‘Neelagara’s (nIlagAraru) (ನೀಲಗಾರರು) belong to the category of professional religious singers. Most of them belong to the dalit community and they vow their loyalty to manTEsvAmi, the folk deity/hero who is revered in South Karnataka by a number of communities. Occasionally persons belonging communities such as kuruba, uppailiga, kumbAra, maDivALa and parivAra also take up this calling on their own volition. Neelagaras hail from and practice their art in the districts of Chamarajanaagra, Mandya, Mysore and Bangalore (Rural) districts. ‘ManTEsvAmi’ is their clan deity and the protagonist of the folk epic ‘manTEsvaMi kAvya’ recited by the Neelagars. Actually the word ‘Neelagara’ is derived from ‘leele’ (miraculous deeds) because they sing the glories and deeds of Manteswami. They consider Rachappaji and Siddappaji the disciples and successors of manTEsvAmi as their masters. That is why they are called ‘manTEdEvaru’ or ‘mantEdayya’. They have their shrines and centres in four places called ‘bappagowdanapura’, ‘cikkellUru’, ‘kappaDi’ and ‘maLavaLLi’. There is an annual congregation of Neelagars during the fair of manTEsvAmi. Neelagaras are admitted in to the order after a religious ceremony of initiation called ‘deekshe’. The initiation takes place at the tender age of seven. The initiate begins to live with a few senior Neelagars and undergoes an apprenticeship for a few years. Basically he learns to sing and recite the texts that constitute an uninterrupted oral tradition. Some Neelagars do not master the art of singing and they are given a single Rudrakshi to wear around their necks. These singers move around from village to village during a particular season and collect alms. They give their performances during community activities or family celebrations
Neelagars have a traditional costume of their own. It consists of a black over coat (Jubba), red head gear; (rumAlu) and white dhoti tied crosswise (Kacce pance) constitute their dress. A shoulder bag (JoLige) to collect alms and a stick completes their make up. Tanpura (tambUri) is their main instrument. They use other instruments such as gaggara, Dakke and tALa also. Usually they move around in a group of three or more. They consider tambUri as a gift given to their master Siddappaji by muttatirAya. (A God) It is about five feet in length and is made of Jackfruit tree wood. Its top part is shaped as a lion’s face or the head of a cobra. Their songs are very melodious. The instrumental score matches it. They do not dance during their performance. The variations of tunes and fluctuations of voice are charming.
Manteswamy epic is the staple item in their repertoire. However the songs are categorized as religious and materialistic. Manteswami is a religious epic. piriyApaTTANada kALaga, arjuna jOgi hADu, bAla nAgamma, biLigiri ranga, banje honnamma etc belong to the later category.
Neelagars and many such communities are responsible for the preservation and propagation of our folk traditions and oral epics.