of an Interactive Talk
via Videoconference on
"Researching and Rethinking Folklore, Communication,
6th May 2022
Dr. Eric Miller, in Chennai
Host and Organiser:
Professor and Head,
Dept. of Media and Communication,
Central University of Tamil Nadu,
Thiruvarur - 610005
Formerly Professor and Head (Retired),
Dept. of Journalism and Communication,
University of Madras.
Ravindran Gopalan: I am introducing Dr. Eric Miller. He is from New York City, in America, and has settled in Chennai. Eric is the director of the World Storytelling Institute.
As he has written in a column titled "In Praise of Citizen Kannagi" that was published in The Hindu newspaper in 2006,
I write in praise of Kannagi, global symbol of justice, and of the dignity of the individual!
Kannagi is a very relevant figure in the world today. She is just beginning to become known in the global consciousness, and I believe she is destined to be an important figure there. However, it is not Kannagi as a woman who I praise today -- it is Kannagi as an individual. In my hometown, New York City, we have a pessimistic saying: "You cannot fight City Hall." But Kannagi proved you can fight City Hall, and this is the core of the story. That 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 -- that is great.
All of the world's political leaders should know the story of Kannagi, and of the Pandian king. For the great hero of the story -- after Kannagi -- is the Pandian king, for he punished himself when he realised he had made a mistake.
So, Eric, please tell us more about your thoughts and your work. The floor is yours.
Eric Miller: Dr. Ravindran Gopalan, thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. It is a wonderful honor. When you were head of the Communication and Journalism Department at the University of Madras, you also kindly permitted me to teach your students there, which I enjoyed very much. So thank you for that also. And thank you for arranging the session today.
Today’s topic is "Researching and Rethinking Folklore, Communication, and Kannagi". And I think you especially are interested that the students who are doing fieldwork might learn more about the value of approaching fieldwork with a multidisciplinary mindset. So I'll say some words about that also.
To begin with, Kannagi (pronounced kun-na-gee, rhyming with tree). Some of you may not know the story, so I'll tell it very briefly.
The king of Madurai punished Kannag's husband, Kovalan, unjustly. Her husband was accused of being a thief and the king put her husband to death, but it turned out that her husband was innocent of the crime of which he was accused. So Kannagi went to the king and proved her husband's innocence in the following way:
When Kannagi and her husband Kovalan had reached Madurai and were in its outskirts, they agreed that he should walk into Madurai, go to the gold market, and try to sell one of Kannagi's anklets -- this was the only wealth they had left. Kannagi's anklets had rubies inside its numerous small gold casings. As Kovalan was trying to sell the anklet, one man said to him, "Please come with me. I know someone who would be interested in your anklet." This man was the goldsmith of the king of Madurai. By coincidence, this goldsmith had stolen a similar-looking anklet from the queen of Madurai the day before.
When the king of Madurai saw the anklet Kovalan was trying to sell, he thought that Kovalan had stolen this anklet from the king's wife, and without conducting a full and proper investigation, the king had Kovalan beheaded. When Kannagi became aware of what had happened, she went to the king and indignantly broke open her remaining anklet: rubies came out. She requested that the anklet her husband had been carrying should also be broken open. This was done, and again rubies came out. Now Kannagi requested that the queen's remaining anklet should be broken open. This was done -- and pearls came out. This proved that Kannagi's husband had been carrying one of Kannagi's anklets, not one of the queen's anklets.
Upon seeing this, the king apologised to Kannagi -- and then he died. He fell down, he stopped breathing, he stopped his blood pressure. He died of a broken heart that he had misapplied justice. So it's not just Kannagi who is great in this story. The king of Madural, who is known as the Pandian king, was also great, in that he had a conscience.
Both of these characters -- the king and Kannagi -- are not unique in Tamil culture. In both cases there are variations. Regarding the king of Madurai: in ancient days, there was another a king, a Chola king, whose son was driving a chariot too fast. The chariot hit a calf, and the calf died. The king put his own son to death as punishment. So there's a tradition of kings taking responsibility and giving justice, even if the justice would hurt them.
Regarding Kannagi: she began as an ordinary human, although there are different stories about her possible divine background. But after she proved her case to the king, she went outside the palace, walked around the city three times, and requested Agni, the God of Fire, to purify the city by burning it, in part because she felt that some of the people had not supported her. So she requested that good people and animals should escape, but that the city should burn to be purified. She did not set the fire. She just suggested it to the God of Fire, and it was done. And then she and some of the good people of Madurai walked to the western mountains where they started a new tribe in the forest, together with some local tribal people.
There are similar stories in Tamil Nadu of women who felt violated, or who felt that their families had been violated, and of the terrible things that happened as a result. One of these characters is known as Nalla Thangal, the Good Younger Sister. Nalla Thangal was very close to one of her brothers, but when she married, she had to move some distance away. And then when she came to visit her brother with her two children, her brother's wife would not let her in the house. The brother was away and the brother's wife was not a good host. She did not let them come in. Nalla Thangal was so upset, she took her two children and threw them in the well and she also jumped in the well. And a great flood came up and flooded the entire place. So that is another example of personal, internal fury which escalated into a "natural disaster" -- in this case, a flood.
Another related character is the goddess, Isakki. This story was told to me by a Villupattu artist in Nagercoil, Mrs. S. Saraswathi. (Villupattu is a folk genre of storytelling, involving a secondary speaker and musicians.) The story about Isakki is that there was a lady who became pregnant by a temple priest, but he denied being the father. So she went away, had the child, and came back with the child. She said to the the village leaders, "This man is the father of my child". But he was still denying it. So the village leaders suggested that they sit and talk amongst themselves, which they did. But eventually she reached over, opened his chest with her bare hands, and plucked out his heart. He died. It was murder. She had taken justice into her own hands, literally.
This kind of behavior -- and Nalla Thangal jumping in the well -- these are not exactly models that we want to set for human behavior. But somehow in Tamil culture, these models of great pain leading to rash behavior, now these women are worshipped as goddesses. It's interesting. It's not recommended human behavior, but they are on a mythical level, they are goddesses.
So, these are some variations. In folklore, we talk about variations on a theme. And I believe these stories are important because they show people getting forms of justice. We may not agree with exactly how the justice came out, but at least the women stood up for themselves.
I walked the path of Kannagi, from Tamil Nadu's eastern coast to its western mountains, a distance of approximately 450 kilometers, in 1988, 34 years ago. I did this as a way of learning more about the story.
Now I take people to the places of Kannagi by air-conditioned bus. And sometimes we meet with community members along the way, and we engage them. We hire them to give us lessons in the local form of storytelling, both telling the Epic of the Anklet, as Kannagi's story is known, and other stories.
And regarding the goal that every prime minister and president should know the story, I don't know how much progress I've made in 34 years, but hopefully today is a step in the right direction. You know, when countries invade other countries, a lot of people die. If the leaders who do this sort of thing might know the Epic of the Anklet, maybe they would think twice before taking action that leads to peoples' deaths.
Kannagi, Nalla Thangal, and Isakki are variations of the south Indian local goddess who is loving and protective, but is also sometimes very angry. While these characters may not be comfortable to some people, I believe that these stories are very important and valuable aspects of the human heritage.
Now I am going to stop and ask for any responses, any comments or questions.
Student #1: This story –
Eric Miller: Did you know that story about Isakki?
Student #1: Yes. I grew up hearing the story from my mother.
Eric Miller: Yes. You heard it from a human being. But you know, that story, it can not be found on the Internet -- except in one place where I mentioned it. Aside from that, it does not exist on the Internet. It has not made it into the electronic medium for some reason. But please go ahead.
Student #1: My mother also told me the story of Kannagi. There was a temple in my mother's homeland called, Devi Temple, and they say that Kannagi is the God who's residing there. And she came there after the incident in Madurai with the king, and she's sitting there.
Eric Miller: As I am sure you are aware, Kannagi is criticized by many women today that in the beginning of the story, she was very quiet when her husband went off with another woman for a year. She did not get angry then. She only got angry later, at the king, when she lost her husband a second time. You see the first time she lost him, when her husband went off with another woman for a year, she did not complain or get angry. Some people think that this is a good thing about her. Some people criticize her for this. How do you feel about this?
Student #1: I feel it's the culture and tradition of Indian, south Indian culture at that time, because --
Eric Miller: Yes, at that time.
Student #1: Yes, we were taught to respect our husbands and treat them as God back in the day. So to Kannagi, I would think she felt like she had no right to complain because she was supposed to consider her husband as an elder, as a God, as a superior.
Eric Miller: Yes.
Student #1: Maybe that’s why.
Eric Miller: Yes. And my interpretation is that she did not react and she did not blame him, but inside she was in pain. So then when she lost him a second time, to the king, then she expressed all of the pain.
Student #2: Can I add something?
Eric Miller: Yes, please go ahead.
Student #2: In those days, marriages were held at very early ages. Probably Kannagi was just 12 or 13 years old when she married.
Eric Miller: Yes.
Student #2: And probably the young man she married was in his late adolescence, maybe 18 or 19. Probably that age difference was there. And he was a business-class person. I think business-class men and kings in those days had this privilege of having multiple wives.
Eric Miller: Yes.
Student #2: I also wonder: How old was Madhavi, the young woman he went off with?
Eric Miller: Well, she had just given her first public dance performance. So she probably was the same age as Kannagi, which as we were saying was probably 12, 13, or 14. We have to remember that in those days, the typical life lifespan was only about 40 to 45 years. So as soon as puberty would occur in young women, then sometimes they would get married and start having children.
In those days, children were wealth. You could put your children to work. And in our old age we would hope our children might help to support us. Now, today, raising a child is very expensive. So it is a different situation.
Kannagi was also in the business-class. She had been adopted by a merchant family in Poompuhar. I'm not sure if there was a class difference between them, but there was very likely an age difference. And certainly a power difference due to him being a man and she being a woman. Okay. Let us go on.
The word, "folklore" can refer both to the activities of the folk, and also to the academic discipline in which these activities are studied (when used in this second way, the word is often capitalized). Let me quickly define folklore activities. Folklore can be defined as "traditional and conventional ways of understanding, expressing, making, and doing things". But a modern definition of folklore is that "whenever two or more people have a common experience, they develop folklore about that experience". If you look at it this way, almost all of culture is folklore. The verbal arts, including storytelling and children's verbal games, especially have been studied in the academic discipline of Folklore. Until around the 1960s, the scholars felt their main job was to write down the stories, and analyse and classify them. You know, "This is a folktale, this is a myth, this is a legend".
But then in the 1960s a revolution occurred in the field, which was led by my main professor who I studied with at University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Roger Abrahams, who passed away five years ago. He led a revolution called the "Performance-centered approach to folklore", which looked at the social context of the storytelling event: who is telling to who, who is present, who cannot be present, what time of day, what time of year? -- all the social factors. And of course the tone of voice and the body language of the storyteller. So we have a rich history of studying both the stories, and the methods of telling the stories, in the field of Folklore.
The Multidisciplinary approach
Folklore is multidisciplinary by its nature. For one thing, we are often looking at language. That is Linguistics. We're looking at Sociology. And there is a combined-field called Socio-linguistics which concerns ways people speak in particular communities, in particular situations, in real life. That is part of Folklore.
Folklore is a separate discipline, but it is also a subject within Cultural Anthropology. Cultural Anthropology concerns the systems of a culture, the belief systems. And of course, History is involved. The study of Literature is involved. The study of Communication is involved. Using various academic disciplines is an artificial way to approach reality because life, experience, comes to us in a mixture of all of the academic disciplines. And so it is "keeping it real" to have a multidisciplinary approach. I'll give an example of a story that especially calls out to be studied in a multidisciplinary way.
The Kanikkaran tribal people live in the very southern end of the Western Ghats mountain range. Half of them live on the Tamil side, half of them live on the Kerala side. I did my fieldwork for my PhD with some of those people in the mountains there, on the Tamil side, north of Nagercoil.
The Kani people have a grandmother story called the Youngest Brother. In that story, the six older brothers say to their younger brother, "Come with us, let's go to the forest to hunt the wild pigs". And they all had spears. When they got to the forest, I'm sorry to tell you, the six older brothers turned on their younger brother and killed him with their spears. We don't know why. Maybe they wanted to inherit what he had.
The younger brother had two dogs who had come on this hunting trip. These two dogs went back to the younger brother's wife, and they communicated to her, "Come with us!" So the younger brother's wife followed the dogs to her husband's body. And of course she started screaming, weeping -- this is called oppari in Tamil Nadu. It is expression of raw grief, but there are also some melodic and verbal expressions that people scream or speak, and physical behaviors that they do, as they're expressing their raw grief.
Nearby, there was a mongoose and a snake playing -- vilaiyaadu, vilaiyaadu, vilaiyaadu. They were running around in circle. This is very unusual because usually the mongoose is attacking the snake. You know, they are enemies. But on this day, they were playing and the snake and the mongoose came and the snake said to the lady, "Madam, we see what has happened here. Don't worry. We will get the medicine".
And the snake and the mongoose went off and got a certain plant. And they brought it back and grounded and mixed it and put it on the younger brother's body and he came back to life. And so the younger brother, his wife, and the two dogs, went back to the village and they told the panchayat leaders what had happened. The six older brothers were forced to leave the village. They were exiled. In those days, that was one of the most serious punishments.
Let us look at this story for a moment. To really study this story, we also have to think about the plant medicine, right? So this brings in Chemistry, Biology, and Ethno-botany. And the Kani people believe that their knowledge of plant medicine was given to them by the Hindu Saint, Agastya. They believe that the Tamil language itself, and certain ritual songs, were given by Agastya. So to study and understand the story fully, we have to also study and understand Agastya’s perceived contribution to the culture. So, you can see a lot is involved in thinking about a story like this. It's not just Folklore, it's also Biology, Chemistry, History, Sociology, Theology, and so on. This is why scholars from different disciplines often work together in teams.
I would also mention that this story a wonderful variation of the theme of a wife seeking to bring her husband back to life -- the regenerative power of the female principle. You see, Kannagi was not able to bring her husband back to life. She tried. When she found his body in the street with his head cut off, in her delirium she tried to put his head back on. According to the earliest written text we have -- which is estimated to have been written approximately 1,600 years ago and is attributed to Prince Ilango Adigal -- for a moment Kannagi thought her husband was alive and that he said, "Don't worry dear, we'll be together soon". But it was just her fantasy. It was not real. So that's when she went and spoke to the king. But in the Youngest Brother story, with the help of the animals and the plants, the wife was able to bring her husband back to life.
I feel that living in nature has given these tribal people a more optimistic feeling about the possibility of revival, resurrection -- of life continuing, that even if life is lost, it can be recovered. So again, I consider the Epic of the Anklet and the story of the Younger Brother to be two variations on the theme of a wife trying to bring her husband back to life. We have many other stories like this. There's one story in which the wife follows the King of the Underworld and tricks him into agreeing to give her husband back to her, alive. I'm sure you all know this story -- the story of Savitri.
When we use the term folklore, let's think about, who are "the folk"? It turns out that we are all the folk because people will say, "Come on, folks", and "Move along, folks". Even your professors will say that, right? They'll say, "Please hand in your assignments, folks". So folk has come to be a friendly term for any group of people. Originally, however, it referred to people who 1) lived in the countryside, 2) were poor economically, 3) could not read or write, and 4) were very group-oriented.
But these very terms, folk and folklore, were created under some very specific social conditions. These terms did not always exist. They were created by European intellectuals who lived in cities in the early 1800s, who were nostalgic about life in the countryside. They might have been thinking, 'We are modern individuals. We are alienated. We are alone. We are intellectuals. But wouldn't it be -- isn't it -- wonderful that the people in the countryside are connected with nature, they are members of groups, and they can sing and dance together?' You see it gave these urban intellectuals a good feeling to think about, to imagine, the folk and folklore. In reality, people who live in the countryside do not always sing and dance together. They are also individuals. But folklore as a field is a conception of intellectual Europeans in the early 1800s. That was when the "Industrial Revolution" was beginning in the cities. So the conception of folklore was a reaction against the alienation and mechanisation of modern urban life.
Now let us look at fieldwork in Cultural Anthropology -- and as mentioned, Folklore is a topic within that academic discipline. The classic type of fieldwork we do is that we go someplace and sit there for one year, and we ask to be taken into people's homes, and to be taken into their communities. And we pay money, you know, we contribute, at least we pay for our food. And perhaps we pay for the services of a Research Assistant. We also do "Participant Observation", which means we observe what people are doing and we ask, "Oh, could I try to do that too? Could you teach me how to do it?" So that is "Ethnographic Fieldwork with Participant Observation".
Dear Communication and Journalism students, I think you might be doing different types of fieldwork.
When I walked from Poompuhar to Madurai, and then into mountains -- we don't really call that fieldwork, because I was on the move. I was interviewing people in different communities. In my field, that's not considered fieldwork. But then when I stayed with a group of Kani people in their village for a year, that was fieldwork.
But the thing today is that because of this pandemic, the last two or three years, the fieldwork has been impossible, right? Because the outsider is looked upon as a possible carrier of disease and many communities, tribal communities for example, either them or their governments would not permit visitors to come.
So what has happened in these cases and others, sometimes the students ask their professors, "Can I do part of my fieldwork online? Can I talk with them via Google Meet or Zoom?" Because some people in the community might have the technology and might be using it. Now even many people in forest areas have mobile telephones, and coverage. Many of them can do video calls. So the PhD students are asking their professors, "Can I do some of my fieldwork online?"
And do you know what the professors are answering? Can anyone guess? The senior professors that I know would say, "What? Are you out of your mind???!!! That's not the way fieldwork is done. You have to go in-person, with your body, and sleep there and eat there!"
And the student might reply, "But it's not possible now, professor".
So this is going on in Anthropology and Folklore departments around the world. I guess they're working out some compromises. And maybe, as the pandemic is lessening, maybe physical fieldwork is becoming more possible again.
Communication and Community
More and more people, more members of communities, are conducting their lives online. You know, some tribal people who have telephone coverage, they're on the phone half the time. And not just tribal people, any community, half the people are online half the time. So life is changing. Community is changing. And so maybe fieldwork also has to change. What good is it if you go and do fieldwork and stay with people -- but those people are online half the time? If you really want to understand and experience their lives, you have to go online too, because that's where they're living their lives to a large extent. So all of this is in flux, it is in-process.
Now, about community. As we all know, "communities of choice" are becoming more and more important in people's lives -- communities of choice, communities that we choose to join, as opposed to communities that we're born into. Of course, caste is still very strong and blood relations are still very strong. But as more and more people are educated in the modern fashion, and travel and telecommunicate with people all over the world, communities of choice are becoming more important.
So being "an active member of a community" and being "in the midst of a community" are no longer necessarily about being in a physical place. The community is located within the communication between its members, it is in the network of relationships between the people. So this would seem to indicate the importance of joining people online -- but maybe a compromise: visiting people in-person, and also participating online with them, perhaps especially when they are participating with other community members online.
I began the fieldwork for my PhD 20 years ago, and I lived in the village for almost two years. At the end of my fieldwork period, I invited some of the people to Chennai and we did videoconferences between the Kani children from the village who were visiting Chennai (with their parents in most cases), and Tamil children in America at my university in Pennsylvania. In these videoconferences, children on both sides demonstrated their verbal games and such. And I was pointing out how these activities help people to develop their spoken-language abilities.
So the primary title of my dissertation was "Ethnographic Videoconferencing", because I used videoconferencing as a way to facilitate the sharing and recording of the culture of the people I was studying. I stated that "Ethnographic Videoconferencing" was an evolutionary development based on "Ethnographic Photography" and "Ethnographic Film and Video". "Ethnographic" in this case means that the documentation occurs after at least a year of physically-present fieldwork.
But I was criticized, and I did not get one grant, because some senior scholars said, "You cannot let tribal people videoconference. It will ruin their culture". Even then the community members were getting radio and television. They could consume multimedia and advertising, but certain senior scholars were not comfortable with assisting them to play an active role -- as creators and authors -- in relation to the technology.
Now almost everybody, even in forest areas, has mobile telephones -- in many cases, multi-media smartphones. So now I am not sure we could find anyone who would say members of a certain human community can use this technology in passive ways (receiving ony), but they should not be encouraged to use it in active, expressive, creative ways.
The Zoom Pandemic, and the Great Dispersal
My final point is: I call this pandemic that we are now hopefully finishing the "Zoom Pandemic", because Zoom is the most famous video call app, and this social-historical event, like many other social-historical events, has ushered in the widespread use of a new technology.
There was video calling for many years, but it had not really caught on. There had been no burning need for it. It was used only in some business and government contexts, and by a few unusual people who would use it to talk with their family members over long distances. But the pandemic ushered in the videoconference, video call, video chat revolution among the masses. And there's not going to be an end to it. It's going to continue, in combination with physically-present activity.
A very powerful form of communication -- which we are kind of doing today -- is that some people are physically-present and some, like myself, are joining online. So for you at the University, it is a "blended" event, with some attending via physical presence, and some attending via tele-presence ("tele" means "from a distance", as in "telephone" and "television"). This is the future. More and more classrooms will be like this. It's a little hard to do it with just one laptop computer -- at the University there you have a laptop and a big projection screen, and multiple microphones, I believe. So people are experimenting, developing blended events in various ways.
The social distancing that we did with the pandemic -- we are doing social distancing today by videoconference, right? Except for you people at the university. The rest of us, we are socially distanced from each other, and from you. Being in physical contact, or even in close physical proximity, with other people is still somewhat risky behavior because we don't know exactly if the pandemic is over or not.
I believe this has acclimated us, this has prepared us intellectually and physically, for an upcoming stage in the evolution of human society which I call the "Great Dispersal". We are beginning to go into outer space. When we go on this Great Dispersal, we will also be socially distanced from each other, by millions of miles. This pandemic has gotten us used to isolation from each other. And being isolated, quarantined, in your home is not going to be so different from being isolated in a rocket ship.
We've had the International Space Station for 23 years, since 1999. The Great Dispersal is the way humans now are slowly going into space. From our point of view it seems to be happening slowly, but in historical terms, it is happening very quickly. One hundred years from now a lot will have happened in this area.
A few months ago, three billionaires went into space. They are developing their own rocket ship companies. Who are they? Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk. They are developing private companies for visiting and exploring space. For space travel and space tourism. There are plans for hotels in space.
A very small number of us may go to outer space, but we will all know that it is possible and that some people are doing it, and this knowledge will affect the culture very deeply.
There are numerous possible benefits to this great dispersal. Number one, those of us who go, we will be putting less pressure on the earth resources, you know, resources are finite, water and so forth. And I hate to say it, but there's the danger that human life on earth could destroy itself, through any number of means. This has come up recently in relation to the invasion of one country by another country. But it also comes up in relation to global warming.
So when we go off on space stations -- and you know there are space stations, at least in movies, in which thousands of people can live, and the point is not even to go to another planet or solar system, the point is just to live on these space stations. So it means that humanity, and its cultural heritage, would be safe from destruction, from self-destruction and from destruction by others (human and non-human). Isn’t that good news?
But what I hope is that stories -- even difficult and disturbing stories -- will be taken along and told. Stories about characters such as Kannagi, Nallathangal, and even Isakki should be known. But as we know, things can be erased from the Internet, if the-powers-that-be might prefer such. So that's why I think people have to know these stories "by heart". Like somebody said a few minutes ago, "My mother told it to me". There have to be people in these space stations who know these stories and can tell these stories.
You see, these space stations, they are going to be built and operated by governments and corporations and billionaires. These will be controlled, engineered environments and societies. The missions may be profit-motivated. They may be colonising and imperialistic. "Participatory democracy" may not be a high priority among the people and organisations who create and maintain these space stations. So we cannot depend on the Internet in a space station because the people who control the Internet there may make available to us only what they want us to know.
I am ending my comments today with mention of this possible next stage in human evolution on earth and beyond with the hope that the human heritage of the kind of folklore we've been talking about will survive and will be passed on to generations to come.
Please somebody give some feedback.
Student #3: Sir, your whole topic about Kannagi and your take on it and your take on the world, how the world is now with the technology and the social distancing and what would happen in the future is very interesting. Your takes on all of these issues are very unique and they have already given to me a few ideas. So thank you for all this, sir.
Eric Miller: You are most welcome!.
Student #4: Can I ask a question?
Eric Miller: Please do.
Student #4: I work at a museum and since this talk predominantly is about folklore and sort of understanding our changing interactions with it, I was wondering how you believe we can actually catalog or conserve or preserve folklore so that it can be displayed as material objects in a place like a museum. Is it even possible?
Eric Miller: It's hard to talk about preserving culture because culture is a living thing. It is a process. We can preserve relics of cultures, but not cultures as ways of life. I like the term, "Living Museum". In a Living Museum the objects on display are still in everyday use and members of the community participate in explaining about them to visitors. So whenever we can get members of the community to participate and be paid, we should do so. We have to "make a living" from our culture to really respect our culture. If our culture cannot help us to "earn a living", we tend to abandon that culture. So when I work with a community -- whether it's fishing people, tribal people, or others -- I'm on the lookout for community members who might be interested in developing an exhibition for the public, to educate the public about the traditional knowledge.
Also, we can support and encourage members of traditional communities to teach the traditional ways to their young.
People in traditional communities will always have two levels of expression: one that they just do amongst themselves, and one that they do for the public. For example, "saami", which in English is called "spirit possession". That is a very important part of the cultures of many of the people I work with, including members of the sea-fishing community in Chennai. But if saami is put on a stage, it has to be modified and, you know, some members of the public don't want to see it. They might think it's inauspicious or backward, they might be afraid of it. So people in the community have to discuss, "What are we going to show to the outsiders? What are we not going to show to the outsiders? How are we going to educate them about our lives in a way that they will learn from it and enjoy it and respect it?"
Regarding material culture, I suggest: as much as possible try to get members of the community to be involved in the selection and exhibition and explanation process, even possibly to record their voices or have them be involved in any other way, including that they should make some money from it.
Student #4: Thank you so much.
Eric Miller: Thank you. Anybody else?
Student #5: Can I ask a question?
Eric Miller: Yes.
Student #5: I'm currently conducting research to reinvent and redesign for children the Thirukkural, one of the gems of Tamil literature, so that they can easily understand it. So I'd like to understand how you collected your data. Was it through field notes or recording?
Eric Miller: Well, for my PhD, I did a study of children's songs and verbal games. There's a long history of studying that in the academic discipline of Folklore. So, I just hung around for a year and I was learning their language, their spoken language, just like as if I were a baby. And naturally I was interested in how the young people in the community were picking-up speech. So, after a year, finally we recorded 14 of the activities. I taught interested members of the community how to operate the video equipment. And my fieldwork guide (also known as a research partner) -- he's a better camera man than I am.
Student #5: May I ask a follow-up question?
Eric Miller: Go ahead.
Student #5: During your recordings when you used video cameras, how did you get permission from them? Did you have some kind of paperwork that you asked them to sign in order to record them?
Eric Miller: That is a good thought, and that practise is increasingly appropriate today, when we are thinking about "intellectual property rights" and all. But to be honest, 15 years ago, it did not occur to me. I was working mostly with children -- although there were some games that were demonstrated by older people also. I told them I would give them copies of the raw footage, and I did so, on VCDs and DVDs. Most members of the community did not know how to read or write, in any language. If I would have asked them to sign contracts, that would have caused a lot of confusion.
My project was very non-controversial: children's songs and games, and language learning. Your government in New Delhi kindly gave me permission to live in a forest area for two years to study this, which I'm very grateful for. And the people in the community, you know, Tamil people are generally very happy if somebody is coming to study and learn their language. So, I was welcomed on that level.
While I was there, I also was listening to the grandmother stories like that story about the woman who brings her husband back to life with the help of the snake and the mongoose. Actually I had wanted to do my entire PhD about the telling of local grandmother stories, but my language ability was not good enough.
So along the way I shifted, since I was like a baby learning language, I shifted to how young people in the community learn language with the help of these activities -- through the repetition of phrases, and through the body actions they do to go along with the spoken words. And they are often acting out little skits as they do it. So all of these things help with the acquisition of spoken language. This is not even written language. This is spoken language.
Student #5: Great. Thank you. I just wanted to understand, because I'm just beginning to do fieldwork for my own research. So I just wanted to understand how you went about it.
Eric Miller: Yes. You know, we tend to have very romantic ideas about tribal people, but even before I got there, there was a dance group in the village, which did dance, like hip-hop dance, to Tamil cinema. They went to different villages, both tribal and non-tribal and did hip-hop and different kinds of cinema dance to recordings of Tamil cinema songs. Since I had the equipment and a generator with me, I let people use my equipment to videotape their cinema dancing. So, you know, you help people out, and they help you out. In the old days, a scholar might help write a letter that the people had to write to get some government service. And the people would be grateful that the scholar would write the letter. But 15 years ago I shared the video technology I had, including a projector and a generator. So you end up adding these things to the pool of resources in the community you're working with.
Student #5: Right. Thank you so much.
Ravindran Gopalan: Can you tell us about the mapping of Kannagi’s route?
Eric Miller: Yes. Well, you go to Poompuhar and then you go to Mayiladuthurai and then you go to Thanjavur. Thiruvarur is south of Mayiladuthurai. So unfortunately Thiruvarur is not directly in the path of Kannagi. It would be a slight detour if Kannagi would've gone to Thiruvarur. We don't know exactly where she and her husband walked, but they came from Poompuhar to Madurai. My point was not to map an exact geographical route. I stayed on the main roads. I didn't go "off-road".
But you know, folklore scholars are are not historians. It is not really our job to determine whether or not an event actually occurred. Our job is to understand the model of behavior and the psychological meaning of a story.
So I had a wonderful time. In ancient days, a south Indian poet wrote, "All places are my home, all people are my family". I felt it. I still feel it. That's why I've moved to Tamil Nadu. I feel Tamil Nadu is really a culture of people having an open heart.
But I fear that if somebody like me might try to do the same 450km walk today (with a sleeping bag and a small tent, like I had), the visitor might not feel as welcomed as I felt, because I sense people are now generally more insecure economically, and people might be afraid of an outsider bringing disease. But anyway, I walked across the countryside and it was a wonderful experience.
I learned that the basic building block of civilization is a tea stand -- a little tea stand with a tin roof. That's where people would gather, especially men would gather, and talk. And that was the smallest building block of social gathering -- in relation to buildings, to architecture. So, ever since then, whenever I see a tea shop, a tea stand, even in a big city, I think, "Ah, this is the basics".
I wrote a small book about this walk. You can find it on my website. I gave the first copy to Dr. Karunanidhi.
I would like to mention one more thing. Globally, we are generally dating time from the year of the birth of Jesus Christ. We're in the year 2022 AD (Anno Domini, In the Year of Our Lord). It seems to me that this is not appropriate as a global system. Jesus is a figure in one religion. It's not fair to all the other religions, and to rationalists, for the birth year of this figure to be the universal point of reference for marking time. I suggest that we date time from a common human achievement. And the achievement that I would suggest is the moment that humans first went into space, first went beyond the pull of gravity. That was in 1961. A Russian man went into space in that year. So by this system, 1961 would be the year 0, 1962 would be the year one, and this year, 2022 AD would be 61 -- 61 AS (After Space). That's my proposal. Does anyone have any responses? Might anyone second my proposal?
Student #5: I think I’d agree.
Student #6: I will.
Eric Miller: Thank you so much!
Ravindran Gopalan: Eric, one more question.
Student #7: I've been listening to your lecture. During your lecture, you said one of your aims was to spread the word of Kannagi to the leaders of world.
Eric Miller: Yes.
Student #7: And hoping to really get change.
Eric Miller: Yes.
Student #7: What change are you expecting? We have been surrounded by these stories, which have some kinds of morals -- folklores, fairytales, religious rituals. We’ve always heard stories of wisdom. What kind of change can the story of Kannagi make in the world?
Eric Miller: Oh, the story makes a big difference, just in Tamil Nadu. You know, it's taught in the schools, and every government official in Tamil Nadu knows that if he or she makes a mistake and punishes people unjustly the world could fall on their head because it happened to the Pandian king. So it's in the air. People know that this is a danger, a possibility. I think this leads government officials and other authority figures to be a little more careful, to think twice before they take rash actions against people. I've certainly had good luck with government officials here. And I think it's because when people hear the mention of Kannagi, okay, they're flattered maybe that someone is researching about the story, but thay also might, to some small degree, in the back of their minds, be a tiny bit afraid that they might make the same mistake that the Pandian king made.
Student #7: They're afraid of something from God?
Eric Miller: Perhaps. There is the saying that something can "put the fear of God" into you.
Student #7: What if they don’t believe in God?
Eric Miller: It is not about believing in any particular God. It is about the mysterious workings of the universe. If there is an action, there may be a reaction. You know, in Tamil culture, if a woman feels violated, it's a dangerous situation. In the cases of Nalla Thangal and Kannagi, "Mother Nature", or the God of Fire, gets involved. Things can accelerate, they can escalate in very dangerous ways. So, people are aware of the danger. A story is a model of the past and a possible model for the future, or a warning about the future. So, I like to believe that if a president or prime minister has this story in mind, he or she might be a little slower to invade other countries, maybe, because you know, when we invade other countries, a lot of people get killed.
Student #7: Thank you, sir,
Eric Miller: And I must say I'm also referring to my old country, my home country, the USA. We all know the USA has made this invasion mistake numerous times.
Ravindran Gopalan: Thank you, Eric.
Eric Miller: Professor, can I ask you to give me some feedback? Did I do what you imagined I would do?
Ravindran Gopalan: Yes. As always you satisfy my expectations, Eric. Thank you very much.
Eric Miller: Thank you.
Ravindran Gopalan: I was in particular interested by a few things you mentioned. I think you remarked that we are on the cusp of an evolutionary change. That is what you call as a dispersal, a dispersal towards outer space. That seems very likely. I'm always impressed by Stanley Kubrick’s vision of this, through his movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm not sure that I am interested in what Elon Musk and Richard Branson are putting across. These people are capitalists and they have their own agendas. But have you seen Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Eric Miller: Yes, of course.
Ravindran Gopalan: As you were speaking, I was reminded of some of the scenes in that movie. Your idea for dispersal towards outer space was contextualised by Kubrick in that movie in 1968. And your suggesting of a universal calendar is well-taken. We should have a human-centric approach to dating time. And you are suggesting that we can consider the first visit to outer space as the point of reference. I think this is agreeable because there is no religious bias.
And your call to the prime ministers and presidents of the world to be influenced by a story that might help them to be more just rulers.
These are some of the remarkable thoughts that you have spoken today. As a folklorist, you want to be of service to human beings in the present period. I appreciate that very much. And you are reading the story differently. I think this has many lessons for the journalism and communication students in the audience.
So I thank you, Eric, for sharing your thoughts and I thank all of the others also who participated. Eric, how did you find this session?
Eric Miller: Wonderful. I'm very grateful to you. I just want to add one thing about this dispersal process. We will not always know who is going where and what is happening to them. If there's a rebellion or a revolution on a space station, we might not know about it. So we just have to get used to this fact, and live with the fact that we are not going to know all of the details about how these different social experiments are going to evolve. There might be many surprises that we might learn about later, or we might never learn about them. We just have to learn to live with this uncertainty.
Ravindran Gopalan: Yes. This is another important thought you have provided today, that students of communication should take this seriously. Now many people are telling their stories on YouTube.
Eric Miller: Yes.
Ravindran Gopalan: Are you saying we should not put our stories on internet?
Eric Miller: No, no! I am saying, "Put the stories on the internet, but don't depend on that." Because they can be deleted, or the system administrators could create algorithms which might make certain stories difficult or impossible to access.
Ravindran Gopalan: Yes. What if YouTube disappears tomorrow? What if Facebook disappears tomorrow?
Eric Miller: Correct.
Ravindran Gopalan: So these are not permanent mediums.
Eric Miller: Yes. We used to trust books because books had a certain permanence, but now books are out of fashion, but hopefully we will always have books. But in the end, finally, we have the human mind. So as long as a human being is alive, that human being can store and share the information.
Ravindran Gopalan: Okay. So the first priority is the human mind. Second is printed world, isn’t it?
Eric Miller: Yes, as I see it: First the human mind, then the printed world, then the Internet. There is no foolproof method. We should use all of them.
By the way, I have placed links to video recordings and readings related to today's talk at https://storytellinginstitute.org/6May2022a.html
Ravindran Gopalan: Thanks very much! Now I invite one of our students to propose the vote of thanks.
Student #8: Good afternoon to all. Let me take this opportunity to thank our lecturer, Dr. Eric Miller, Director of the World Storytelling Institute, Chennai. It was a fresh take on the folklore of Kannagi and it was an amazing experience to be a part of it. I hope everyone felt the same and will have new insights regarding fieldwork and all of the other topics that were covered today. I extend my thanks to Dr. Eric Miller. Thank you so much, sir.
I also thank Professor Ravindran Gopalan and all of our other faculty who give us such wonderful opportunites, and all the other participants who have joined to be part of this lecture. We are researching and rethinking ways people communicate with each other in Tamil Nadu. Last but not least, I thank all my fellow students and scholars of this particular University. Thank you. I would also like to thank our office assistant, Rajesh sir. He has been working hard to make this happen. Thank you, Rajesh sir. Thank you, everyone.
Ravindran Gopalan: Thank you, Eric.
Eric Miller: Thank you, Dr. Ravi, thank you so much. It's always an honor to work for you.
Ravindran Gopalan: Thank you. We thoroughly enjoyed.
Eric Miller: Thank you very much.
Ravindran Gopalan: Thank you. Best wishes, Eric. Thank you. Next time, we'll meet face-to-face. Please visit our University here in Thiruvarur.
Eric Miller: I would be delighted to do so.
Ravindran Gopalan: Yes. Thank you.
Eric Miller: Thank you, all of you!
Ravindran Gopalan: Bye-bye!
The website of the NGO Dr Eric directs,
Links to video recordings and readings related to today's talk are at
To send an email to Dr Eric, please send to