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Varṇam is a type of composition in the Carnatic music system that encapsulates the key features of a raga, and considered as a foundational element in the learning path. Varnams capture the essense of the ragam in terms of typical swara patterns used, vishesha prayogas, highlighting the main notes (jeeva swaras), etc. This forms the basis for creative presentation (manodharma) of the raga in the form of raga aalapana, kalpana swarams and neraval.


Varnams are a fundamental form in Carnatic music. [1] All varnams consist of lyrics, [1] as well as swara passages,[ definition needed ] including a pallavi , an anupallavi , muktaayi swaras, a charanam , and chitta swaras . There are different types of varnams, such as taana varnam, pada varnam, daru varnam and ragamalika varnam. They also come in different taalams (beat cycles). Though the most popular varnams are in Aadi and Ata taalas, there are a number of varnams in other talas as well (e.g., jampa tala, triputa tala, matya talam, roopaka talam, etc).

A varnam is traditionally performed as an opening item by musicians in Carnatic music concerts or as a centre main piece in Bharatanatyam dance concerts. As a foundation to Carnatic music, [2] varnams are also practised as vocal exercises by performers of Carnatic music, to help develop voice culture, and maintain proper pitch and control of rhythm. The melodic patterns in a varnam are considered to be characteristic patterns of a particular raga.

Pallavi|tanam]]-like rhythmic qualities, tana varnams only have lyrics for the pallavi , anupallavi and charanam . [3]

With rhythmic elements like a padam, pada varnams are generally sung to accompany South Indian classical dance, including bharatanatyam . [4] Unlike the tana varnam which only has lyrics for the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam and swaras for the rest of the sections, a pada varnam also has lyrics that correspond to the muktaayi and chitta swaras of the varnam, so generally, pada varnams contain more lyrical content than a tana varnam. [4] The swaras in this type of varnam are suitable for intricate footwork. [4] Padajathi varnams are simply pada varnams that also contain jatis, making them again more suitable for South Indian classical dance. [4]

Contents of a varnam

The name varnam (meaning 'letter') was likely given to this form of song due to the prevalence of swara letters in this type of composition. [5]

Lyrical content of varnams are commonly either devotional or amorous. [5]

The varnam consists of two parts: poorvadham (first half) - consisting of pallavi, anupallavi and muktaayi swaram and uttarardham (second half) - consisting of charanam and charana swarams. Some of the older compositions have a part called "Anubandham" following this.

Varnams are traditionally rendered in a format that consists of pallavi, anupallavi and chitta swaram (mukthayi swaram) being sung first in a relatively slow pace and repeated immediately after in double the speed. The rest of the composition (charanam onwards) is sung in a madhyama kala or approximately 1.5 times the speed used at the start. Each swara passage is sung, followed by the lyrics of the charanam. Some performers do not follow this, though, preferring to sing the entire composition in madhyama kala or relatively fast pace.

Varnams are generally sung in two varieties of talas, or meter systems, adi tala (eight-beat cycle) and ata tala (fourteen-beat cycle), where ata tala varnams are generally more complicated and advanced. In most of the adi tala varnams, the tala is placed in the two-kalai version, so therefore, each beat and finger count is placed twice.

Famous varnams

Adi Tala varnams include:

Ata Tala varnams include:

The Arabhi ragam varnam is supposed to be the only longest piece with jantai and dhatu prayogas.

The "Mathe Malayadhwaja" by Harikesanalloor Mutthiah Bhasgavatar is a unique varnam because the chitta swara has two different types of saahitya arranged according to it. The first is a rhythmic poetry describing the king and has the Raaja mudra and the second is a lilting Solkattu swara which is embodied in expression by bharatanatyam dancers.

See also

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  1. 1 2 Bradnock (1992), p631
  2. Panchapakesa Iyer (1989), p57
  3. Royal Carpet: Glossary of Carnatic Terms T
  4. 1 2 3 4 Royal Carpet: Glossary of Carnatic Terms P
  5. 1 2 Parthasarathy, T. S. (1997). "More Light on Swati Tirunal". The Journal of the Music Academy, Madras. Music Academy. LXVIII: 114.