Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 23, March 16-31, 2024

Dr. Eric Miller – the man behind the Chennai Storytelling Festival

-- by R.V. Rajan,

The Chennai Storytelling Festival 2024, held in February this year, was an enormous success! It attracted more than 100 storytellers, and hundreds more storytelling aficionados, from around the globe. The event, which occurred fully via videoconferencing, was masterminded by an American settled in Chennai. Yes, I am talking about Dr. Eric Miller who is a big name in the world of storytelling. A man who is responsible for training hundreds of storytellers in India.

Dr. Eric Miller is a native New Yorker and earned a Ph.D. in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia). He has taught college courses in Folklore, Expository Writing, Creative Writing, Analysing Literature, Public Speaking, and Storytelling at St. John’s University, Fordham University, and New York University (all in NYC). In Chennai, he has taught at IIT-Madras; the Image College of Animation, Arts, and Technology; and the University of Madras (Dept of Communication and Journalism). In 2007 Eric co-founded the World Storytelling Institute, which he directs. He also directs the annual Chennai Storytelling Festival, which began in 2013.

When I asked Dr. Eric what made him choose storytelling as a profession, he replied,

“Since my father was a playwright and a theatre critic, I used to visit the theatre often. I naturally became fascinated with drama and as a teenager wrote several plays. Then at the age of 17 years, I met Laura Simms, who was a Professional Storyteller. I learned about Professional Storytelling from her. Storytelling appeared easier than theatre! Storytelling seemed to me to be a kind of theatre in which one could be all-in-one – playwright, director, and actor – and there was no need for a stage, sets, a full cast of actors, costumes, and makeup. I also liked the crystalline structure of fairytales, as I learned about them from Laura Simms.”

Why India and why Chennai?

“Both my parents were in the fields of the Arts, and Arts Journalism (my mother was the editor-in-chief of a national magazine about dance when I was growing up). As a result, in my late teens, I decided to study story and the performing arts in an ancient culture. My options came down to Ireland or India. I chose India as it was further away and not as modernized. I also chose India as I was interested in Goddess Culture, not as religion, but as culture and as models for behavior. A Professor of religion at the College I was attending handed me an English translation of the Silappathikaram (the Epic of the Ankle Bracelet), written by Prince Ilango Adigal. This version of the story is linguistically dated to have been written in Tamil 1500 years ago. I read the story and liked it very much. The content of the story – one woman who would go to a King and present her case and the King would listen to her – amazed me!

I first came to India in 1988, to do research for my Master’s degree. At that time I went to Poompuhar, the place Kannagi grew up, and walked the same path as Kannagi, from Poompuhar to Madurai, around 200km, and then later from Madurai to the mountains, another 200km. I authored a book about the walk and gave the first copy to M. Karunanidhi, the 5-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. I came back to India in 2002 to do research with Tribal people in the Anaimalai mountains for my Ph.D. in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. After that, I decided to settle in Chennai.”

Dr. Eric Miller.

Dr. Eric was lucky to find his spouse Magdalene in Chennai. Magdalene is a Therapist specialising in using Drama and the other Arts for Therapy. Eric and Magdalene were married in 2006 and have a daughter Kamala, who is now 17 years old. Along with Magdalene and Storyteller Jeeva Raghunath, he started the World Storytelling Institute in 2007. He started offering Storytelling Workshops from then on.  Today there are 58 registered Professional Storytellers in Chennai, many of whom have studied with Dr. Eric.

Apart from Chennai, Dr. Eric has helped to start Storytelling Associations in Trichy, Madurai, Coimbatore, Salem, and Ahmedabad. 

In 2011, he and Geeta ­Ramanujam (the senior leader of the Storytelling Revival in India) started the Indian Storytelling Network. Dr. Eric assists the 130 members of the ISN in editing and updating their ISN listings (which include their bio-data and descriptions of storytelling-related services they offer to the public).

Dr. Eric says, “Storytelling is not just a performance. It is also a secular ritual in which people get in touch with themselves, others, and the Universe. I conduct workshops in telling stories such as folktales, fairytales (one kind of folktale), epics, legends, and myths – as well as personal-experience stories, and stories that I help people create.  As I see it, role play is an important part of storytelling. By speaking and moving as a character would, and addressing listeners as if they were other characters in the story, the storyteller enlists the audience to participate in the story. I believe storytellers should not overact.  They should be gentle, invite the listeners in, and activate their imaginations. The style I work with is conversational. We don’t memorize, we make eye contact at times, and we tell from our imagination.  It is a visual experience – the teller and the listener can visualise a story as it is being told. This way a storyteller can bring a story to life”.

Based on a suggestion from a Chennai-based storyteller Sandhya Ruben, who had attended a storytelling festival in Singapore, he started the Chennai Storytelling Festival in 2013. He was familiar with Storytelling Festivals, having assisted Laura Simms organize them in NYC.  From the start, the Chennai Storytelling Festival was positioned as a Teaching and Learning Storytelling Festival. For the first 8 years, the CSF occurred almost in person.

Dr. Eric has been fascinated with and has been an enthusiastic user of, video conferencing since the mid-1990s. Since around that time, his website has been When the pandemic hit in March 2020, he was ready to shift all his storytelling activities into video conferencing mode. Post the pandemic, CSF sessions have included a few hybrid sessions, with a mix of live and online participants.

Video conferencing has allowed storytellers from around the globe, along with storytellers throughout India, to participate in the CSF. There are participants from Russia, Europe, Africa, North America, South America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and beyond who are interested in sharing and learning storytelling best practices. All sessions in the editions of CSF from 2021 to 2024 have been free of charge!

The theme for Chennai Storytelling Festival 2024 was Growing and Maturing through Storytelling and will include Transforming in CSF 2025. On the recommendation of several members of the Chennai Storytellers group (of which Dr. Eric is also a member), CSF 2024 had a few sessions of storytelling by and for children. Dr. Eric says this was a new and wonderful experience! CSF 2024 also included a discussion session on ways the Dravidian Movement has used stories to communicate its messages, especially through drama, modified folk art forms, movies, novels, and short stories.

Sudha Umashanker, a journalist, author, storytelling student of Dr. Eric, and an active participant in all of the editions of the Chennai Storytelling Festival, curates a Tamil storytelling event as one of the regional language storytelling events that occurs in the CSF. On Sunday 11th February 2024 her storytelling outfit, Storycorner at Bookmine, hosted the eighth edition of “Tamizhil Kathaigal Ketpom” (“Let’s Listen to Stories in Tamizh”), via Zoom. This popular event has a faithful following of young and old. Eleven Storytellers presented a wide range of stories in a variety of styles in “Tamizhil Kathaigal Ketpom” in CSF 2024.

Commenting on CSF 2024 Sudha says, “Big names such as Laura Simms, mentor of Dr. Eric Miller, delighted participants with workshops and performances. Chennai Storytellers Pretigaya Haran of Story Sack, and Sheetal Rayathatha of Square Heads, doubled as hosts of the Festival’s 12 two-hour Storytelling Sessions. Hundreds of man-hours spent on emails, short-listing workshop leaders, curating events, and drawing up schedules for 4 different time zones – a facet that was well-appreciated – culminated in a memorable Festival. Takeaways included great networking from right where you are, lots of new ideas and new stories to discover, and exposure to a variety of narrative styles – this and much more was what Chennai Storytelling Festival 2024 was all about”.

 When I asked Dr. Eric about his future plans apart from curating the CSF, he mentioned several things. He said he will continue to give training in Storytelling, Creative Writing, and Storytelling Therapy, a field he has helped to pioneer (he earned a Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Madras in 2018). He will also continue to host the “First Monday of the Month” sessions of storytelling by and for adults (May to January) which are also free to participate in and observe (via Zoom). There are more than 200 video recordings of storytelling in this series uploaded on YouTube. He is also the Dean of Rojavanam International School in Nagercoil and visits there for some days each month.

Dr. Eric has scripted a fictional movie with singing and dancing entitled “Words From the Forest”, which is about a group of high school students from New York City who come to visit some tribal people in Tamil Nadu’s Anaimalai Mountains. He says this story takes up where the story of Kannagi leaves off, and he hopes “Words From the Forest” will soon be brought to the silver screen.

Let us wish Dr. Eric success in this ambitious project. He can be contacted at 

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  1. Geeta Ramanujam says:

    Lovely article and insight into Storytelling.

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