Modern Karnatak music was born on the banks of the Kaveri at the time of the Trinity (18th-19th century). It consists of kalpita sangita (composed music) and manodharma sangita (extempore music). Kalpita sangita is made up of geetham, for beginners, varnam, which is the foundation of the musical edifice, and kriti, a three-part composition. The Varnam is generally song at the beginning of the concert and is regarded as a warming-up exercise. But it has great intellectual and aesthetic beauty and there are very few musicians (Veena Dhanammal one of them) who have given it importance that it deserves. There are two types of Varnams – tanavarnam for music and padavarnam for dance. The former has very little sahityam and more of swara passages; while the latter has more sahitya for abhinaya (interpretation). Most of popular varnams are composed by the musicians of the Tanjavur court in the 19th century.
Manodharma sangeeta or extempore improvisation forms the acid test of a musician calibre. It is the creative component, giving full freedom of expression to the artiste without departing from the basic grammar of music. Every musician in the Indian system is a music-maker if not a vaggeyakara and can evolve a highly individual style depending upon the quality and timbre of the voice and the intellectual capacity. The innate compulsion to improvise is fundamental to Indian classical music and Tyagaraja understood this very well when he gathered various musical ideal together and wove them into a complete musical expression in his kriti while when at the same time allowing enough room for improvisation. By creating music with scope for manodharma the Trinity were able to satisfy the emotional as well as the intellectual aspirations of the musician.
Manodharma sangeeta comprises raga alapana or raga elaboration, niraval or variations on a theme of the text, and kalpana swaras (also known as swaraprastara) or mathematical solfa patterns. It is possible to incorporate these three branches of improvisation in the course of presenting a kriti.
Alapana or the delineation of the contours of the raga is not bound by tala constrains. The musician is free to wonder over the musical landscape as long as the raga from is adhered to. The syllables used are ta-da-ri-na-ta-da-na. Karnatak music uses groups of phrases rather then a note-by-note elaboration to reveal raga swaroopa. These phrases of the musical language have evolved over time and keep evolving under the influence of geniuses. They are used by all musicians and it is in fact said that the audience should not be kept in suspense about the identity of a raga but should be able to recognize it from the very first phrase. The test of a musician lies in the manner in which they are linked up, with touches of individuality. When these phrases are sung in a very fast tempo towards the end of an alapana, they are called brigas.
There are no hard and fast rules regarding the tempo, the choice of the octave for the starting point or the length of the alapana. Good musicians can bring out the essence of a raga in five minutes while others may beat about the bush and never succeed in bringing out its true flavor. "The ramifications of the raga and tala in our systems are unique. There are hundreds of raga and tala varieties, but each one of them can acquire an individuality depending upon the genius and sadhana of individual vidvans" (Balasubramaniam). By and large very long alapanas are not popular except in the case of the main kriti of the session where it is expected to be elaborate.
The kriti itself provides infinite scope for improvisation in the form of niraval. While the actual rendering of a kriti may not be changed (trough interpretations may vary) the musician is allowed to select a phrase that is striking and take off into flights of fancy. The main composition remains suspended and the selected phrase from any part of it is savored and presented in varying forms. Niravals, when expertly handled, can give a fresh sparkle to the lyric. They are not, however, obligatory and are sung only for the major kritis.
At the end of niraval it is customary to sing kalpana swara which have to land on the beat. They may also be sung without a niraval necessarily preceding them. Kalpana swaras can be made as complex as the singer wants and often sound like a lot of mathematical jugglery (known as "kanakku swaras"). Such "fireworks", to quote Veena Dhanam, are not aesthetically pleasing. Only musicians of a high calibre can make kalpana swaras sound attractive as well as clever.
The point of take-off into niraval and kalpana swaras, the choice of the kritis for such elaborations and even the duration of manodharma sangita as a whole are all elastic and left entirely to the musician. A lazy musician may even avoid the effort of improvisation for a greater part of the concert and get away with a string of kritis learnt by rote.
The piece de resistance of a Karnatak concert is the Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi (RTP). This is a very lengthy item of pure manodharma. It starts with an elaborate alapana which is often split into two parts. The first part consists of an impressionistic sketch of the raga painted with broad brush strokes. This is followed by a detailed treatment with all the subtleties, Nuances, brigas and virtuosity that the artist can command.
The alapana is follosed by the tanam. Tanam is free of tala restrictions but it has a particular gate and cadence and is sung by uttering the syllables "tanamta-anamta-nomtomtanamta." According to Rangaramanuja Ayyangar:
"Tana is a very old word that originally meant a musical phrase. But somewhere in the last century it acquired a new connotation. The veena took it over and adapted it to suit its own genius. It was so attractive that ere long the vocalist picked it up. Appropriately, he labeled it Tanam and used the word as its sole text. When repeated over and over it changed into Ananta, infinity, signifying the interminable vista of scintillating sound images that flowed from it."
Pallavi, the third part if this virtuoso exercise, is an extended niraval. The word Pallavi in this context, as distinct from that forms the first part of a kriti, is made up of the combination of the first two letters of pada (words), laya (rhythm) and vinyasa (variation). The musician selects a text of one self-contained line and sets it to a complex tala. The starting point, the point of rest and the distribution of the words of the text are very important. This is elaborated like a niraval exposition but in a far more complicated manner with differing speeds and talas. Sometimes the musician ands the Pallavi by singing the same text in a chain of ragas called a ragamalika.
Pallavi singing is the most demanding part of manodharma sangita and may be termed as pure music, without the intervention of a composer. The text of the Pallavi may be composed by the musician or may be a popular one; but it is of secondary importance as it is only a peg to hand a wealth of musical ideas which have to be of the highest order. Not everyone can sing RTP and, as mentioned earlier, this was a field of specialization for musicians of the 19th century, who had the honorific title "Pallavi" prefixed to their names. It was also considered a male monopoly and women did not dare to enter their exclusive domain.
The great Pallavi experts of the 20th century like Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Kancipuram Naina Pillai, Patnam Subramania Iyer and Mudicondan Venratarama Iyer carried this tradition up to the 1930s. With the systematization of kutcheri paddhati or concert format by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar in the 1930s, musicians gradually began to delete this heavy item from their repertoires till it began to cause genuine concern among musicologists. In 1970s special efforts were made to revive it.
The Madras Quartet by Indira Menon, Roli Books, New Delhi, 1999