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CCU Atheneum: Pillai at a cafe in Delhi, India, in January 2010.
Pillai at a cafe in Delhi, India, in January 2010.

All the world's a stage for English lit professor

by Ashley Morris
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When your first brush with theater is a family production of “Hamlet” at age 4, you’re destined to develop a lifelong relationship with Shakespeare’s drama.

Tripthi Pillai, assistant professor of English Renaissance literature at Coastal Carolina University, was born in Delhi, India, to two college professors – her mother, a doctor and professor of medicine, and her father, a physicist.

So Pillai grew up on a college campus and, during the scorching hot Indian summers, entertainment was a little theater production staged for the children each week by their parents and colleagues. “It was lot of fun,” she says. “My parents later told me I had been pretty upset because my mother was Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and someone else – not my father – played Claudius. The stage has been my preferred medium since that time.”

While earning her undergrad degree in English literature in India, Pillai acted in local and school performances, as well as in intercollegiate cultural competitions, and worked in a choreography troupe that performed dance drama.

“I think theater effectively marries the best qualities of life and art – the intimacy of real movement and the abstract ideas of the written text,” says Pillai. “A film comes close, of course, but it’s somewhat devoid of intimacy because we can’t touch or feel it. The tangibility of the action isn’t there under all the editing and preparation. In theater, at the end of the day, it is all that is going on, on stage just before us, that dominates our sense of theater as drama.”

Pillai is multilingual; she first learned her mother’s native tongue, Malayalam, then English and Hindi simultaneously. “There are so many states in India, so there are over 100 languages spoken officially, and my friends would speak different languages at their home,” she says. “That’s one of the good things about living in a diverse community – as early as 2 or 3, I was exposed to many languages.”

This child of scientists knew that language, literature and the arts – not exactly the preferred family career path – were what she loved and excelled in best. “My parents chose to pursue professions that would be more economically viable,” says Pillai. “They were always avid readers. But in India, even now to a great degree, applied sciences are prioritized over arts and humanities, which are not seen as means in which you can earn a secure income. I found that a bit disturbing as I was growing up in my early teens. I thought I should become a teacher, which seemed like a viable thing to do. My parents I think were supportive of it, but my extended family and friends were horrified. It was my parents’ sort of fantasy that they saw me fulfill, so it worked out.”

It worked out, indeed. Pillai completed her undergraduate studies by participating in an exchange program to England and earned her first master’s degree in literature in India, followed by a couple years spent traveling to Paris, London and Sokoto, Nigeria. “Nigeria I had been to when I was 7 because my parents volunteered for the United Nations,” says Pillai. “I remembered it as being one of the happiest times of my life.”

Pillai’s happy journey continued on to the United States, where she moved in 1999 and earned her second master’s degree at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. Pillai graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a Ph.D. in English in May 2010.

Pillai found that her first semester teaching at Coastal in Fall 2010 was quite enriching—and much warmer than the weather in the Windy City. So far, she says her good first impression of the school during the interview process has been validated. “I had a very positive experience in that it was a very collaborative atmosphere,” says Pillai. “In other interviews, there was a definite intimidation, but here, I was not intimidated. I felt very comfortable and challenged in an encouraging manner.” And Pillai says she was especially impressed by the relationship between the academic and student bodies. “That element of partnership is very important to a good teaching atmosphere. I think that’s prioritized at Coastal. And the students benefit from that.”

Pillai would like CCU to become an even greater school by advancing its travel and study abroad programs and emphasizing a global viewpoint. “I think students at Coastal should be ready and realize that when they leave the college atmosphere, they have to work in and be part of a global community,” she says. “I’d like to participate in developing that sensibility. I do that in my coursework. Shakespeare was taught in India as part of my literature program, so that in itself shows a sort of multicultural investment that literature has. Any student exposed to literature should have that kind of multicultural approach. In a stronger cultural sense, I’d like to be able to instill enthusiasm about a world that is not familiar to them. Coastal is doing very well for a very young school. I’d like to see a stronger, greater spectrum of multicultural programs.”

 Another dream Pillai has is to establish a Shakespeare Festival at the university, with combined student and faculty involvement, as well as possible guest speakers. “There is enough diversity in Shakespeare’s drama for us to perform a celebration as a conjunction between literature and theater,” she says.

When Pillai isn’t teaching or planning ahead, she’s working on finishing her current writing project on political futurity (in other words, thinking about what we want our political and social future to look like) in Shakespeare’s drama. “Political futurity involves thinking infrastructurally,” explains Pillai. “What can we imagine about political change? Shakespearean drama often engages characters who are trying to break down the political system in which they operate. In comedies, women are especially successful in doing that.”

In any free time Pillai may have left in her schedule, she loves to walk on the beach near her new home. She still loves to travel, albeit regionally, to cities like Charleston and Charlotte. One trip is made home to India each year. Pillai says she communicates with her family – especially her “text-savvy” mother and sister – every day.

“It’s difficult to have family far away, of course, in that there are very few places where one feels loved unconditionally – and home is one of them,” says Pillai. “Not having that readily available is painful, but there is much more to be gained from what I call a global citizenship or nomadic citizenship.  Being at home all the time would defeat the purpose of what I call liberal studies – exposing myself to new cultures and atmospheres. Living away from home and learning constantly from other cultures, I remain a student and that, in turn, makes me a better teacher.”

The dancer in her also tries to keep in touch with music and dance to Hindustani classical music as often as she can. “But I listen to just about everything – from rock to classical,” says Pillai. “It’s almost embarrassing to say I like Led Zeppelin and Bach, but it’s the truth!”


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