The term “varna” has many meanings. The Amarakosha defines the term as follows (acc to Lalitha Ramakrisna, ref.no.8):
“Varna indicates Dvija (Brahmin) and other castes, white and other colors, praise and the alphabet.”
In Tamil, the term “varnanai” means “description” and it is derived from the verb “vrnoti” in Sanskrit which means ‘to describe, to delineate, to illustrate.’ This is good metaphor of the varnam which describes the subtleties of raga and laya, and which is used to describe the inner feelings of the heroine, subtleties and shades of her relationship with the hero and the current situation of the two. BM Sundaram explains this side of the term “varna” as follows:
“Description of Raga, prescribing its lakshana was done in earlier times, only through a geetam and hence it came to be called as “Lakshana geetam”. Perhaps, due to its inadequate nature to portray all the possible and admirable combinations and colors of a raga, the Varna took its birth. Varna took shape to project all ‘sancharas’ of a raga, with various shades, in a more elaborate manner. The constituents prescribed for a Varna, namely, Arohi (ascending order of notes), Avarohi (descending order of notes), Sthayi) resting or elongation of the note) and Sanchari (movements of the note) are all found in musical portion of Varna.” (BM Sundaram, ref.no.9)
Varna is also used in the sense of “varga” (caste), i.e. the certain group following the particular order, rules and traditions. This definition draws attention to Raga Lakshana aspect of the varnam.
The word “varna” also denotes color. This definition indicates multi-fold nature of the varnam. Varnam is multidimensional and chromatic. Varnam portrays many shades of Raga, brings out intricate rhythmic designs, and provides scope for innumerable variations of pure dance (Nritta) and expressive acting (Abhinaya.)
The word “varna” also means alphabet and many alphabet books for children are called “Varnamala”. Also the word “varna” means a syllable, as for example, “Pancavarnesvara” which means ‘the Lord evoked by the five syllables “Na mah Si va ya.”’ The alphabet of a language constitutes the building blocks out of which a whole system of communication and expression is created. Varnam is known as grammar of raga, as it brings out “Raga Svarupa”. Thus, varnam could be compared to the alphabet of Ragas.
The word “varna” in its meaning as “stuti” (praise) is also relevant because as far as sahitya of a varna is concerned, it is almost invariably in praise of deities, kings or patrons. This feature varnam could inherit from Shabdam (which is also referred to as "Yasogiti" or composition in praise of king of deity.)
Bharata in his Natya Sastra (see ref.no. 1) used the term “varna” to denote “gana kriya” (melodic movement) as follows:
“Varnas (accents) are of four kinds: Arohi, Avarohi, Sthayi and Sancari. Alankara-s (embellishments) depend on varna-s. When all the svara-s are rising, that is Arohi and then all are descending, that is Avarohi. When the svara-s are steady (i.e. equal, or in one tana), that is sthayi; there the svara-s move together (sam + cara = going together) that is Sancari. The varna-s with these characteristics, not only emerge from the body (throat, voice), they are defined by the three different sthana-s (tana-s). When a song gives rise in this way to two varnas, then out of the varnas, the rasa is born. There four varnas are related to songs.”
The concept of four varnas is seen in all major musicological treatises from Bharata until Venkatamakhi. Matanga Muni in “Brihaddesi” (see ref.no.4) defines the term Varna to denote Ganam or music as follows:
Matanga Muni also mentions the close connection between varna and raga expression as follows: “A raga is that which is beautified by tonal excellence of svaras and varnas and pleases the mind of people.” (Matanga Muni, ref.no.4)
Saringadeva in “Sangita Ratnakara” (see ref.no.5) defines the term Varna as Ganakriya and speaks of four Varnas:
“Sanchari” literally means wondering. When there is no such regular order, when these three are mixed up, that is called Sancari.
Dr. Durga (ref.no.32) refers two poems of Kalidasa where the term “varna” is used. For instance, Kalidasa in “Kumarasambhava” uses the term “Varna” to refer to the act of singing. In Canto V, “varna” denotes melodic passage:
In “Abhignana Sakuntalam” Kalidasa says that Hamsadapika was singing the “varna", a melodic passage:
In 17-18th century, the term “varna” found new meaning. After Tana and Pada varnas were introduced in music and dance repertoire, this term is strongly associated with either raga lakshana compositions in music (referred to as tana varnam) or the main item of dance repertoire (pada varnam and all possible varieties like Daru varnam, Ragamalika varnas, etc.)
The term is also used to denote characteristic melodic lines referred to as “varna mettu.” Varna mettu is defined as characteristic melodic pattern or tunes, which listener could distinguish while listening to such compositions as padams, for instance. Varna mettus are importance in sense of outlining Raga Svarupa and conveying Bhavam of the composition through melody, i.e. raga bhava.