Helavaru means narrator in Kannada, the predominant language in the Karnataka region. The word refers to the Helavas, a nomadic tribe of archivists, who carry the stories and histories of nearly all the extended families in the region and are the only community in India that has made archiving a source of livelihood. As they travel, they collect new information from each household they visit and in return offer oral histories that often incorporate humor about the family. These stories are based on extensive written records, drawings, and photographs. The Helavas archives date back centuries, the oldest being etched in palm leaves and copper plates.

In this course, students investigate experiences of migration through oral histories, visual art, and craft production in South India. Open to all majors, the course will be of particular benefit to students interested in developing diverse approaches to research, narrative structures, and the connections between storytelling, craft, and other forms of visual and performative production. Any student, however, may enrich their practice by experiencing ways to engage with alternative archival strategies and diverse modes of expression related to underrepresented or repressed histories.

Helavaru: Storytelling, Migration, and Craft in South India

Instructors: Meghana Bisineer and Karen Fiss
June 4-22, 2018

Check-in: Monday, June 4
Checkout: Friday, June 22

Information Session:
Thursday, March 15, 11:15-11:45 a.m., SF campus, West 2

Interested students should contact Meghana Bisineer ( and Karen Fiss ( to start the approval process for registration.

Our studio work and readings engage with alternative histories produced under conditions of migration and nomadism, as well as the diverse range of creative forms that communities have employed to record and reflect upon identity through transition and displacement. Among the issues we examine are caste and religion, gender bias, rural/urban tensions, the legacy of colonialism, craft as cultural form vs. devalued labor, and the role of performance.  

The Helavas are one of a number of local nomadic communities we dialogue with in the rural areas around Bangalore. The Pattachitra sing stories based on scrolls that are unrolled as they perform. We also learn from oral histories offered by shepherds, textile artists/social weavers, migrant laborers, wood crafters, and a group of drummers/performers. Though based in traditional storytelling, these communities have all begun to adapt to more contemporary social and political themes.
As a base, the class uses the newly constructed, ecological Craft Makers Center, an initiative of the non-profit organization Janastu, in the Durga village. Students live a short distance from the Center at a government-run guest house, Yatri Nivas, that also provides meals. The class takes several overnight trips to visit temple complexes, historical and nature sites, and other artistic centers, including Mysore, the Chamundi hills, Chennapatna, and the coastal town of Goa.

Janastu is one of the organizations reintroducing the potential of craft for community development. The traditional craft ecologies of rural India have suffered as a result of male workers moving to the cities for employment in large mechanized industries. This urban migration has left a large number of rural women and youth without the means to generate income and has destabilized the complex social and cultural matrices that depended on regional creativity. In addition to drawing upon local material research and local ingenuity, Janastu places “makerspace” and smartphone-based tools into the hands of local groups. Each group is supported by a regional cluster hub that provides tools and collaborations with urban partners, design colleges and other supporting institutions.

We meet with the Mitan project, which works with the shepherds to develop new ways of adapting their traditional woolen textiles for a larger marketplace. As part of our process, we may also engage with other researchers in addressing issues of migration and visual production, as well as researchers focusing on issues of ethics and subjectivity and the impact and use of new media and technology on storytelling.

About the Instructors

Meghana Bisineer is a Kannadiga, having been born and raised in Bangalore where her family still lives. She received her BA in Animation from the National Institute of Design, Gujarat, India, and her MA in Animation at Royal College of Art, London. She works with film commissions and collaborations, in addition to her own creative and alternative freelance animation projects. Her films have been screened internationally in festivals and venues, including Montreal, Melbourne, Hiroshima, Belfast, Bangalore, and London. She is currently collaborating with photographer and video artist Robin Lasser on an ongoing site-specific projection mapping and documentary project Migratory Cultures, and with director and composer Matt Ward on an immersive opera project at the Historic Whaling Station in Albany, Australia. 

Learn more about Meghana Bisineer »

Karen Fiss is a professor, writer and curator whose scholarship encompasses a range of interdisciplinary fields in art, design, architecture and film.  Her current research  examines contemporary artistic strategies for representing personal and collective memory in the wake of trauma and political upheaval. By engaging with the archive on their own terms, artists can give voice to alternative narratives and call attention to the mechanisms by which these stories are deliberately forgotten or repressed. Some of her past projects include Blue Flowers in a Catastrophic Landscape (Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid) and Necessary Force: Art under the Police State (University of New Mexico). Fiss holds a PhD from Yale University and a BA from Brown University. Prior to academic teaching, she worked in the curatorial departments of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and the New Museum in New York City.

Learn more about Karen Fiss »


Undergraduate students: Successful completion of at least sophomore level by summer 2018 and instructor approval.
For 200-level Visual Studies Elective credit: Intro to the Modern Arts (VISST-108)
For Diversity Studies Seminar credit: Writing 1 (WRLIT-100, 101 or 103), Intro to the Modern Arts (VISST-108), Foundations in Critical Studies (CRTSD-150)
For Diversity Studies Studio credit: Drawing 1, 2D, 3D, 4D, Writing 1, Foundations in Critical Studies, Intro to the Arts and Intro to the Modern Arts. Junior standing
For Upper-Division Interdisciplinary Studio credit: Drawing 1, 2D, 3D, 4D, Writing 1, Foundations in Critical Studies, Intro to the Arts and Intro to the Modern Arts. Junior Standing
Graduate students: Instructor approval

In addition, all students must be in good academic, conduct, and financial standing for the 2017–18 academic year. Students who are on probation in fall 2017 are not eligible to enroll in a 2018 summer study-abroad program.

Course Satisfies

For undergraduate students, this course satisfies a Diversity Studies Seminar or Studio, an Upper-Division Interdisciplinary Studio, a 200-level Visual Studies Elective, or a Studio Elective.
For graduate students, this course satisfies a Grad-wide Elective.


Please note that a number of vaccinations (or boosters) are required and recommended for travel to India. Students should arrange to be fully vaccinated well in advance of departure from the U.S. Please consult with your doctor immediately after registering for the course to ensure that your vaccinations are complete before departure.

Program Fee

$4,750 + $50 summer registration fee
Included in program fee:
3 credits, housing, most meals, local transportation, guest artists, field trips, entrance fees, and travel/health insurance
Not included in program fee:
Airfare to and from India, some meals, travel immunizations

Related topics
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