Natalie Savelyeva

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

(Rukmini Devi Arundale)


Abhinaya is Communication via the universal language of expressive dance, when sophisticated human feelings are communicated directly, enveloped in a few words of sahityam, the flow of music and the artist, whose body resounds and radiates emotional states. Dance is the channel through which human entity is conducted. Varnam is central item, master piece of dance recital. Varnam could be regarded as a dance drama, set in two acts, each act containing several scenes.

Sahityam (lyrics) and translation

Pada varnam in ragam Dhanyasi, Adi thalam

Music composed by Mysore Sadasiva Rao (1800?—1870?). He was a prominent composer and vocalist in the court of the king Krishna Rajendra III, the son of Shyamaraja III of Wodiyar dynasty of Mysore, India.

Sadasiva Rao was born in a Smartha Brahmin family. He had his musical training under Venkataramana Bhagavatar, a pupil of Tyagaraja. He is credited with developing so called Mysore style of Carnatic music.


yE maguva bOdhincerA (neekE)

which woman taught (passed those words) to you?

endukinta mOdi jEsEvu

why are you showing so much stubbornness (resistance, anger to me)?


chamArAja bhupala tanaya

O Shyamaraja king’s son!

sarasa sree Krishna rajendra

O graceful Sree Krishna Rajendra!

Muktayi Swara Sahityam

nee manaku kanugontini nyamukha niluvani mOhamu delisera nilata

dUrina paluku ceviki hitavuga vini nannu bAyuta nyAyama nee encitivo

I know (understand) your mind truly (very well). (Your) inconsistent love I know (also). Listening (opening your ears) with pleasure to abusing words of (that) woman and leaving me (i.e. rejecting my love) — do you think it is right?

Ettugada Pallavi

Orva vashamA ee tamakA mu ( morva)

Is it possible to bear this intoxicating love?

Ettugada Svara 1

cAlA nAmmi nAnurA eetUla

I trusted in you so much!

Ettugada Svara 2

eenta nA mAnasu delisi

nEra mEnca mEragAdu teerani

prEmamUla nE badAli vEdukOni

mrOkkina jUravurA ee vEla

Aware of (knowing so well) my mind (and my love for you), it is not right for you to find faults with me endlessly. With great love I plead with you today and offer (other) solutions. But you do not even look at me.

Varnam as Dance drama

There are four characters in this varnam: (1) the hero, who is the king Shyama Rajendra, (2) the heroine (Virahot Khandita Nayika, i.e. the one who is suffering of separation due to quarrel between the lovers), (3) the other woman who spoiled king’s mind against the heroine, and (4) Sree Krishna, the Istadevata of the hero, with whom the king is associated in his greatness and benevolence. All four characters are portrayed by the single dancer while presenting the varnam. Lyrics of this varnam is set in form of a monologue of the heroine, addressed directly to the hero (the king) majorly, except the last line of Anupallavi, where the heroine refers to Sri Krishna (patron deity of the king and the heroine).

The varnam can be understood as final act of the dramatic situation, which led to the current emotional state of the heroine. The varnam itself could be presented as miniature drama of relationships which takes place between the lovers.

Preamble of this varnam could be described as follows. The heroine has been in close romantic union with the hero, the king. By some reason, the king’s attitudes towards her have been drastically changed. The heroine suspects interference of a woman-rival, who spoiled king’s mind against her. She approaches the hero to discuss the reasons of such estrangement and to express her affection and despair.

In Pallavi the heroine asks the king, which woman has spoiled your mind. Further on, the heroine describes different situation which took place recently, which are illustrative of changed attitudes of the hero: stubborn pretended indifference, avoidance, rejection, open anger.

In Anupallavi the heroine appeals to good nature of her beloved. She addresses him as benevolent king, protector and keeper of the land and people, as representative of the God (Sri Krishna) himself.

In Muktayi svara sahityam, the heroine’s plea is expressed in powerful and very emotional manner. She puts her request openly — is it right to rejects her love based on wrong words of that woman?

In the second part the heroine describes her own feelings and emotional condition. She opens her heart to hero, as she wants him to understand how deep and sincere her love is.

This varnam was choreographed by Smt. Rukmini Devi. According to Sitarama Sharma Sir, this is one of the three most favorite varnams of Attayi (Rukmini Devi). He also notices that this varnam contains very simple, but traditional and well-balanced Jathis.

Below, I attempt to describe the flow of abhinaya, as it was choreographed by Attayi . It is very interesting to see how each line of sahityam (lyrics) is elaborated, decorated using different situations, how intensity of emotion is rising gradually in Pallavi, making sudden turn to admiration and hope in Anupallavi, and then coming back to the current situation in Muktayi svara, as if discharging the whole lake of feelings collected inside. In second part the heroine comes to the point and essence — she opens her heart and expresses her love in free flowing manner, the love mixed with despair, disappointment, sorrow, hope, admiration, etc. — in all the complexity of this ever powerful feeling.

Pallavi. Line I.

Hand 1.

Which woman spoiled (changed) your mind (by whispering wrong words into your ear), o my Lord?

Here the heroine is asking the king, which woman dropped some poisonous words into your ear, o my Lord! In this hand, Pada artha abhinaya (i.e. word by word depiction) is employed.

Hand 2.

Which woman among so many others (i.e. present around you) dropped poisonous words into your ear, o my Lord!

Here, the heroine repeats the same question with more intense feeling. She uses both the hands to draw attention to her request. She inquires, which female exactly (as there are many others round), poisoned your mind. She addresses the king using more respectful and bright gestures (sambhodana hasta in araimandi position).

Hand 3.

What a pretty and brick maiden caught the moment when your mind was distracted (or may be intoxicated!) so she came boldly to you and stole your heart (won your affection)?

Here the heroine puts forward indirect suggestion regarding the nature of female rival (whom she imagines as pretty, bold, keen and behaving like a coward).

Hand 4.

A pretty maiden, wrapped in silk sari, came under the cover of her veil, when full moon filled all round with its radiant light. Covering her real intentions under the attitude of affection and friendship, she came in her sweet way to you and told (whispered) something into your ear, which made my heart pang and stop for a moment.

The heroine describes false prettiness and sweetness of her rival, who covers herself with silk sari and tender veil and approaches the hero in just a right moment — when moonlight creates the atmosphere of romance and intimacy. This woman-rival comes under the veil of affection, in sweet and nice manner, and she tells to the king something very untrue and even fatal, that the heroine, who is far away that time, feels like her heart starts trembling or stops for a moment.

Hand 5.

That woman is like a serpent, which snakes and bites suddenly. When soft tendral (cool breeze) is blowing gently (and all creatures enjoy the moments of piece and comfort), this pretty maiden is coming to you in her sweet manner, as light as the tendral, but sliding as dangerous serpent, and poisons your mind.

Here the heroine recovers the real nature of the rival and her real intentions. She compares her prettiness with grace of a snake, her ways of approaching — with the way the snake hides and slides under the grass, and her sudden, unjust words — with sudden attack and bite of the snake.

Hand 6. Sancari.

That woman, who approached you — one night she took palm leaf, cleaned it and drew Yatra (magical formulae) on it. She looked round carefully (if nobody is watching her), and wrote some secret magic spell on the Yatra. Then she closed her eyes and made her wish. She took the message and, hiding under the cover of the night, secretly, scared that somebody would see her, approached your place and threw the message into your window. She was very satisfied with her successful deed and disappeared.

The heroine does not understand — how and why simple words of that woman—rival have made so much impact on the attitudes of the hero towards herself. She suspects some black magic that woman did. She suspects that her rival made some secret spell in form of Yatra and placed it secretly at the place of the hero, so he got enchanted and believed whatever the woman said to him. The heroine portrays how that woman is scheming, doing sorcery. She is trying to show the real nature of that woman to the hero.

Pallavi. Line II.

Hand 1.

Why so much stubbornness is there in your behavior (towards me)?

The heroine is asking the hero, why now (i.e. recently) you are so stubborn, closed towards her? Why you turn away from me? Why refuse to look on me? Why do you behave like that?

Hand 2.

Why now and here itself (or may be — that day and that particular place), you look at me with so much anger and disdain? What is the reason of such behavior? Please, tell me!

Here, the heroine recollects another episode which took place recently, and she puts her question with more intense feeling (using both hands and more impressive gestures). She was shocked with angry looks of the hero and depicts how he regarded her (how it looked like). She interprets looks of the hero as, how dare to appear in front of me! How dare you stay here and address me! She is asking the reason of such behavior and makes her question more expressive by addressing the hero with both the hands.

Hand 3.

I pray to you, please, tell me why you turn away from me in pretended indifference? Are you playing with me? Do you want me to go away?

The heroine bows to the hero (with anjali mudra, i.e. with great respect), thus she expresses her reverence and fear. Still, the hero turns away from her with cold (pretended) indifference. Then she is asking why he is playing with her feelings in such a way, why he is pushing her away?

Hand 4.

The heroine is trying to catch hero’s hand, but he brushes her hand off and turns away from her. The heroine is asking, Why do you play with me like that? Please, tell me!

Here the heroine understands that even physical contact (symbol of their previous intimacy) is broken. She is trying to get this intimacy back by catching the hand of the hero, but he brushes her hand off as if some dangerous insect, with open irritation and even aversion. Again the heroine is asking, why do you play this game to me? This time she makes her question in more imploring manner, by addressing the hero with both the hands (in sambhodana hasta).

Hand 5.

I do ask you, please, come to my place, sit down for just a minute, but you refuse even that sharply and angrily, and turn away from me again.

Now the heroine is trying to do something to cool down the temper of the hero. She invites him to get closer and sit down for a moment. But the hero gets even more angry with such request. This time he demonstrates his anger openly, and sharply turns away, showing that no any negotiations are possible in current situation.

Hand 6.

The heroine is making sandal paste and says to hero, I am preparing this sandal paste for you. Its aroma is so tender and it cools hands so perfectly. Please, let me put some paste on your hands! But the hero refuses to accept this service. He says that he is really tired and bored with the heroine now.

The heroine wants to serve the hero, to do something nice for him, something relaxing and pleasant. She prepares sandalwood power, mixes it with water, smells it and finds the smell very tender and pleasant. She suggests putting this paste on his hands (to cool down his temper and discharge his anger a bit). The hero refuses her services by saying that his head aches, that he feels bored and tired of the heroine’s persistence.

Hand 7.

The heroine is making jasmine garland and sais, I am making this flower garland for you. Let me put it on your chest. But the hero throws the garland off. He is furious. He sends the heroine away with the gesture of final order.

The heroine is trying to pacify the hero by making flower garland for him (as she worships him as her deity itself, as if saying, you are my Lord). She puts garland on his neck, but the hero gets even more irritated with that. He brushes the garland off, throws it on the ground (which is very sharp gesture, as the flowers thus given should not be disregarded in such a way). He throws furious looks on the heroine and demands her leaving him at once, with the gesture of final order. The hero is extremely angry. He openly pours his anger out. He shows that the only thing he wants is the heroines leaving him.

Hand 8.

My love and affection for you is sincere. This love is strong and rooted inside my heart. This is so tender and sweet feeling. Please, come close, so we can exchange a few sweet words of love, but you say No. I hear only sharp words of curse. Those words cut my heart into two. Heavy words of curse, falling on me like the stones.

This hand is the concluding episode of Pallavi, the final scene of argument between the hero and the heroine. The heroine does not know how to express her love more explicitly. She tells what her heart feels. It loves and hopes for better, and waits only for a few words of kindness. But instead of that, sharp words of hatred cut her heart into two (like the sward). Words of curse, fury, anger fall down on her. The heroine is lost and feels like stunned, like paralyzed and disoriented.

Note: Pallavi is the embryo of any musical composition and introductory part of the drama performed in the varnam. Here, the key situation is described, the scene of argument and tension between the lovers is shown. The conflict is brought forward and the characters, the situation and mutual relationships are made visible. Here the first scene of the first act finds its end.

Anupallavi. Line I.

The second scene of the first act of the drama is opened in Anupallavi. The heroine appeals to the best, highest qualities, divine nature of the hero. She praises him and addresses his protecting deity, asking for sympathy and help in her difficult situation indirectly.

Hand 1.

O Camaraja, the son of the great king! The son of the great ruler, who protects all the lands round!

Hand 2.

O Camaraja, the son of the great king who is like the Lord Rajagopala (Krishna leaning on his stick) himself!

Hand 2.

O Camaraja, the son of the great king who wears his crown as a symbol of his sovereignty over all the lands round!

Hand 4.

O son of the great (appointed by heavenly Gods) protector of 65 territories spread widely all round!

Hand 5.

To you, residing in the great city (your capital), and holding the royal attributes (she is showing the king as a chieftain sitting on horse), I address. Please, give me your blessings and protection.

Anupallavi. Line II.

Note: Here the heroine addresses the Lord Rajagopala, the patron deity (Istadevata) of the hero. She implies that the hero’s nature is similar to the Lord. This is the third scene of the first act of this drama.

Hand 1.

O sweet Lord Krishna, the king (Rajendra), I address you!

Here the heroine addresses the Lord, after whom the hero was named. She suggests this association of the hero with the Lord Krishna, and also notes the royal position of the hero (who also wears sacred thread, as the Lord). She concludes the line by saluting the Lord in very respectful way, with both the hands.

Hand 2.

O graceful Lord Rajagopala, leaning on his stick, I salute you!

Here the heroine addresses the Lord as Rajagopala, the deity of Mannargudi temple, who is depicted as young cowherd (gopala), standing in svastika pada and leaning on the stick, surrounded by cows.

Hand 3.

O charming Lord Krishna, who wears the crown decorated with precious gems and holds lotus in his hand, I pray for your blessings!

The heroine depicts Sri Krishna as the heavenly king, whose crown is decorated with three shining precious stones, who holds lotus (symbol of Goddess Sree or Lakshmi, giving prosperity and all kinds of wealth) in his hand, whose kindness has no bounds, who is ever blessing his devotees.

Muktayi Svara Sahityam

Note: The last, and the most important scene of the first act begins here.

I know your mind and unstable love. Listening willingly to the abusive words of the other woman, do you think it is right to leave me?

Here, the heroine addresses the hero again on human level, with resentment towards his infidelity. Her words are more intimate, simple and her request is open and sounds even innocent. She expresses her reproach. She tells, I see clearly what is there, inside your heart (your mind). I do know it truly well. Your love is inconsistent. You have listened (and believed) to abusive words of that woman. And you have done it with pleasure! (as the heroine presumes). Further on, the heroine asks the hero, Do you think it is right thing — to make me leave now?

This portion of sahityam is like a coda, concluding cry of wounded heart. Here, the heroine talks about heros’ feelings towards her (in contrast to Pallavi, where she discusses only his actions and behavior). She brings out the most important (for her) question — do you want me to leave you? She comes back to the theme of Pallavi by mentioning abusive words of that woman, her rival. We can see, that the heroine is extremely distressed. Now she is really afraid that the only way the hero sees , the only thing he desires is her leaving him at once.

The first act of the drama ends here.

The second act of the drama starts with Ettugada Pallavi. This is the theme and story-line of the second act. It opens and concludes each scene (corresponding to each Ettugada svara sahityam) of the second part. In this act, different shades of emotional state of the heroine are depicted. Here, the heroine expresses her own feelings, sorrows, hopes and opens her heart, her deepest wishes to the hero.

Ettugada Pallavi

Is it possible (how it is possible) to bear this love (of maddening, intoxicating nature)?

Hand 1.

Is it possible to bear this feeling, which intoxicates me?

Here, the last act of the drama is opened. The heroine is exhausted, overwhelmed with so contrary emotions. Her love and affection anchor her to this situation. But being constantly rejected, neglected and even pushed away in anger by the hero, she feels helpless. She cannot find another argument to break down the spell imposed by words (and possible actions) of cunning female rival. The hero wants to leave her. Now she expresses her own feelings. She still hopes to find some understanding. She communicated her hopes and dreams to hero indirectly. The second act of varnam is more like monologue, addressed to the hero (if he is still there), or may be to the God (who substitutes the hero if the latter has already gone and whose name the heroine mentioned in Anupallavi), or may be to clear sky and audience — whomever could hear her plea. She hopes that her message will be communicated to the hero. Somehow.

In this opening line the heroine indicates her current emotional condition. She is overfilled, overwhelmed with strong feelings. She cannot bear such intense emotion of love, which makes her suffer, which makes her absolutely exhausted.

Hand 2.

This feeling is too strong for me. How can I bear it? It is like the arrows piercing my heart again and again.

The heroine repeats the statement made in the first hand, but she makes her expression more intense. She uses comparison (metaphor of Cupid arrows) thus showing unbearable nature of her emotional state.

Hand 3.

Manmada, who holds the bow and showers flower arrows, is torturing me. Each cell of my body is burning. I feel disoriented and absolutely exhausted. I try to rise up, but every time I do it, the more arrows fall on me.

Hand 4.

O, somebody, please look at this! Manmada prepares more and more arrows! His arrows are piercing my heart and torture me! I cannot bear it. I do not want to listen to anything!

In those two hands, the heroine portrays how dreadfully exhausted she is. She falls down, on the ground as if seeking refuge and support. She tries to rise up, but finds no power to do it. Every time she gathers her powers, new bunch of Manmada arrows falls on her. She is desperate. She seeks attention of her beloved or her friends, who could see her despair and understand the reason of her condition. At last, she refuses to hear anything, i.e. she is too tired to feel at all.

Ettugada Svara Sahityam I.

I trusted in you so much! This is true.

Here the heroine says in past tense: I trusted. This statement recovers the conflict of the situation. All her trust, her love and absolute involvement with it, was denied and rejected based on some uncertain lies, hidden under covering of darkness, secrecy. Abusive words, which could not be repeated openly, in day light, caused such dramatic change. She says, that her belief in greatness of her hero is rooted deeply in her heart. It needs no proof and cannot be changed. And this is the only truth.

Ettugada Svara Sahityam II.

You know my mind (my heart or feelings) very well. You just find faults with me endlessly. With true love I plead again and again for some other solution. But you refuse to see today.

There are several way how to interpret the words of the heroine. This is the first time she is pointing out the mistake of the hero, as he is taking wood for the forest. Endless search for faults with her — what is the meaning in it? The two know each other so well (she says that she knows his heart and his mind, and here she repeats the same in his regard, that he knows her mind and her heart as well), and the feelings they share are deep and sincere. What is the point to concentrate on some illusionary faults, follow opinions of other people (like the words of that woman)?

The second point is, the heroine tries many times to make the hero see the situation from another point of view. Her motivation is evident — she is in love and she is fighting to protect their relationship from careless destruction. But the hero refuses to see (i.e. he is death and blind to reality of her feelings).

The third point is this blindness of the hero. He refuses to find alternative solution, refuses to see the heroine, to listen to her, to understand her feelings, her motives. He refuses to see her heart and mind. He does not believe her and does not believe in her love and sincere affection for him. He refuses to see situation with her eyes. Does he really care for her? The thing is, she does care for him and she is not able to change it. Followed by Ettugada Pallavi this last statement explains the deepness and intensity of her sufferings and exhaustion. But she heroine adds the last word, today. This brings in some hope that tomorrow things may change.