Helavas (heLavaru) (ಹೆಳವರು) constitute a unique community of singers, who have access to the family histories of almost all the families in a given village, in encapsulated form. They belong to backward tribes. They inherit this huge body of information from generation to generation and are capable of rendering them on various occasions. This rendering acquires the dimensions of a folk performance because of its orality and musicality. The helavas of Karnataka (who are called ‘picchakondlu’ in Andhrapradesh) perform tasks such as maintaining genealogies, singing songs about the lives of caste heroes and performing certain other rituals. The entire caste is stigmatized because of this.
Helavas were present in almost all parts of Karnataka and many parts of Andhrapradesh. Even though one of the literal meanings of the word ‘helava’ is a ‘cripple’ this profession has nothing to do with that physical deforrmity. The Kannada word ‘hELu’ (to tell, narrate) may have some thing to do with ‘heLava’. Alternatively some scholars have linked it with ‘erava’ a community in Tamilnadu. Helavas themselves link their nomenclature with physical infirmity. Legends connected with the origin of the community harp on that theme. In some regions the narrators cover their right leg with a piece of white cloth as a symbol of crippled state. However, ‘heLava’s practice many other professions other than this task of narrating family genealogies.
There are many subsects among helavas with their own
alternative professions and idiosyncrasies. ‘ettina
heLava’, ‘gUbe heLava’, ‘
There is nothing religious about these performances. None of them cater to the dalit communities. ‘Sadhu helava’s narrate the genealogies of sAda lingAyats exclusively. They do not have unique costumes. Interestingly they narrate the stories also about the womenfolk of the families that they visit. The encapsulated knowledge possessed by these artistes runs to several generations. Occasionally even land disputes are resolved based on the evidence given by these singers.
In addition to narrating the genealogies, heLavas sing some folk epics also. ‘Nanjayyana kathe’, ‘mAgaDI kempEgowda lAvaNi’, ‘karibanTana kathe’, ‘heLavE gowDa’ and ‘doDDa beLLi-cikka beLLi’ are some of the popular stories. It is to be noted that they contain, mythological, historical and social themes. These performances are given by a group of two are three. A big bell is the preferred musical instrument of Helavas. The metal bell is passed on to the artistes hereditarily. A piece of cloth is always tied to the handle of the bell. The artiste holds the cloth firmly in one hand and with the other he plays the bell rhythmically. This is used both while narrating the genealogies and during the rendering of the epics.
Helava tradition is a fast vanishing art and the artists are finding alternative jobs.