologises.”
His interest in mythology took him on a walking tour from Poompuhar to Madurai and finally to Valparai, also resulting in his book.
“I also conduct storytelling tours, unravelling the rich folk tradition of storytelling, story and song (kadhaiyum paatum) and more.”
His upcoming tour begins on February 22.
The World Storytelling Institute was established in 2007 at Chetpet in Chennai by Dr Miller and his collaborators, and the first Storytelling Festival was conducted in 2013.
“It began as a brief two-day fest that happened over a weekend and then progressed to a week of preliminary events followed by a weekend and now it’s a ten-day festival,” says Dr Miller.
The institute also conducts storytelling workshops for adults – parents, educators and business trainers, and now for psychological counselling as well.
The city is currently gearing up for its sixth edition of the Chennai Storytelling Festival organised by the World Storytelling Institute in collaboration with Chennai Storytellers and other organisations and individuals.
The ten-day event begins on February 2 and concludes on February 11. On the first seven days, the festival is conducted at different venues in the city. The event culminates in a three-day fest at Loyola College.
This year’s mentor, Cathryn Fairlee, a leading member of the US professional storytelling community, will be conducting a session on “Folktales from around the world about strong and clever girls and women” on February 2, at 5.00 pm at the Andhra Mahila Sabha on Luz Church Road.
“Storytelling is a form of public speaking that may also at times involve acting. We are helping people find their authentic voice as speakers and writers through storytelling,” says Dr Miller.
He goes on to talk about the global storytelling revival that began in the 60s in the UK and the US.
“This was the time of colour television sets and people soon began experiencing the disconnect. And so the revival began as a form of a reaction against this.”
When the movement finally came to India, it was Geeta Ramanujam from Bangalore who pioneered it in the country and has been doing so for over 30 years.
Geeta Ramanujam in one of her Storytelling sessions
“I am looking forward to being a part of the festival. This time I’m conducting a workshop on “Kathabhava (Story-mood): Storytelling through Emotions and Feelings Combined with Melody and Rhythm”,” says Geeta.
“Storytelling is a form of communication that involves creativity and logical thinking. Storytelling is not just telling tales but creating new stories and telling them in a way that’s suitable for all audiences. It is being able to take the wisdom from the stories without any heavy religious connotations,” explains Dr Miller.
The highlight of the national storytelling festival are the special workshops that will be conducted during the last three days.
“There are special workshops that are being conducted by professional storytellers for which the students can register,” says Dr Miller.
These workshops are aimed at self-identity, self-development and self-exploration.
“Storytelling is drama, emotion and acting out of character. As a trainer, I always encourage people to give up the position of a narrator and take up the character,” says Dr Miller.
Essentially, everything in this world boils down to stories.
“When you talk about storytelling, people often assume that it is for children. But stories are everywhere – in advertising, in cinema and even in politics. Storytelling is a big part of human culture and the economy,” states Dr Miller.