Natalie Savelyeva

"Varnam is like a river, we cannot enter the same river twice."

(Rukmini Devi Arundale)


I feel very grateful to my parents who gave me life and chance to live it. I express my silent gratitude to all my teachers who gave me education and chance to come in touch with reality of human knowledge, science and art. I express my sincere gratitude to Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, Kalakshetra Foundation, for providing a unique locus of existence, space and time to experience and study the Art.


Varnam, as the central item of Bharatanatyam Margam encompasses all essential features of the Margam. Varnam can be defined as “a drama of heroine’s feelings” enacted in form of monologue, addressed to the hero directly or indirectly.

“…Varnam contains in full measure all the important features of the dance.” (Rukmini Devi Arundale, Ref. No.50)

Mani-fold nature of dance

Dance is expression of life and philosophy of life. Indian dance has always been closely connected with religion and philosophical systems of ancient times. By referring the Natya Sastra as the “fifth Veda” Bharata Muni suggests that dramatic presentation (including dance) is the universal language able to convey eternal truths of Vedas. Drama incorporates and projects out certain philosophical ideas in the format understandable for everybody. For instance, the concept of “Bhakti” is explained in drama using the symbolism of romantic love. Passionate human love is transformed into unalloyed love, and abstracted into transcendent love for Supreme (which is the essence of Bhakti, as Rukmini Devi Arundale defines it.)

The structure of Bharatanatyam Margam suggests the same idea: realization, purification and release from physical and illusionary world for spiritual and universal reality. Since the early times, dance was part of Hindu rites, and was performed as the offering to Gods.

“The Bharata Natyam recital is structured like a Great Temple: we enter through the gopuram (outer hall) of alarippu, cross the ardhamandapam (half-way hall) of Jathiswaram, then the mandapa (great hall) of shabdam, and enter the holy precinct of the deity in the varnam. This is the place, the space, which gives the dancer expansive scope to revel in the rhythm, moods and music of the dance. The varnam is the continuum which gives ever-expanding room to the dancer to delight in her self-fulfillment, by providing the fullest scope to her own creativity as well as to the tradition of the art.” (Balasaraswati, Ref. No.52)

Rhythm, produced by percussion instruments, including Nattuvangam and Salangai of the dancer, organizes and keeps together all components of dance and music. Music has no shape; it is invisible, as the time itself. Nature of music is motion and change. Stage provides space for shapes, and time makes the shapes to move. Rhythm organizes the movement and communicates pulse of time. Music fills the movement with life and feeling.

“Although Tala provides a strong and steady backbone, for collaboration, it is undoubtedly the raga-bhava (melody/emotion) combination that evokes rasa or aesthetic satisfaction, both in the spectator and dancer.” (Avanti Medhuri, Ref. No.58)

Poetry makes the movement conscious and meaningful. Sahityam (lyrics) conveys meaning of the composition, which can be divided into direct meaning of words and sentences and indirect or implied message, which could be enveloped into the lyrics using different means such as metaphor, symbols, and imagery evoking associations. Sahityam uses the media of language and appeals to intellect and reason. Understanding of the meaning depends on memory and previous experience of the person.

Visual presentation of dance incorporates non-verbal language of body in form of gestures, facial expressions and the physiologically determined conditions called “Sattvika Bhavas”, i.e. indicators of emotional states on somatic level. Nonverbal communication in forms of dance has no “language” barriers. Language of dance is universal, and needs no translation.

Dance creates special locus on the stage by organizing space-time continuum and filling it with meaning on many levels of perception. This locus communicates itself out, evokes imagination of a spectator and makes the latter the participant of the drama enacted in dance. Rasa (emotional flavor or the essence) can be called the experience, as the person watching performance is very far from being passive observer. Drama performed on the stage is reflected and re-enacted in imagination of the spectator. As result of such re-enactment, the Rasa is born.

Importance of Musical Aspect

“Bharatanatyam is an art that has grown out of music and it is as if the nuances of the music had taken a visual form." (V. Raghavan, Ref.No.43)

Bharata Natyam is symbolic and suggestive, if we consider communication of meanings and ideas wrapped in the canvas of dance. In this context, the music is the powerful vehicle, which evokes imagination of the spectator. Music transcends the barriers of language, as it appeals to feelings directly. Music, language and visual presentation in form of dance require holistic perception and evoke creative thinking.

“According to Bharata and to the later authors, dance was to be taken as a component of music. The word Sangita, denoting “complete music,” was three-fold in character; comprising vocal music and instrumental music and the dance.” (Rukmini Devi Arundale, Ref.No.50)

Dance cannot be imagined without music. Mathew Harp expressed this idea as follows:

“The music of Bharata Natyam is more then an accompaniment to the dance, this is principal source of dance. The artistic progression which unfolds within this repertoire is designed to exploit the dynamic relationship between music and dance, and ultimately to expose their essential union. The fullest expression of Bharata Natyam may be possible only when a dancer speaks and understands in a practical way the musical dimensions of art.” (Matthew Harp Allen, Ref.No.25)

Since the ancient times, music was considered as essential element of the drama.

Natya Locana (, the work on Sanskrit drama composed about 10th-11th century AD) contains the following slokas as definitions of the drama: 

What is drama? - “What is drama?”

A representation of flavors of passions and feelings accompanied by vocal and instrumental music.- “A representation of flavors of passions and feelings accompanied by vocal and instrumental music.”

In Natya Sastra (chapter 32, Dhruvadhyaya) musical aspect is explained as follows:

“Just as a picture without colors is not attractive or beautiful, similarly dramatic representation without songs is not attractive on the stage.”

“Just as a picture without colors is not attractive or beautiful, similarly dramatic representation without songs is not attractive on the stage.”

“First and foremost, efforts should be devoted to songs or musical airs, for songs are said to be the beds or receptacles of dramatic representations; if songs and musical accompaniments are suitable inserted, the production of dramas never comes to grief.”

“First and foremost, efforts should be devoted to songs or musical airs, for songs are said to be the beds or receptacles of dramatic representations; if songs and musical accompaniments are suitable inserted, the production of dramas never comes to grief.”

Indian musical tradition has been developed hand in hand with the theater and dance. As Smt. Rukmini Devi explains it,

"The Sangita Ratnakara states that dance is essentially an aspect of Sangita or music and therefore one finds the same origin, the same essential principles in both the arts. The musician and the dancer must study the same books which give not only the rules and principles of these arts but also a vision of the vistas of imagery that make Art real.” (Rukmini Devi Arundale,

Further she points out that dancer “must be learned and must be musicians of real merit of well.” She also notices that lack of study narrows down the perception of the dancer and limits creative spirit. Studying Sastras do not limit dancer’s imagination; on the contrary, “great books such as Natya Sastra or Sangita Ratnakara lead the dancer into the world of imagination and realty and made the dancer understand the very spirit of dance and music.” (Rukmini Devi Arundale,

Ability to feel beauty of music is inborn in humans. For the dancer the music is the source of inspiration, the media of dance, emotional and even physical support not during the dance performance, but in everyday life as well. It is very essential for the dancer to develop sensitivity of the finest shades and aspects of music. Smt. Balasaraswati expressed this idea as follows:

“Only if the artist is a true musician and enters into the spirit of the song through the music, can she interpret the song to perfection by simply keeping the movement of her hands and eyes in consonance with the us and down, the curves and glides, pauses and frills in the melody, irrespective of the actual words of the song but in keeping with the dialogue that she has gesturally woven around them.” (T. Balasaraswati,

“For more then a thousand years, the sastras (rules) have confirmed that an individual dedicated to dance must be equally dedicated to music and must receive training in both the arts.” (T. Balasaraswati,

It is natural for human to put forward lyrical aspect of dance composition, as the language appeals to intellect on conscious level. Music appeals not only to intellect, it involves emotional sphere of human psyche into action. Emotions are fluent, sophisticated and very often uncertain, or even inexpressible in words. Emotional life of human is characterized by such terms as involuntary, spontaneous, fluent, fleeting, uncertain, inexpressible and sometimes contradictory, ambivalent, etc., etc. Melodic aspect of music evokes emotional response directly, putting aside language and logic. Music could be compared to the language developed to the highest level: the “non-mediated language of human emotions."

In varnam, melodic aspect takes the central place, as Lalita Ramakrishna puts it:

“The Varnam carries within is a blueprint for the elaborate edifice of raga alapana (extempore elaboration of raga), kalpana svara (extempore patterning of solfa notes) and other aspects of creative music. Like the embryo of an organism, and like the seed that carries the formation of the tree that develops out of it, the Varnam carries in an abbreviate form the essential genetic code of the raga svarupa (the intrinsic form of the raga).” (Lalita Ramakrishna,

Purpose of this paper

Purpose of this work is

  1. to understand how varnam has been invented into music and dance, and
  2. analyze and interlink different aspects of varnam.

Following the format of the varnam, this paper comprises two sections:

  1. evolution and development of varnam in music and dance; and
  2. analysis of major aspects in Varnam, including melodic aspect (Raga bhava), rhythmic aspect (Tala), and lyrics (Sahitya bhava).