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Varṇaṃ is a form of song in the Carnatic music repertoire consisting of short metric pieces which encapsulate the main features and requirements of a raga. The features and rules of the raga (also known as the sanchaaraas of a raga) include how each note of the raga should be stressed, the scale of the raga, and so on.
Known for their complex structure, varnams are a fundamental form in Carnatic music. All varnams consist of lyrics, as well as swara passages, including a pallavi, an anupallavi, muktayi swaras, a charanam, and chittaswaras. There are two types of varnams, known as Taana varnam and Padha varnam.
Considered as probably the most complex form in Carnatic music, varnams play a significant role in Carnatic music. A varnam is traditionally performed as an opening item by musicians in Carnatic music concerts to act as warm-up for the musicians, or as a centre main piece in Bharatanatyam dance concerts. As a foundation to Carnatic music, varnams are also practiced 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, and assist a performer in ensuring the swaras of the raga are sung or played effectively. Teachers of Carnatic music maintain that varnams must be practised in double and triple speeds by performers in order to develop the skills of manodharma (improvisation), particularly neraval and kalpanaswaras.
Type of varnams
With rhythmic elements like a padam, pada varnams are generally sung to accompany South Indian classical dance, including bharatanatyam. Unlike the tana varnam which only has lyrics for the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam and swarams for the rest of the sections a pada varnam also have lyrics that correspond to the muktayi and chitta swaras of the varnam, so generally, pada varnams contain more lyrical content than a tana varnam. The swaras in this type of varnam are suitable for intricate footwork. Padajathi varnams are simply pada varnams that also contain jatis in it, making it again more suitable for South Indian classical dance.
Contents of a varnam
Lyrical content of varnams are commonly either devotional or amarous.
The varnam is subdivided into several sections:
- Pallavi: The first section of the Varnam, sung with lyrics or sahithyam.
- Anupallavi: A sort of recapitulation, sung with lyrics or sahithyam also.
- Muktaayi Swaram: Sung completely with syllables—or swaras -- (like sa ri ga ma pa dha ni saa). In Pada Varnas it is known as Muktaayi Swaram-Sahithyam.
- Charanam: Sung with lyrics
- Chittai Swarams: Sung completely with syllables. In a Pada varnam, there are lyrics which correspond to the Charanam swaras. The swaras occur in several groups or stanzas.
Generally, a varnam is sung as follows:
- Muktayi Swaram
- Pallavi (in double speed)
Repeat, then Pallavi sung in triple speed, or in original speed.
- Charanam Swara Group 1
- Charanam Swara Group 2
- Charanam Swara Group 3
- Charanam Swara Group 4
There are generally 3–5 swara groups in every varnam. In a concert, the entire charanam section is sung at approximately 1.5 speed. Sometimes when repeating the Pallavi the Annupallavi and Muktayi Swarams are repeated in double or triple speed.
Varnams are generally sung in two varieties of talas, or metric systems, Adi Tala (8 beat cycle) and Ata Tala (14 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 2 kalai version. So therefore each beat and finger count is placed twice.
Adi Tala Varnams include:
- "Sami Ninne" in Shree ragam composed by Karur Devudu Iyer in Telugu
- "Ninnukori" in Mohanam ragam by Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar in Telugu
- "Evvari Bodhana" in Abhogi ragam by Patnam Subramania Iyer
- "Era Naapi" in Todi ragam by Patnam Subramania Iyer
- "Valachi Vacchi" in Navaragamalika in Telugu (9 ragas, similar to Ragamalika which literally translates to a garland of ragams
Ata Tala Varnams include:
- "Viriboni" in Bhairavi ragam by Pacchimiriam Adiyappa
- "Nera Nammiti" in Kaanada ragam by Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar
- "Chalamela" in Sankarabharanam by Swati Tirunal
The Arabhi ragam varnam is supposed to be the only longest piece with jantai and tattu prayogas.
The "MATHE MALAYADHWAJA" is a Unique Varnam because the Chitte swara has two different types of sahitya arranged according to it. The first is a rhythmic poetry describing the king and has the Raja mudra and the second is a liting Solkattu swara which is very nicely embodied in expression by bharatanatyam dancers
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- Parthasarathy, T. S. (1997). "More Light on Swati Tirunal". The Journal of the Music Academy, Madras (Music Academy). LXVIII: 114.
- Tenzer, Michael (2006). Analytical Studies in World Music. New York: Oxford University Press.
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