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VARNAMS by Smt.Rajashree Ramakrishna  
16th-Oct-2011 06:08 pm

Smt.Rajashree Ramakrishna presented a lecture-demonstration titled “An analysis of the structure of the varnam with special reference to the styles of varnam composers” at Shri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Chennai on 23rd Dec2008.



A varNam is a musical form which has in it all the elements of gItam, jatisvaram and svarajati. It prepares the students with adequate skills to be able to learn a kriti. The first half of a varNam which has profuse vowel extensions resembles a kriti while the second half beginning with ettugaDa pallavi and caraNam swarams resembles a svarajati or a jatisvaram.


The pallavi of a varNam usually consists of 2 Avartanams followed by an anupallavi of equal length. The third section is an optional upapallavi of the same length. The theme of the text could be devotional, shringArA or in the praise of a patron.

The varNams were a realization of the musical structure of a rAgam. For example, the bEgaDa varNam “inta cAlamu” starts at the madhya sthAyi, goes to the tAra sthAyi and comes back. When the upapallavi is over, the varnam is musically complete.


These are compositions played or sung at the commencement of a concert. The tempo is usually madhyama kAlam. The pallavi and anupallavi consist of very few sAhityam syllables with profuse vowel extensions. In the second half of the varNam, the ettugaDa pallavi consists of sAhityam syllables. The remaining portions comprise of solfa or swara passages.

Therefore tAna varNam is an instance of a composition which consists of two parts – one in which sAhityam is predominant and the other in which solfa is predominant. They both are mutually exclusive. Once the first section is over, we are done with it. It is like putting two different compositions together, one of which is sAhityam oriented and the other that has swarams as the main forte. The ettugaDa caraNam swarams increase in size and complexity starting from the 1st to the 4th or 5th caraNam swarams.

tAna varNams are mostly set in Adi and kanDa jAti aTa tALam. They are rarely set to other tALams. Almost all of them start with sama eDuppu if in Adi tALam and at the third beat if set to aTa tALam


pada varnams are also called cauka varNams. As the name implies, the tempo intended for these is caukam or slow to give scope for the depiction of bhAva. ciTTasvaram and ettugaDa swaram have sAhityA. The theme of a pada varNam is devotional, shringArA or in praise of a patron. It is usually set in Adi tAlam. Unlike tAna varNams that are sung in different speeds, pada varNams are usually sung only in slow speeds. Most pada varNams have eDuppu at samam while a few have different eDuppus. The entire varNam has the sAhityA.

tAna varNams were in existence earlier than the pada varNams. There was no term as pada varNam earlier. All varNams used to be called tAna varNams and used to have sAhityam .

tAna varnams were perhaps intended to be sung in madhyama kAlam and melodic variations (sangatIs) were not to be resorted to. Earlier all varNams had sAhitya. But may be the sAhityam presented considerable difficulty in emphasizing the tAna progression and the madhyama kAlam tempo of the dhAtu. Hence may be the idea of introducing sAhityam for tAna varnams was given up. Later composers like Patnam Subramanya Iyer, Pallavi Gopala Iyer, Veena Kuppaiyer, Tiruvotriyur Tyagayyar and others have composed tAna varnams without sAhityam for the muktAyi swarams and ettugaDa swara sAhityam portions.


Ragamalika is a concept as old as Matanga who refers to it as “rAga kadambakA”. Many have used this concept but Veerabhadraiah was supposed to be the first one to compose a rAgamAlikA varNam. He was the guru of Ramaswami Dikshitar. He was also the first to use the rAga mudrA. One of the most popular rAgamAlika varNams is ”valaci vacci”, the navarAgamAlikA varNam of Patnam Subramanya Iyer. Another example is ghana navarAgamAlika varNam by Kalahasti Venkatasami Raja that is composed in the rAgams nATTai, gauLai, varALi, Arabhi, shrI, nArAyaNagauLa, rItigauLa, bauLi and kEdAram.


The ganakrama of a varNam is different compared to that of a svarajati/ jatisvara. The pallavi, anupallavi and muktAyi swaram are performed continuously and the first Avartanam of the pallavi is sung as a conclusion to the first half of the varNam. The second half has an ettugaDa pallavi with many caraNams sung in sequential order. The caraNam begins with ettugaDa pallavi and after each caraNam swaram, the ettugaDa pallavi is repeated and is also sung as the concluding Avartanam.

In earlier days, a section called anubandham existed after caraNam in which the sAhityam of the muktAyi swaram would be sung followed by the pallavi. The anubandham used to link the end of the varNam back to the pallavi. Examples are anubandhams in viribONi (bhairavi), in the pantuvarALi varNam “sAmi nine” of Shatkala Narasaiah and in Shyama Sastri’s kalyANi varNam “nIvE gatiyani” in tisra maTya tALam


Composers of varnams include Govindasamayya, Shatkala Narasaiah, Adiyappaiah, Sonti Venkata Subbiah (?), Pallavi Gopala Iyer, Pallavi Doraiswamy Iyer, Ponnaiah, Chamarajendra and Veena Kuppaiyer. Govindasamayya and his brother Kuvasamayya was known to have composed the famous pancaratna varNams in the rAgams mOhanam, kEdAragauLa, nATTakurinji, navarOj and one another rAgam that is not known today. Apart from being composers, the brothers were also dancers. Govindasamayya is considered to be the first composer of varnams.

The period of the trinity saw many varNam composers. Ramaswami Dikshitar and his guru Veerabhadraiah were among the earliest composers. Pacchimiriyam Adiyappaiah is called the “Tana Varna Margadarshi”. He composed the immortal bhairavi varNam “viribONi”.

Gangai Muthu Nattuvanar, Subbaraya Nattuvanar and the Tanjore Quartette have composed many pada varNams.

Some of the modern day composers are Tiger Varadachar, Muthiah Bhagavathar, G.N. Balasubramaniam, T.M. Thyagarajan, Tanjavur Sankara Iyer, Calcutta Krishnamurthy and Lalgudi Jayaraman.


Most of Patnam Subramanya Iyer’s varNams adhered to a format that had 6 Avartanams each for both pUrvAngam and uttarAngam. Examples of this include his AbhOgi, nAgaswarAvaLi, kannaDA and cakravAham varNams. Exceptions are his tODi and navarAgamAlikA varNams. The nAgaswarAvaLi varNam is a good lesson on how/ where to employ nyAsa swarams, which note to emphasize etc.

He concentrated more on developing the rAgam. His varNams are thus more rAgam oriented. He followed Patnam Subramanya Iyer’s format in many of his varNams. He was known to be a very good performer and may be this is the reason for his experimentation with different formats for his varNams. He has brought out the essence of rAgams beautifully in his varNams

They both gave 4 Avartanams for the muktAyi swaram while most other composers usually gave only 2 Avartanams.

His varNams typically have either 4 or 5 swarams in the caraNam. In his suruTTi varNam (example of a varNam having 5 swarams), the first caraNam swaram has only dhIrga syllables, the second and third ones have both dhIrga and hrisva, the fourth one has only hrisva syllables and the fifth one is long and of four Avartanam duration. In his varNams with four caraNam swarams, the first one will have only dhIrga syllables, the second will have dhIrga and hrisva, the third will have only hrisva and the fourth one will be a long one of 4 Avartanam duration. His suruTTi varNam is set to a speed well suited to the rAgam

Many of the composers before Tiruvotriyur Tyagayyar composed varNams in pentatonic scales. He was the first one to compose a lot of varNams in rakti ragams like sahAnA, darbAr, kEdAragauLa and madhyamAvati


Of all the raga forms that emerged, the varNam is very significant. varNam denotes the four melodic movements:
• sthAyi varNam
• ArOhi varNam
• avarOhi varNam
• sancAri

Therefore a varNam consists of all the possibilities of melodic movements. It has now become customary to sing the varNam at the beginning of a concert.

• Ganamrutha Varna Malika by A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer
• A book with 100 varnams published by N.C. Parthasarathy in 1973
• Varnasagaram by T.K. Govinda Rao (Ganamandir Publications)
• Tana Varna Tarangini by B.M. Sundaram (Rajalakshmi Trust)

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