Varnam is the most complicated item of Bharatanatyam Margam comprising either Nritta or Nritya aspects. Main mood of Varnam may be either Sringara or Bhakti (devotion expressed through love to God, called Bhakti-Sringara).
In Varnam Nayaki (the heroine) addresses her Lord directly or indirectly (by appealing to her close friend, Sakhi, asking help and convey her message). She requests help, laments, reproaches or expresses her love and devotion. In Varnam the God is considered as Nayaka (the hero), i.e. abstract idea of God finds its manifestation in God-like human creature.
There are two types of Varnams:
1) Pada Varnams are used for dance choreography, and are also called Chowka Varnams. They are set in slower tempo (chowka kalam). All the swaras are accompanied by sahityam (lyrics) and thus are more suitable for dance.
2) Tana Varnams are intended for musical performance and practice. Tana Varnams are set in faster tempo. Chitta Swaras of the second part of Tana Varnams do not have sahityam.
Varnam comprises of two parts:
1) First part is called Purvaranga and includes Pallavi, Anupallavi, Muktai Swara and Muktai Swara Sahityam.
2) The second part is called Uttaranga and comprises Charanam and Charana swaras (also called as Chitta Swaras, short notes).
Varnam commences with Trikala Jathi. Sollukattus (garlands of syllables) and corresponding series of adavus are executed in three speeds (kala-s): vilambha, madhyama and druta. The last portion of Trikala Jathi is called Kuraippu. Adavus of Kuraippu are performed without repetition. Muktaippu is finishing sequence of Kuraippu, final chain if adavus called makuta or teermana adavus executed in triple cycle.
Trikala Jathi (and all other jathi) are followed by Aradi (rhythmical patters used as conclusion of Nritta portions accompanied by footwork.)
Besides Trikala Jathi, Purvaranga portion of Varnam includes Kuraippu (performed separately) and several different jathi-s, intermingled with singing of Pallavi and Anupallavi.
In Varnam two types of Abhinaya are employed:
1) Pada artha abhinaya is illustration of direct meaning of sahityam, i.e. “word-by-word” meaning (literary, pada artha means ‘step be step’).
2) Vichika artha abhinaya is more elaborated illustration of sahityam (vachika artha lit. means ‘going with speech’). Its purpose is to give wider context to direct meaning of particular line, i.e. to explain indirect aspects using related mythological stories, associations, etc. Such free interpretation is called Sanchari (lit, roaming round).
After each line of Pallavi and Anupallavi, jathi-s are executed, each followed by Aradi. Muktai Swaras are sung after Anupallavi (and corresponding last Jathi). For Muktai Swara dancer executes Korvai (set of adavus). Usually, Muktai Swara is repeated twice. Muktai Swara Sahityam is again illustrated using Abhinaya. It is also repeated twice. The second repetition is accompanied by tattu-mettu adavu (footwork, set to different rhythmic patters). Here abhinaya may be also accompanied by Sarpa nadai, special way of moving on the stage along snake-like curve.
Uttaranga part of Varnam is rendered in faster speed. It starts with Charana sahityam illustrated using Abhinaya. Charanam is repeated several times.
Each Chitta swara is repeated twice. The dancer performs short and brick Korvai-s. Chitta swara sahityam follows, also repeated twice. First time Chitta swara is illustrated with pure abhinaya. The second rendering of sahityam is accompanied by tattu-mettu adavu or Sarpa nadai.
Varnam is concluded with Charanam. Charanam is the heart of Varnam, the most emotionally charged line of sahityam. It expresses the main idea, the message the heroine seeks to convey to her beloved. Often it is formulated as a question (How can I bear the shower of Manmada arrows?), sometimes as imperative sentence (Please, come back my beloved!) which contains more or less evident hint or suggestion, hidden intention and innermost wish.
Varnam starts by Pallavi. Varnam is composed as a conversation, thus it stars from afar. Pallavi may comprise a question in rhetoric form (Why are you angry?) or direct addressing which emphasizes some quality or condition of the hero.
Anupallavi contains further description of nature, virtues, qualities and deeds of the hero.
Muktai swara sahityam contains some myth or story taken from life of the hero which is very illustrative of his character and helps to understand nature of relationship between the hero and the heroine.
Charanam is emotionally charged plea of the heroine. Here she reaches the point of her conversation, revels her inner attachment and wishes.
In sahityam of Chitta swaras the heroine develops her intentions. Using myths or stories as examples she describes her attitude and relation to the hero. Here she freely expresses her emotions relating the hero, his qualities and deeds. She opens her heart to full extent. Faster tempo of the second part, brick Nritta and emotionally charged, very different swaras give bright picture of heroine’s inner feelings.
The interesting feature is that after each Chitta swara sahityam Charana swara sahityam is repeated. This has special meaning. Sometimes Charanam is called ‘ettakadai pallavi’. They say that each Chitta swara sahityam may be properly understood only if followed by Charanam.