Natalie Savelyeva

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

(Rukmini Devi Arundale)

Varnam in Music

Varnam is a form of song in the Carnatic music repertoire. A varnam is a relatively long piece and can range from 30 minutes to up to an hour. It is usually set to Aadi or Ata tala. It is the center piece in a recital of music or dance. The lyrics are simple and consist mostly of long syllables and swara phrases of various lengths which bring out the essential features of the raga. It has two types: Taana varnam and Pada varnam.

Varnams are considered as vocal exercises in a particular raga. The patterns in a varnam are characteristic patterns of a particular raga. Varnams are considered as the complex of the vocal exercises in Carnatic Music. They are designed to help develop voice culture and proper control of rhythm. Indeed, varnams are often practiced in double and triple speeds and proper rhythmic control (tala) must be kept.

Types of varnams

Named for its thanam-like rhythmic qualities, tana varnams only have lyrics for the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam. With rhythmic elements like a padam, pada varnams are generally sung to accompany South Indian classical dance, including Bharatanatyam. Unlike the tana varnam which only has lyrics for the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam and swarams for the rest of the sections a pada varnam also have lyrics that correspond to the muktayi and chittai swaras of the varnam, so generally, pada varnams contain more lyrical content than a tana varnam. The swaras in this type of varnam are suitable for intricate footwork. Padajathi varnams are simply pada varnams that also contain jatis in it, making it again more suitable for South Indian classical dance.

Contents of a varnam

The varnam is subdivided into several sections:

  • Pallavi: The first section of the Varnam, sung with lyrics or sahithyam.
  • Anupallavi: A sort of recapitulation, sung with lyrics or sahithyam also.
  • Mukthaayi Swaram: Sung completely with syllables or swaras (like sa ri ga ma pa da ni sa). In Pada Varnas it is known as Mukthaayi Swaram-Sahithyam.
  • Charanam: Sung with lyrics
  • Chittai Swarams: Sung completely with syllables. In a Pada varnam, there are lyrics which correspond to the Charanam swaras. The swaras occur in several groups or stanzas.

Generally, a varnam is sung as follows:

  • Pallavi
  • Anupallavi
  • Muktayi Swaram
  • Pallavi (in double speed)

Repeat, then Pallavi sung in triple speed, or in original speed.

  • Charanam
  • Charanam Swara Group 1
  • Charanam
  • Charanam Swara Group 2
  • Charanam
  • Charanam Swara Group 3
  • Charanam
  • Charanam Swara Group 4
  • Charanam

There are generally 3–5 swara groups in every varnam. In a concert, the entire charanam section is sung at approximately 1.5 speed. Sometimes when repeating the Pallavi the Annupallavi and Muktayi Swarams are repeated in double or triple speed.

Varnams are generally sung in two varieties of talas, or metric systems, Adi Tala (8 beat cycle) and Ata Tala (14 beat cycle), where Ata Tala varnams are generally more complicated and advanced. In most of the Adi Tala Varnams the tala is placed in the 2 kalai version. So therefore each beat and finger count is placed twice.

Famous Varnams

Adi Tala Varnams include:

  • "Sami Ninne" in Sree Ragam composed by Karur Devudu Iyer
  • "Ninnukori" in Mohanam ragam by Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar
  • "Evvari Bodhana" in Abhogi ragam by Patnam Subramania Iyer
  • "Valachi Vacchi" in Navaragamalika (9 ragas, similar to Ragamalika which literally translates to a garland of ragams.

Ata Tala Varnams include:

  • "Viriboni" in Bhairavi ragam by Pacchimiriam Adiyappa
  • "Nera Nammithi" in Kaanada ragam by Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar
  • "Chalamela" in Sankarabharanam by Swati Tirunal

The Arabhi ragam varnam is supposed to be the only longest piece with jantai and tattu prayogas.

The Valachi vachi varnam is a Navaragamalika composition.

The "MATHE MALAYADHWAJA" is a very Unique Varnam due to the fact that the Chitte swara has two different types of sahitya arranged according to it. The first is a rhythmic poetry describing the king and has the Raja mudra and the second is a liting Solkattu swara which is very nicely embodied in expression by Bharatanatyam dancers.

Varnam by Smt. Rajashree Ramakrishna

A varNam is a musical form which has in it all the elements of gItam, jatisvaram and svarajati. It prepares the students with adequate skills to be able to learn a kriti. The first half of a varNam which has profuse vowel extensions resembles a kriti while the second half beginning with ettugaDa pallavi and caraNam swarams resembles a svarajati or a jatisvaram.


The pallavi of a varNam usually consists of 2 Avartanams followed by an anupallavi of equal length. The third section is an optional upapallavi of the same length. The theme of the text could be devotional, shringArA or in the praise of a patron.

The varNams were a realization of the musical structure of a rAgam. For example, the bEgaDa varNam "inta cAlamu" starts at the madhya sthAyi, goes to the tAra sthAyi and comes back. When the upapallavi is over, the varnam is musically complete.

Tana Varnams

These are compositions played or sung at the commencement of a concert. The tempo is usually madhyama kAlam. The pallavi and anupallavi consist of very few sAhityam syllables with profuse vowel extensions. In the second half of the varNam, the ettugaDa pallavi consists of sAhityam syllables. The remaining portions comprise of solfa or swara passages.

Therefore tAna varNam is an instance of a composition which consists of two parts – one in which sAhityam is predominant and the other in which solfa is predominant. They both are mutually exclusive. Once the first section is over, we are done with it. It is like putting two different compositions together, one of which is sAhityam oriented and the other that has swarams as the main forte. The ettugaDa caraNam swarams increase in size and complexity starting from the 1st to the 4th or 5th caraNam swarams.

tAna varNams are mostly set in Adi and kanDa jAti aTa tALam. They are rarely set to other tALams. Almost all of them start with sama eDuppu if in Adi tALam and at the third beat if set to aTa tALam

Pada Varnams

pada varnams are also called cauka varNams. As the name implies, the tempo intended for these is caukam or slow to give scope for the depiction of bhAva. ciTTasvaram and ettugaDa swaram have sAhityA. The theme of a pada varNam is devotional, shringArA or in praise of a patron. It is usually set in Adi tAlam. Unlike tAna varNams that are sung in different speeds, pada varNams are usually sung only in slow speeds. Most pada varNams have eDuppu at samam while a few have different eDuppus. The entire varNam has the sAhityA.

tAna varNams were in existence earlier than the pada varNams. There was no term as pada varNam earlier. All varNams used to be called tAna varNams and used to have sAhityam .

tAna varnams were perhaps intended to be sung in madhyama kAlam and melodic variations (sangatIs) were not to be resorted to. Earlier all varNams had sAhitya. But may be the sAhityam presented considerable difficulty in emphasizing the tAna progression and the madhyama kAlam tempo of the dhAtu. Hence may be the idea of introducing sAhityam for tAna varnams was given up. Later composers like Patnam Subramanya Iyer, Pallavi Gopala Iyer, Veena Kuppaiyer, Tiruvotriyur Tyagayyar and others have composed tAna varnams without sAhityam for the muktAyi swarams and ettugaDa swara sAhityam portions.

Ragamalika Varnams

Ragamalika is a concept as old as Matanga who refers to it as "rAga kadambakA". Many have used this concept but Veerabhadraiah was supposed to be the first one to compose a rAgamAlikA varNam. He was the guru of Ramaswami Dikshitar. He was also the first to use the rAga mudrA. One of the most popular rAgamAlika varNams is "valaci vacci", the navarAgamAlikA varNam of Patnam Subramanya Iyer. Another example is ghana navarAgamAlika varNam by Kalahasti Venkatasami Raja that is composed in the rAgams nATTai, gauLai, varALi, Arabhi, shrI, nArAyaNagauLa, rItigauLa, bauLi and kEdAram.

Ganakrama of Varnam

The ganakrama of a varNam is different compared to that of a svarajati/ jatisvara. The pallavi, anupallavi and muktAyi swaram are performed continuously and the first Avartanam of the pallavi is sung as a conclusion to the first half of the varNam. The second half has an ettugaDa pallavi with many caraNams sung in sequential order. The caraNam begins with ettugaDa pallavi and after each caraNam swaram, the ettugaDa pallavi is repeated and is also sung as the concluding Avartanam.

In earlier days, a section called anubandham existed after caraNam in which the sAhityam of the muktAyi swaram would be sung followed by the pallavi. The anubandham used to link the end of the varNam back to the pallavi. Examples are anubandhams in viribONi (bhairavi), in the pantuvarALi varNam "sAmi nine" of Shatkala Narasaiah and in Shyama Sastri kalyANi varNam "nIvE gatiyani" in tisra maTya tALam

Composers of Varnams

Composers of varnams include Govindasamayya, Shatkala Narasaiah, Adiyappaiah, Sonti Venkata Subbiah (?), Pallavi Gopala Iyer, Pallavi Doraiswamy Iyer, Ponnaiah, Chamarajendra and Veena Kuppaiyer. Govindasamayya and his brother Kuvasamayya was known to have composed the famous pancaratna varNams in the rAgams mOhanam, kEdAragauLa, nATTakurinji, navarOj and one another rAgam that is not known today. Apart from being composers, the brothers were also dancers. Govindasamayya is considered to be the first composer of varnams.

The period of the trinity saw many varNam composers. Ramaswami Dikshitar and his guru Veerabhadraiah were among the earliest composers. Pacchimiriyam Adiyappaiah is called the "Tana Varna Margadarshi". He composed the immortal bhairavi varNam "viribONi".

Gangai Muthu Nattuvanar, Subbaraya Nattuvanar and the Tanjore Quartette have composed many pada varNams.

Some of the modern day composers are Tiger Varadachar, Muthiah Bhagavathar, G.N. Balasubramaniam, T.M. Thyagarajan, Tanjavur Sankara Iyer, Calcutta Krishnamurthy and Lalgudi Jayaraman.

Patnam Subramanya Iyer

Most of Patnam Subramanya Iyer varNams adhered to a format that had 6 Avartanams each for both pUrvAngam and uttarAngam. Examples of this include his AbhOgi, nAgaswarAvaLi, kannaDA and cakravAham varNams. Exceptions are his tODi and navarAgamAlikA varNams. The nAgaswarAvaLi varNam is a good lesson on how/ where to employ nyAsa swarams, which note to emphasize etc.

Ramanathapuram (Poochi) Srinivasa Iyengar

He concentrated more on developing the rAgam. His varNams are thus more rAgam oriented. He followed Patnam Subramanya Iyer format in many of his varNams. He was known to be a very good performer and may be this is the reason for his experimentation with different formats for his varNams. He has brought out the essence of rAgams beautifully in his varNams

Kothavasal Vankatarama Iyer and Manmbuchavadi Venkatasubba Iyer

They both gave 4 Avartanams for the muktAyi swaram while most other composers usually gave only 2 Avartanams.

Pallavi Gopala Iyer

His varNams typically have either 4 or 5 swarams in the caraNam. In his suruTTi varNam (example of a varNam having 5 swarams), the first caraNam swaram has only dhIrga syllables, the second and third ones have both dhIrga and hrisva, the fourth one has only hrisva syllables and the fifth one is long and of four Avartanam duration. In his varNams with four caraNam swarams, the first one will have only dhIrga syllables, the second will have dhIrga and hrisva, the third will have only hrisva and the fourth one will be a long one of 4 Avartanam duration. His suruTTi varNam is set to a speed well suited to the rAgam

Tiruvottriyyur Tyageyyar

Many of the composers before Tiruvotriyur Tyagayyar composed varNams in pentatonic scales. He was the first one to compose a lot of varNams in rakti ragams like sahAnA, darbAr, kEdAragauLa and madhyamAvati

Significance of Varnams

Of all the raga forms that emerged, the varNam is very significant. varNam denotes the four melodic movements:

  • sthAyi varNam
  • ArOhi varNam
  • avarOhi varNam
  • sancAri

Therefore a varNam consists of all the possibilities of melodic movements. It has now become customary to sing the varNam at the beginning of a concert.

Variety in Varnams

The earliest traceable varnam is that of Govindasamayya, a composer of the 17th century. Early varnams appear to have largely been in Telugu and later there have been Sanskrit, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada varnams as well.

Varnams appear to have grown in volume over the years. The Sangita Sarvartha Sara Sangrahamu of Veena Ramanujayya has only 12 in its 1885 edition. There are 25 in Pallavi Svarakalpavalli (1900) which has the compositions of Veena Kuppayyar and Tiruvottiyur Tyagier. There are 40 varnams in the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini of Subbarama Dikshitar (1904). In TK Govinda Rao Varnasagaram (2006) there are 500 and in the Tana Varna Tarangini of BM Sundaram there are 806.

Varnams appear to have been a standard method of praising royalty. There are varnams in praise of Serfoji and other Marathas (by Pacchimiriyam Adiyappayyah, Pallavi Gopala Iyer and Panchanada Sastry, the father of Patnam Subramania Iyer), Swati Tirunal (by Palghat Paramesvara Bhagavatar, Vadivelu), Ettayapuram family (Balaswami Dikshitar and Subbarama Dikshitar), the Wodeyars (Mysore Sadasiva Rao, Veena Subbanna and Seshanna, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar), the Rajahs of Ramnad (Subbarama Dikshitar, Poochi Iyengar, Kunrakkudi Krishna Iyer).

The structure of a varnam is usually pallavi, anupallavi, muktAyi svaram, caraNam, eDDugaDa svarams. But there are variants, for example Ramaswami Dikshitar svarasthAna varnam in tODi in praise of Manali Venkatakrishna Mudaliar has only pallavi, anupallavi, caraNam and the svaras for the last named.

Swarasthana Pada Varnam of Ramaswamy Dikshitar in Todi ragam and Adi thalam. The sahityam uses only the seven letters "sa, ri, ga , ma pa, dha and ni", all of Todi.

Padajati varnams are those that have jatis svarams in the muktAyi portion. Examples are Kunrakkudi Krishna Iyer varnam in kEdAram and Muthiah Bhagavatar "mAtE malayadvaja" (khamAs).

The older varnams have a sAhitya portion after the svaras are sung. This is today called the anubandam though earlier texts do not use this term.

The choice of ragas for varnams is quite varied. Some of the rare ragas are Ahiri (used by Tarangampadi Panchanada Iyer), asAvEri and kannaDa by Patnam Subramania Iyer, nArAyaNa gauLa and gauLa (Veena Kuppayyar), sAma and dEvamanohari (Kothavasal Venkatarama Iyer).

There are rAgamAlika varnams such as the most famous valaji in nine ragas. But a more interesting example presented was Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar ghana rAga pancaka varnam where the pallavi is in nATa, the anupallavi in gaula, the muktAyi in Arabhi, the first caraNam in varALi (did she say shri is in the second caraNam?) and all five ragas appear in the last caraNam. Veena Venkatesvara Raja varnam has the first three as in Vinjamuri but the caraNams have ragas from the second set of ghana ragas bhauLi, kEdAram, nArayaNa gauLa. The behAg varnam of Veena Seshanna has the last eDDugaDa in 14 ragas.

A variety of talas have been used in varnams. Veena Seshanna has used khaNDa dhruva, misra jhampa, khaNDa triputa, khaNDa maTya and misra tripuTa. Tanjavur Ponniah Pillai has used tisra aTa. Subbarama Dikshitar has used rUpakam, tisra Ekam. Kunrakkudi Krishna Iyer has used misra jhampa. Poochi Iyengar has used catusra aTa and Mudicondan has used tisra dhruvam.

There are varnams based on metre/chandas as well. Thus a varnam in navroj has several metres such as matta ibha, dvipada, utpala and campakamAla.

The cauka varnam is a term that is based on tempo and even pada varnams can be cauka varnams.

When it comes to svara patterns, varnam composers would appear to have used their imagination to the fullest. There are varnams with vAdi samvAdi usage (gAga nini usages in Muthiah Bhagavatar "mAtE malayadvaja"). The same note in different sthAyis is used for instance by Kothavasal Venkatarama Iyer in his sAma varnam. The same note is repeated to good effect by Subbarama Dikshitar in his nATa varnam. The kAmboji varnam of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan displays usage of mridanga, gopuccha and pippilika (sama) yatis. The suruTTi varnam of Subbarama Dikshitar has svarAkshara with the caraNam lines starting with the same syllable as the svaras to which they are set.

Some varnams have sangatis as well. While many have been extrapolations by later day musicians, some appear in the early texts as well. An instance is the manohari varnam of Ramaswami Dikshitar. There is a varnam in kharaharapriya by Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer and this has sangatis too.


  1. Ganamrutha Varna Malika by A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer
  2. A book with 100 varnams published by N.C. Parthasarathy in 1973
  3. Varnasagaram by T.K. Govinda Rao (Ganamandir Publications)
  4. Tana Varna Tarangini by B.M. Sundaram (Rajalakshmi Trust)


  1. Lecture demonstration by Sumathi Krishnan at the Music Academy on 17th December 2010
  2. "An analysis of the structure of the varnam with special reference to the styles of varnam composers"
  3. Artile by Sriram V.