Natalie Savelyeva

Section 2. Varnam in Dance

Chapter 1. Structure and Aspects of Varnam

Varnam comprises two major sections, "Purva ranga" (the basic section) and "Uttara ranga" (the upper section). Purva ranga encompasses Pallavi, Anupallavi and Muktayi svara. Uttara ranga comprises Ettugada pallavi, Ettugada svaras and Anubandham (this part was mandatory up to 19th century and has been discarded later on.)

Purva ranga of varna follows triple structure characteristic for such compositions as Keertana, Kriti, Padam and Javali. Uttara ranga of varnam is closer to Abhyasa gana Svarajati (if sahityam is provided for Ettugada svaras) or Jatiswaram (if Ettugada svara sahityam is absent) by structure.

Dr. Durga considers division of Pallavi/Anupallavi as artificial in case of varnam:

"It can be said that Varnas have only two sections with Pallavi and Muktayi Svara (Purvaranga) and Ettugada Pallavi with Ettugada Svaras (Uttaranga). The division as Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam, similar to other musical forms, does not correspond to the style of singing the Varnam. The performer never ends the section called Pallavi after singing the first two lines as is performed for all the other forms to distinguish it from the second section of Anupallavi. The whole first section is performed continuously without any break till the Muktayi svara and the finale comes to the first line of Pallavi (after Muktayi svara passage.) The second section starts with Ettugada Pallavi and comprises from three to six svara passages, each followed by Ettugada pallavi."

Lalita Ramakrishna argues, that Pallavi and Anupallavi should be distinguished from poetical point of view, as they contain two concluded sentences:

"Pallavi and Anupallavi can be distinguished as two different sections. Musical pattering of Pallavi is totally different to that of Anupallavi. Pallavi usually consists of two avartanas and rendered in Madhyama sthayi (the middle octave) and mandra sthayi (lower octave). Anupallavi is usually also constituted of two avartanas. The phrases of anupallavi go into tara sthayi (upper octave). There are two techniques of poetical rhyme – Dvityaksara Prakasam (the second syllable of the first word of pallavi rhymes with the second syllable of the first word of anupallavi) and Prathamaksara Prasam (the first syllable of the first word of pallavi rhymes with the first syllable of the first word of Anupallavi). In Varnams there is evidence of Dvityaksara Prasam in the first and the third avartanas which makes the division of pallavi and anupallavi logical. The first sentence of sahitya is completed in the first two avartanas thus forming the Pallavi. The third avartana starts with a fresh sentence."

"Pallavi" literally means "sprout", the symbol associated with rasa (juice flavor, essential inspiring vitality) and it carries a sense of a beginning. According to (William Jackson), this term suggests the idea of a seed and a shoot, or a bud, i.e. the beginning and the resource for an expansion. Pallavi comprises the original impulse or essential spirit of the composition in embryonic form. The term "Pallavi" was employed at Karnataka musical court performances in pre-Tyagaraja times.

"Anupallavi" means "following pallavi" (prefix "anu" denotes the quality of something following after.)

"Muktayi" means "fixed " or "composed", i.e. it refers to kalpita svaras, set in advance, without possibility of variation, and it also means "concluding." Muktayi svara is concluding portion of Purva ranga. Muktayi svara is also referred to as "Chitta svara". Chitta svaras with or without Sahitya are used in kriti to add color, serve as additional, not compulsory part. They may be composed by composer or added later on by other singers. In varnam, closer analogs of Chitta svaras of Kriti are Ettugada svaras.

In Telugu and Kannada "Ettugada" means "commencement" and "position of attack". King Shahaji substituted the word "carana" with "ettugada" in some of his compositions. Later on this practice was adopted by varna composers. Ettugada pallavi can be compared to the Carana of kriti or keertana. Sometimes it is referred to as "Upa pallavi" or "Chitta pallavi".

The set of svara passages that follow the Ettugada pallavi are called "Ettugada svaras." Those svaras are sometimes referred to as "Charana svaras" or even "Chitta svaras," thus putting those svaras in one line with Muktayi (pre-composed) svara. The number of Ettugada svaras varies. Function of Ettugada svaras is the same as the part of Chitta svaras in Kriti or Keertana - to add "color" or "brightness" to the composition.

"Anubandha" literary means "bridge which follows", which could be understood as "appendix", i.e. the section to be added after all the Ettugada svara passages.

Anubandha can be considered as part of Ettugada Pallavi. S.R. Jayasitalakshmi in her article on the varnas of Dikshitar family, notes that Ettugada Pallavi can contain one avarta, in such case one line of sahityam is either complete in sense of meaning or can be completed by adding Pallavi (in earlier days it was tradition to sing Pallavi in the end of varna). Otherwise, Ettugada Pallavi can contain several avartas (lines). The first line is used as refrain in Uttara ranga. Sahityam of this line is incomplete, and should be followed by Anubandham (which simply denotes the concluding three or more lines of Ettugada Pallavi.) For instance, Ata varna "Rarapu" in Sankarabharaman of Ramaswami Dikshitar and all the varnas of Subbarama Dikshitar have similar structure. "Viriboni" in Bhairavi of Adiappayya, "Vanajakshi" in Kalyani of Pallavi Gopalayyer, "Samininne" in Pantuvarali of Satkala Narasayya and "Samininnne" in Sankarabharanam and "Sarasakshi ninne" in Kamboji of Vina Kuppayyar also have Ettugada of several avartas.

Rhythmical Aspect of Varnam

"Laya" is the duration between the two successive actions and in song would refer to duration between two svaras or two sahitya syllables. "Kalapramanam" denotes the rule of keeping constant Laya .

Definition of "Tala" is given in the following sloka: "Tala kalam kriya manam" (tala is measure of time using action). Tala refers to the manifestation of time or time measure by certain actions of palm and fingers (Kriya). In general sense, Tala denotes general cyclic metre of musical composition. Tala keeps together all three components of performance (instrumental and vocal music, percussion instruments including drums and Nattuvangam, and dance including footwork of the dancer). Kalapramanam is set and kept by Nattuvanar.

"Jathi" means a combination of "Solkattus" or the phrases suitable for dance interpretation like "takita tarikita dhim" or "taka tarikita naka tadin ginathom." They are rendered by Konnakkol artist, used by percussionists and nattuvanars.

The word "Jathi" can be also derived from "Yathi" or "Virama," which is used in Sanskrit and Telugu verses to denote a fixed pause as in sloka or "Vritta."

"Teermanam" denotes the unit of pure dance (Suddha Nrittam Korvai) set to Jathi (composed of Solkattus). Adavu patterns not necessarily follow solkattus of Teermanam, but both rhythmical streams should finish Teermanam together as the rule.

"Solkattu" in Tamil means "words bound together", i.e. "sollu" (the percussive-sounding syllables, nearly all of which begin with consonants) are "bound together" (Nelson). Grouping of sollus is done on two levels. Rhythmic phrases which can be 4, 3, 7, 5 and 9 elements long. This sequence is referred to as "Pancha Jaathi" and includes caturasram (ta ka di mi), tisram (ta ki ta), misram (ta ka di mi ta ki ta), khandam (ta ka ta ki ta) and sankeernam (ta ka di mi ta ka ta ki ta). The concept of Panca Jaathi is employed in drumming, dance choreography and music. The method of counting the length of the phrase using mnemonic syllables instead of numbering elements, helps to memorize and handle the composite rhythmical structures more efficiently (for many people it is more easy to deal with semantic content then with abstract mathematical symbols.) This method is referred to as "Kanakku" counting. On the second level of grouping, the separate rhythmic phases are then combined into larger patterns and designs bound together by tala the general cycle metre of the composition.

Sollukattus are used in drumming, in dance, and in music:

  • Each stroke on the drum had a corresponding spoken syllable; the first four were "ta, di, tom, num". The arrangement of strokes and the arrangement of syllables are parallel: the former follows logic of the hand, while the latter follows logic of spoken sound.
  • In dance Solkattu are employed in several ways to create a rich rhythmic texture.
  • Like drummers use mnemonic syllables to indicate different kinds of strokes, the same way dancers use their own syllables to indicate different kinds of footwork. Adavus (patterns of dance movements) are denoted using such solkattus (ex. "tat tei tei ta", "tei ha tei hi", "tei ya tei yi", etc.)
  • Kanakku is employed to analyze rhythmical structure of dance movements and how it is set to tala.
  • Teermanas and Jathis, units of pure dance, are composed using another set of mnemonic syllables, which is similar to the set used by drummers, but not the same.
  • In musical setting of a dance composition, Solkattus can be included into sahityam of the composition, which is referred to as "Pata." Kanakku is employed to analyze melodic patterns (sequences of svaras or characteristic melodic phrases) called "Tattu karams."

Dance ensemble includes instrumentalists, vocalists, percussionist, nattuvanars and dancers. Accordingly, there are several layers of rhythm present in the varnam:

  • General cycle metre of composition (tala) provides stress-points (samam, first of second drutam, for example), which are used as reference grid of the composition;
  • Melody includes rhythmical phrases (Tattu karams) which create its own independent rhythmical design, reflecting movements and features of the raga;
  • Sahityam is set to poetical metre (for instance, in Tattu mettu feet follow Nattuvangam, but hands follow the words of sahityam, which are split in syllables and accommodated inside the melody according to Tattu karams, and both may not coincide to tala stress points at all, except the final coda on samam);
  • Nattuvanar recites Jathis, which have its own rhythmical design, represented by the structure of Solkattu phrases;
  • Adavus executed by dancer are set to other rhythmical patterns, which could vary and go apart from sahityam metre, musical phrases or designs of Jathi solkattus.

Different components of rhythm are not necessarily should go always together. For instance, adavu patterns not always match exactly rhythmical structure of melody (svaras) or Jathi solkattus. This creates special "tension" and makes effect of polyphony in rhythm. The tension is released at the end of each unit, when all components of rhythm meet (for ex., in varnam such function is carried by Aradi). The general rule is that all components should start together and finish together.

The varnam opens with Trikala Teermanam. "Trikala" means three speeds and signifies a Teermanam in which the first phrase is stated in slow speed, repeated twice in double speed and finally four times in quadruple speed. This Teermanam falls into three parts:

  • Trikala portion, where one phrase is doubled and quadrupled,
  • Kuraippu, and
  • Mora (final cadence).

Doubled and quadruped speed creates elevating, breath taking impression – as if lifting up to mountain, slowly, then faster and faster until the summit is approached.

Kuraippu follows the Trikala portion. Its flows more smoothly (as the other side of the mountain is more smooth, so it is possible to descend down in a save manner).

"Mora" is mridangam term, which denotes the final portion of Tani-avartanam, organized in three parts. Mora is cadence, strong finale of Teermanam. Sometimes even nadai can be changed in Mora (from caturasram to tisram, for instance.)

Feature of Mora is rhythmic tension created between mridangam beats, solkattus pronounced by Nattuvanar and rhythmic patterns of adavus performed by dancer (i.e. all three start and complete the phrase together, but follow a bit different ways, so creating king of rhythmic polyphony).

"Aradi" (or Aridhi or Arudhi, which means "an end") is performed after each Teermanam and Jathi. It is like a "post stamp," in form of incomplete Mora-type cadence. Aradi is final synchronization between mridangam, Nattuvanar and the dancer – all three execute this rhythmic pattern together, creating impression of perfect, exact finale.

Aradi can be started immediately after the last beat of Teermanam or after some pause. It may take one avartana and finish on samam or it may half of avartana or less and finish on the first beat of the first drutam (in case of Adi tala). Aradi provides the junction of Solkattu and the song.

The second Teermanam is often set to tisra nadai. It provides bright and stimulating change of pace comparing to Abhinaya lines.

Varnam includes the sequence comprising several Teermanams. Trikala Jathi is mandatory at beginning of the varnam. Number of following Teermanams varies from three to eight or even more. Teermanas could be executed in pairs after each line of Pallavi/Anupallavi.

"Most dance masters today choreograph the five Teermanams of a varnam in conventional order: (1) Trikala, (2) tisra nadai or tisra gati, (3) misra gati, (4) kanda gati, and (5) sankeerna gati. This duplicates the traditional order in tala theory of the five jathis, or possible variation of the laghu anga: 4,3 , 7, 5, 9." (Higgins)

In Nritta, Nattuvangam coveys the pattern of adavus executed. The mridangam player can follow the pattern of Solkattu, svaras or sahityam. Usually, mridangam plays in a faster speed, i.e. renders "syllables which are more in the nature of fillers." Mridangam switches between different rhythmic aspects. Function of mridangam is to empower and emphasize. Thus, mridangist can give more power either to movements of dancer, or go together with solkattus of Nattuvarnar, or rise up the rhythm hidden in melodic patterns or even empower general cyclic pulse of talam.

In Abhinaya, Nattuvangam defines steps and moves of the dancer, while mridangam follows the orchestra, thus emphasizing musical and vocal aspects. In Abhinaya, melodic aspect is the vehicle of Sthayi bhava of the composition. Rhythm of mridangam empowers the effect of music.

Besides of that, mridangam player could add some variations (insert pauses, switch to Sarvalaghu for a while, play in tisra nadai, etc.), in order to create a tension between dance movements and flow of melody, and release that tension in the end, when all participants some together in Aradi or just finish the Kai on samam in perfect unity.

Music and Raga Bhava in Varnam

"The Varnam is expected to show the typical gamakas, the pauses, the gamut and gait of a raga. It draws our attention to the Tattu karams (patent phrases), and emphasizes the appropriate Graha svara (starting note), Amsa swaras (the important notes), and Nyasa svaras (ending notes). It demonstrates Dirga nyasa (the last note which should be prolonged), the Harsva nyasa (the last note of a phrase which should be shortened), and the Alpatva svara (a note which is used as mere touch for ending a phrase) of a particular raga. The Varnam also tries to show the Raga Ranjaka prayoga (pleasing combination), the Visesa sancara (special usage), and the permissible Apurva (rare usage) and Datu prayoga (hopping movement) of a raga." (Lalita Ramakrishna)

Raga Bhava is the soul of any musical composition. The first phrases of the Rag alapana set Sthayi Bhava of the varnam. Let us take Dhanyasi ragam as example. Arohana comprises clear tonic Sa, appealing Ga, perfect "golden" middle of Suddha Ma and Pa, delicate and fine Ni. Combination of Ma and Pa in this Arohana speaks of calm and soft Sringara. Avarohana of Dhanyasi brings in another shade. It includes Suddha Da and Suddha Ri, which add some bitterness and even melancholy. Those slight notes tell us that Sringara is not bright and calm in this composition. Is there some hidden sadness, or resentment? Arohana and Avarohana of Dhanyasi are as two sides of the coin. They tell us that the story is not as simple as it looks from outside. There is some inner stream of feelings, which is to come on stage.

"Pallavi starts with Graha (usually the same as Amsa) svara of the Raga, the most potent svara, or identity svara of the Raga. Pallavi includes the most potent, characteristic phrases of the Raga (usually, song in Madhya and Mandra sthayi, or middle and lower octaves). The pace of melody is comparatively slow and dense as if establishing the firm foundation of the following composition." (Higgins)

Following the example of Dhanyasi ragam, let us analyze Amsa, Bahutva and Alpatva svaras which Dhanyasi recovers in the varnam "E maguva." If we count how many times and for how long each svara is rendered in varnam, the following diagram results (see Picture below.)

Amsa, Bahutva and Alpatva Svaras of Dhanyasi Raga in Varnam "E Maguva"

The above picture shows, that there are two Amsa svaras, Sa and Pa. Correspondingly, Pallavi of E Maguva starts from Sa and Ettugada Pallavi starts from Pa. Thus, Sa and Pa are used as Graha svaras here. Profuse Pa in combination with salient Suddha Madhyama is associated with "calm" Sringara (in contract to "Bright Sringara" of Kalyani, where Prati Ma dominates over.) Gandhara and Nishada are also strong in this composition. Those notes are associated with Karuna Rasa. Alpatva svaras in this composition are Da and Ri. Those notes are used in combination with the other svaras, majorly in avarohana krama of melody. They put in very slight flavor. Like salt or species, slight flavor makes major difference. "Calm Sringara" turns into "Worried Sringara" full of doubt, contempt or resentment. The first line of Pallavi explains why it is so...

In Pallavi and Anupallavi, the varnam concentrates on the patent gamakas and Tattu karams of a raga. Pallavi includes many Dirga (long) svaras which give scope for expressive gamakas and are used to profuse Jeeva svaras of the raga (most important svaras, which give the raga special flavor, such as Amsa svara). Pallavi dwells in Madhya sthayi, outlines the most characteristic phrase of the raga, and progressed forward slowly, developing the introductory theme of the song. Pallavi is like an embryo of the composition.

In Anupallavi musical theme of the song is developed thus to cover Madhya and rise up to Tara sthayi, which gives impression of higher emotional intensity.

In Pada varnam, each line of Pallavi and Anupallavi is repeated many times, using different Sangatis (pre-composed variations of melodic phrase). Last repetition includes Sancari (free or improvised variation). In Sancari, melody takes more freedom and Niraval (free, improvised variation) can be employed by the vocalist. The picture below demonstrates variation given in Pallavi of Pada varnam in Dhanyasi raga.

Purvaranga of Dhanyasi varnam "E Maguva"

At this stage of the varnam, complex rhythmic patterns are introduced not in the melody, but in form of Jathis, to which Suddha Nritta is performed. Innovations in rhythm inside the melody usually begin towards the end of Muktayi svara.

Muktayi svara is like an epitome, a miniature of Pallavi and Anupallavi. Rhythm changes in Muktayi svara. After slow movements of Pallavi and Anupallavi, the gait of Muktayi svara conveys the feeling of motion. There are more Sarva laghu phrases (sequence of "short" notes, each note one matra long). The first avartana weaves patterns in Madhya sthayi. Second avartana usually covers Tara sthayi and lowers back, down to Mandra sthayi (this depends upon raga character). Alankaras such as Yathi sequences (i.e. groups of svaras arranged in geometrically planned patterns, like 3-4-5 or 5-4-3 or 5-4-3-4-5, etc.), Datu (jumping over some characteristic harmonic interval, usually from one samvadi svara to another, for example, Ma-Da in Kalyani) and Janta (doubled svaras, like SS-RR-GG) notes are used in Muktayi svara.

Very characteristic in this sense is the immortal creation of great Tamil composer, Tiruvottriyur Tyageyyar. His Durbar varnam "Chalame" is the best example of Tana Varna Lakshana, in my humble opinion. This is very good illustration of the cadence nature of Muktayi svara. On the picture below, it is shown how Muktayi svara sums up the patterns envisaged in Pallavi and Anupallavi.

Purvaranga of Durbar Adi tala varnam "Chalame"

Ettugada pallavi opens with Amsa svara (most important note of the raga) and often the first syllable of sahitya has the same sound as the first svara (svaraksara). Hence the Ettugada pallavi is repeated once after each Ettugada svara, the sound of its opening note gets imprinted on the memory and subsequent svara patterns are woven around this Amsa svara as the planets around the Sun. It is customary to sing the second part of varnam a bit faster (in music kutcheris even at 1.5 times the speed of original tempo in which varnam is started.)

Ettugada pallavi contains the main musical theme of the composition. Pada varnam is sahityam oriented composition, and sahityam of Ettugada pallavi contains the message of the heroine, the purpose and meaning of her monologue addressed to hero. Thus, the melody of Ettugada pallavi is vehicle of the call of heroine’s heart.

Musical setting of Ettugada pallavi is close to Pallavi. Ettugada pallavi is set in Madhya sthayi, includes Dirga svaras and the most expressive varna mettus of the raga. The difference is that Ettugada pallavi is sung majorly after Ettugada swaras, thus it links with the each svara. Similar to its role in sahityam, melody of Ettugada serves as intermediate conclusion of one svara and beginning of another one. Example of Ettugada Pallavi setting is given on Color Picture 3.

Ettugada svaras gradually increase in length and complexity. Usually, each svara passage concentrates on the particular aspect of the raga.

The first ettugada passage is one avartana long. Many Dirga svaras and karvai are used, attention is given to Jeeva swaras with gamakas. The whole svara is perceived as very slow and melodic. This svara usually takes lower and middle octaves.

The second ettugada passage is set to one avartana or two avartanas. Here, the gait of svaras is increased. Two or three of Jeeva svaras of the raga svaras are highlighted using Dirga svaras (or long pauses inserted after the svara, which vocalist is free to fill with rendering of gamaka or some variation like additional sangati). Svara patterns set in Sarva laghu are drawn round those important svaras. Melody could flow from lower to higher octave and back, crossing the middle range, as if extending the boundaries of the first svara, in sense of tempo, range and complexity of rhythmic patterns. Examples of Ettugada svara patterns are given on the picture below.

Ettugada Pallavi and first two svaras of Durbar varnam

In Varnams that have four ettugada passages, the third ettugada svara features Harsva svaras. The characteristic feature here is the flow of rhythm is in Sarva laghu mode. Different intricate designs of svara patterns are used here.

Jati: svara patterns of certain length of 4, 3, 7, 5, 9 svaras. For example, patterns of Svara 3 of Durbar varnam (see the picture below) illustrate usage of sankeernam or nine elements jathi "p d n s r m p d", followed by khandam or five elements patterns: "s r m p d – m p d n s – p d n S R"

Last two svaras of Durbar varnam

Yathi: "geometrically" arranged series of svaras like Samayathi or patterns of same length, Gopuceyathi or patterns like 5-4-3-2, Shrotovahayathi or patterns like 3-4-5-6-7, and Mrudangayathi or patterns like 5-4-3-4-5). The best illustration here is the concluding portion of the last Ettugada svara of Huseni Svarajati (see Color Picture 5). There is a Yathi of outstanding beauty: "p d n S , S – d p m p , p - g r , g , - m p m , - g r n" which is set in dance to even more expressive Yathi, which comes as follows:

Yathi set to the last phrase of the last Ettugada svara of Husseni swarajathi

Note: This is the concluding part of Nritta in this Svarajati. Setting of the melody conveys interrogative intonation. While performing this wonderful Yathi, the heroine as if asking over and over again her question. This is really a quintessence and coda of the varnam - long application, shorter interrogation, even shorter question, even shorter request and finally, two-words plea on the peak of intensity. That’s how music, rhythm and human feeling go together.

Kalpana-like patterns: "S R , n R n p g — p r , g p g r s" (Hamsadhwni Varnam "Jalajakshi" of Manambuchavadi Venkatasubbayyar) or "n , p m r g r s — n , p m p n s r — n , s r g r r s — n , s r m r g r — n , s r p m r s — n , s r p m n p — n , S R n S n p — n , p m r g p n" (Varnam "Sami ninne" in Raga Sri, Adi tala of Karur Devudu Iyer)

Note: According to (S.R. Jayasitalakshmi) usage of sarva laghu pattern is relatively recent development. Varnas of Ramaswami Dikshtar do not contain any such svaras. Employment of sarva laghu in one of Ettugada svaras is the feature of Subbarama Dikshitar varnas.

Correspondingly, Sahityam of middle Ettugada svaras includes more words, and Abhinaya becomes more intense and informative here.

The last Ettugada svara encompasses features of all the previous svaras. It consists of four avartanas or more. The idea of this svara is to give a kind of summing up of the form and movement of the raga (very often this svara of varnam is deprived of any sahityam.)

First two avartanas of the last Ettugada svara usually include prolonged svaras (which are amsa or Jeeva svaras of the raga) along with quick sarva laghu passages. Starting from the third avartana, all variety of svara patterns design is employed – sarva laghu passages, kalpana-like passages (when certain rhythmic and melodic pattern is repeated using different starting svara), alteration of length of svara pattern (using Panca Jathi concept of four, three, seven, five and nine elements), geometrical finishing using Yathi, and etc.

The melodic range is also expanded to nearly two octaves. It is customary to mark the final avartana of the last Ettugada svara with Yathi sequences. Concluding illustration is the same example of Dhanyasi varnam. On the Color Picture 6 Ettugada svaras of Dhanyasi varnam are presented. This varnam features very smooth and long melodic patterns. Svara 2 and Svara 3 of this varnam demonstrate how the melody climbs up with quick gait and then slowly, as if in though of something, the melody descends down, covering the upper, middle and lower ranges of the raga.

Sahityam and Abhinaya in Varnam

"The varnam, …, treats the theme of love and yearning for one’s beloved. It is description of a passionate young woman temporary ignored or abandoned by her lover. She pleads with him to return to her and attempts to lure him with praise, scolding, images of frustration and sexual consummation, or whatever else might effectively draw him back. This is all suggestive of earthy pleasures and desires, often quite unabashedly so. On the other hand one may (as is expected to) interpret this appeal in a more spiritual and philosophical vain, as the yearning of Jeevatma for Paramatma (the individual soul for the all-soul), the desire of man to be united with god, the passionate entreaty of devotee to deity. This dual approach to love, with its great hungers and profound consummations, is in fact no duality at all, but a recognition that the greatest of man’s passions carries him beyond all distinctions of physical and spiritual into the realm of supreme undifferentiated bliss. " (Higgins)

"…Hindu conception of love as both passion and freedom from passion. When the tide of unfulfilled passion threatens to overwhelm her, the heroine seeks refuge in a state of spiritual tranquility altogether free of distress. The implication seems to be that one my acquire real knowledge of god by first undertaking the tortuous search for human love."

The story line of varnam is woven around the anguish and longing expressed by the lovelorn maiden for an ultimate union with the Nayaka who is presented either as the Lord himself (embodied in form of local deity) or the king, in whose praise the varnam was composed.

The Nayaka-Nayika bhava is the feature, which distinguishes the varnam from keertana or shabdam, for instance. Relationships between the hero and the heroine are interpreted in terms of Madhura Bhakti or supreme devotion to God through unalloyed love (Sringara).

The contents of majority of the varnas and Svarajatis depict Vipralambha Sringara (love in separation.) There are three major characters in Varnam, Nayika (heroine), Nayaka (hero) and Sakhi (confidant, friend, or even Guru of the heroine.)

The plot of varnam is set according to the spirit of the concept of Madhura Bhakti, where the most refined kind of love was understood as love for the God. Thus, in varnam the hero is symbolically represented by the Deity. Real patrons and developed of the ladies of those days were kings, chieftains or noblemen. All of them had "Ishta Devata" or the deity whom they worshiped with particular devotion. Thus in sahityam, the image of this deity is used to denote the real character. According to BM Sundaram:

"Since the Pada varna is a product of feudal times, its theme is based on Bhakti and Sringara, as found in Padams. The methods to approach God are many, Madhura bhava or Bhakti Sringara is one of them. Vipralambha Sringara (opposite to Sambhoga Sringara) arises pangs of separation and innumerable feelings and emotions, expressed in poetry. That’s why this type of Sringara is more employed as theme of Pada varnas." (BM Sundaram)

Varnam is composed in form of monologue of either the heroine, Sakhi or the hero, addressed to the one the three. Respectively, the following situations are possible:

  • Nayika addresses Sakhi regarding the pangs of separation experienced by her (in this case, Sakhi is supposed to be present on stage while the composition is developed.)
  • Sakhi speaking on behalf of the Nayika to the Nayaka about the distressful state of the Nayika and requesting him to return to the Nayika (in this case the hero is also supposed to be present of the stage.)
  • The Nayika herself making a plea to the Nayaka to alleviate from her sufferings (in this case the presence of the hero is not very certain, as in some composition the hero is the God, thus in this case we have the most pure version of monologue of the heroine addressed to the transcendental divinity.)
  • Nayaka expressing his unrequited love to the Nayika.

The Nayaka-Nayaki Bhava is portrayed using two kings of Abhinaya, the Pada artha and the Sancari Abhinaya.

Rukmini Devi gives very compact and exact definition of Abhinaya in her article "Bhava, Rasa, Tala" as follows:

"The technique through which Bhava or expression manifests itself is called Abhinaya. Abhinaya literally means, to carry forward, that is to convey a sentiment, a story, a situation to the audience through various means." (Rukmini Devi Arundale)

"Pada artha" refers to word-to-word interpretation of the lyrics.

"Sancari" implies a depiction of a story indirectly or directly connected to the meaning of the Sahitya.

Pada artha usually precedes Sancari abhinaya. For each line of Sahitya several variations or several different Pada artha interpretations are performed followed by one Sancari.

Pada artha variations usually take one avartana (one line of sahityam). Sancari is performed to two or even more lines of lyrics.

Pada artha abhinaya is employed within the whole varnam, and Sancari is performed only to the lines of Pallavi/Anupallavi and sometimes to Ettugada Pallavi as well.

"Delving a little deeper into the delineation of Pada artha, it can be observed that the Pada artha is subjected to modifications and improvisations. That is, not always is absolute word-to-word interpretation adhered to. Sometimes a word undergoes modification, by way of depiction of its adjectival form. That is the word "beautiful" can be improvised to depict "one who has fish like eyes" or "one who has long tresses" or "one whose eyebrows are like the bow". This can be said to resemble the Sangati aspect of music. In other words, the interpretation of the line does not undergo a complete change but is only improvised. While the depiction of Sancari Bhava is likened to the Niraval aspect, wherein the interpretation is from a totally different view point." (Priyashri Rao)

Varnam is composed as a monologue of the heroine addressed to hero either directly or indirectly through the media of Sakhi, the close companion of the heroine.

In Varnam, the Pallavi is "the burden of the song." It contains declaration of the love by the Nayika who has come to meet her lord, or question which the heroine strives to resolve, or expression of her utmost anguish. Thus, the Pallavi gives the start to the whole story. Pallavi comprises a major statement, which opens the drama of relationships. It could be in form of prayer or request, or it could be a question in rhetoric form (Why are you angry?)

Anupallavi continues the theme given in Pallavi and includes identification of the person addressed (the deity or the patron). Usually, there are hints to characteristic qualities of the hero addressed, description of his nature, virtues, and qualities. The mudra of composer occurs in the second half of Anupallavi and it is highlighted by singing this portion once in the beginning after Pallavi and once towards the end after Anubandham. The Anupallavi also may include descriptive details regarding the glory, entrancing beauty, glorious deeds and accomplishments of the hero (this section reminds the Shabdam by structure.)

Muktayi svara sahityam concludes the first part of varnam. Its function is to summarize the meaning of Pallavi and Anupallavi. Thus, sahityam of Muktayi svara can contain some myth or story taken from life of the hero, which is very illustrative of his character and helps to understand nature of relationship between the hero and the heroine.

Ettugada pallavi is emotionally charged plea of the heroine. Here she reaches the point of her monologue addressed to the hero. She reveals her attachment and discovers her innermost wish. Ettugada pallavi is the heart of Varnam, the most emotionally charged line of sahityam. It expresses the main idea, the message the heroine, which she is trying to convey to her beloved. Often it is formulated as a question (How can I bear the shower of Manmada arrows?), sometimes as imperative sentence (Please, come back my beloved!)

Ettugada pallavi contains the essence of the varnam. It is the most charged sentence of the whole lyrics. Appeal contained in Ettugada Pallavi is the message of the heroine to her hero.

In sahityam of Ettugada svaras, the heroine gives wide picture of her love towards the hero. Using myths or stories as examples, she describes her attitude and relation to the hero. Here she openly expresses her emotions using metaphors. She refers to similar situations of some mythical or real characters or the hero himself. Ettugada svara sahityam is descriptive, contains additional stories, pleas, pangs of separation and etc., all of which resolve in the same line of Ettugada Pallavi, which is repeated many times as the pledge of the most cherished desire of her heart.

Sahityam of each Ettugada svara is concluded with Ettugada pallavi as intermediate, still unfinished refrain. The nature of Ettugada pallavi is very interesting in this role of "intermediate" conclusion. It give conclusion to the previous line of Ettugada svara sahityam (meaning of each line of svara sahityam can be understood only coupled with Ettugada pallavi.) However, it does not provide final resolution, but gives beginning for the next line of Ettugada svara sahityam.

Anubandham is sung after the last couple of Ettugada svara-Ettugada pallavi. Anubandham could be regarded as being part of Ettugada pallavi, which is sung in full only after completion of all the Ettugada svaras, the same way as in Kriti only the first line of Pallavi is repeated as refrain. Anubandham completes the sentence of Ettugada pallavi.

Earlier, after Anubandham Anupallavi and Muktayi svara were sung, and composition was concluded finally with Pallavi. The heroine, after opening her heart, still is waiting for an answer of her hero. This dramatic effect is very beautiful. This feature provides possibility to integrate the varnam into some bigger context such as drama.

Interplay of Music and Lyrics in Varnam

"A sloka on Sangita and Sahitya states that while Sangita gives instant enjoyment, Sahitya gives happiness as one contemplates on it over and over again." (V. Subrahmaniam)

Varnam is versatile composition. It unites four essential components - rhythm, music, poetry, pure dance (nritta) and expressive acting (abhinaya). No one component could be excluded from the set, all of them are essential. The question is, what is the contribution of each component, how each aspect affects the spectator, in separate and in combination with the other components?

Rhythm is what we feel by body, music is what we hear, lyrics is what we understand by mind, and finally movement and expression is what we see.

Naturally, 90% of information about this world humans receive in visual form. Thus, the dance is the key component, as visual representation of the rhythm, music and sahityam.

Rhythm is embedded in both music and lyrics. Rhythm is backbone of the dance. Rhythm connects all the components together. Nattuvanar, the keeper and master of the rhythm, is the director and conductor of the performance, accordingly. Rhythm is also the source of power and energy of the whole ensemble. It controls intensity of the energy released in form of movement of the dancer, sound produced by musical instrument in hands of musicians (including human voice) and power of emotions released by all the members of performance.

Interplay of lyrics and music is very interesting problem in the context of the Bhavam (emotional atmosphere) of the performance.

It is very well known, that some musical compositions characterized with outstanding melodic quality, provide very powerful emotional impact on the audience, irrespective of contents of the lyrics. In general, sahityam in classical music anyway contains some great, refined, elevated ideas.

The general idea of varnam is elevated love (sringara), i.e. the love risen up to transcendental level (Bhakti), which helps the human to reach liberation of illusions and release the best of his of her nature. At the other side, if the music is not very good, even the great sahityam would not save the situation. The good prove of that simple fact is how carefully composers select ragas for their compositions and how long and hard they work on selecting Varna mettus and setting the tune.

Poetry of symbolism tried to convey feelings, moods, and conditions of mind using mechanism of association. Symbol contains no description, instead of that it evokes imagination. Symbol is suggestive and gives freedom for interpretation as well. Symbolists emphasized the musical qualities of verse and believed that all poetry aspires to the condition of music. Thoughts can be expressed in words. Feelings and emotions are subtle, complex, often contradictory and uncertain. Language is not able to express all shades of emotions. Language is linear and one-dimensional. The lexicon is too limited. Descriptions are subjective. Language appeals to logic. Sound breaks through language barrier and transcends logic. In short, language is descriptive, and music is evocative.

"Speech is preoccupied with consonantal sounds while music tends to prolong the vowels thus invoking power and luster. Understanding of speech is largely a matter of perceiving consonants which are emphasized. Languages like French and Telugu, which are accepted as being more musical, have more vowels sounds and vowel endings. According to Swami Prajnanananda, the vowel is called Prana in Indian music as it is independent and full of concentrated energy. The vowel is thus Purusa and the consonant is Prakriti who becomes dynamic only when she comes in contact with Purusa. The consonant in Indian languages by itself has hardly any sound and it is only in conjunction with one of the vowels that it gains volume and utility. Varnam discovers power of vowels and superiority of abstract sound patterns over verbal meaning." (Lalita Ramakrishna)

Language is processed majorly by neuron nets and constellations of the left hemisphere, which is responsible for symbolical and logical processing. Perception of music is very complex phenomena. It involves the whole brain. Speaking in particular, such melodic aspects as pitch and tone are processed by the right hemisphere, which accommodates holistic, non-verbal, non-symbolical perception and processing. Thus, the statement that music transgresses the barriers of logic and verbal thinking makes sense. Melodic aspect activates holistic levels of perception and processing, when the things are perceived intuitively, in form of insight – everything and all together at the same time. This is great power of music.

One more interesting thing about varnam is the existence of two different "centers of gravity" in it, one lies in Pallavi of Purva ranga, and the other one in Ettugada pallavi of Uttara ranga. The major music theme is the Pallavi itself. The first avartana or even the first phrases of Pallavi are like an embryo and seed of the whole composition. The main theme of Pallavi is developed in Anupallavi, and summed up in Muktayi svara. Melodic lines of Ettugada section concentrate on specific areas of the raga.

In case of Sahityam situation is different. Ettugada pallavi is the central, the most important poetical line of the varnam. Pallavi could be considered as preamble, Anupallavi and Muktai svara sahityam (if any) contain descriptive development of the situation. The message and meaning of the composition is given in Ettugada pallavi.

Ettugada svara sahityam is insinuative. It elaborates the idea formulated in Ettugada pallavi, projects it on similar mythical situations, etc..

I would say, that in the Purva ranga section melodic aspect dominates. Here emotions and feelings of the heroine are hidden inside and uncertain even for the heroine herself. Sahityam is not very elaborated here, and the underplaying mood (sthayi bhava) is determined by music. As Sahityam do not gives clear and exacts descriptions, there are many possibilities for imagination and suggestions. Pallavi/Anupallavi concentrates on emotional state of the heroine. Correspondingly, Abhinaya of the first section is more intense and deep, as in Padam. Here rhythm exerts itself in Jathi, clearly separated from musical portions. Thus, music is also given a lot of freedom. Each line is repeated many times and musical setting includes Sangati and even Niraval, while the dancer performs variations and Sancari.

"In abhinaya, the singer and musicians employ all possible expressive means to unfold shades and nuances of the single line, variations of words, interpretations, feelings arisen by sahityam and melody, and purely melodic aspect of the composition, Raga bhava, the media in which the composition, melodic patterns and rhythmic patterns live. Raga bhava has strong impact on the Sthayi bhava of the composition in sense expression via music and dance. Alankaras like sangati are the basis for Kai variations (execution of pad artha abhinaya using different choreography). Niraval is the media for sancari, i.e. free flow of the story, interpretation, deviation from strict meaning of sahityam in order to show wider picture, the context of the situation, or to tell some related story. Sancari enriches and intensifies transitory bhavas of composition." (Priyashree Rao)

Muktayi svara serves as conclusion of the Purva ranga. At the same time, it is employed as transition, the bridge to the second part of the varnam.

In the Uttara ranga section, Sahityam plays part that is more important. Music is restricted by rhythm more then in the first section. Sahityam includes more lines then in the first section, and becomes more informative (as the words are set to music in more "dense" manner, with very less pauses in between.) Thus, Sahityam attracts more attention.

Pada artha abhinaya is predominant is this section. It is empowered by crisp rhythm of Tattu mettus. Meaning of lyrics in this section is clear and precise. The context of the situation, outlined in the first section, makes the situation, condition and inner feeling of the heroine more clear.

In this section, the heroine expresses herself out - she wants to be heard and to be understood by the hero. Here music takes part of vehicle supporting and empowering meaning of the words. Emotional tone (Sthayi Bhava) evoked throughout Purva ranga, like a long and powerful wave, reaches its summit in the second section. Fleet of meanings, expressed in words the heroine addresses to her hero, is carried forward by this wave. Brightness and colorful variety of moods and feelings are characteristic features of Ettugada svara sahityam, included into Uttara ranga section, all of which resolve in Ettugada Pallavi, repeated after each svara.

Priyashri Rao in her dissertation puts interesting question regarding Sthayi Bhava in varnam:

"In the dance, the mood or the Bhava would automatically be that expressed by the Sahitya, which the dancer is interpreting. However it is a question whether there is a single dominant mood (Sthayi Bhava) which is kept sustained throughout the performance of a varnam. As we have seen, the varnam form alternates between Teermanam-s containing meaningless syllables, Sahitya and meaningless Svara passages. During Sahitya passages we occasionally also see the presence of Tattu mettu. In such a structure it would be difficult to expect the sustenance of a single Bhava. The presence of a single dominant mood might be the feature of a padam or a Javali, but perhaps not a varnam." (Priyashri Rao)

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