Lec Dem on Varnam


Smt. Rajashree Ramakrishna presented a lec dem titled “An analysis of the structure of the varnam with special reference to the styles of varnam composers” at Shri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Chennai on 23rd Dec 2008. She was accompanied by M. Subhashree on vocal support and Sri Nagarajan on the mrudangam. Here are some excerpts from the same based on the notes I took. I have taken the liberty to organize these under my own headings.



Musical forms are compositions which occupy a major chunk of repertoire of art music practitioners in South India. We have different types of musical forms pertaining to sacred dance, opera and art music. These are nothing but expressions which define different facets of a raga. Musical forms are thus musical expressions bound by time (i.e. tAlam) and meaningless or meaningful text.

The main musical forms that existed in the 17th century were AlApa, ThAyA, gItam and prabandhA. We come to know about these from the musical treatises of that period like “caturDanDi prakAshikA” and “svara mELa kalAnidhi”. Of these, only the AlApa and gItam exist today. ThAyA and prabandhA have metamorphosed into other forms. Varnam, kriti, kIrtana, svarajati, padam, jAvaLi and tillAnA are the other musical forms which are performed in art music concerts. These came into existence in the period from the 17th to the 19th centuries.



The emergence of raga concept and the desi musical forms can be traced to the period of Matanga.  Treatises like Brhaddesi, Sangeetha Makaranda, Sangeetha Samaya Sara, Sangeetha Ratnakara and Sangeetha Sudhakara describe the lakSana of musical forms that existed in their respective periods. The evolution of musical forms can be classified into the following stages:

1. prabandhA is the forerunner of all later musical forms. The emergence of prabandhA can be described as the first stage of the development of the musical forms

2. The second stage could be the emergence of the kriti and kIrtanAs.  This can be compared to the north Indian Hindustani music where the dhrupads are longer and metrical in structure unlike the very popular khayAls which are smaller and are in the vernacular language. The dhrupads and prabandhAs were mostly composed in Sanskrit and it was not easy for the common man to follow them. After vernacular languages became very popular, the prabandhAs went out of use/vogue and kritis started coming to the forefront. 

3. The third stage was the rise of technical compositions illustrating rAgams and rAga rUpams. There were also a large number of prabandhAs still in existence. There was also a phase were all the tAnAs were notated. ThAya refers to tAnA patterns notated to tALam. There were a lot of notated tAnAs in existence. While composers were trying to realize the rAga rUpam, they needed a lot of exercises to enhance the understanding the rAga svarUpam which led to the emergence of a lot of these musical forms. An example is the emergence of ciTTa tAnAs which would have later developed into tAna varNams

4. The fourth stage has a lot of bhAva sangItam ex. padam compositions. A lot of padams became popular and there was a lot of stress on realizing the musical svarUpam of a rAga

5. The fifth stage was the development of dance dramas and dance/musical compositions such as svarajati, tAna varNams, pada varNams, shabdams and kauthuvams

6. The sixth stage is the contribution of the musical trinity. 

7. The seventh stage is the post trinity period that has rAgamAlikAs, tillAnAs etc. 

All these musical forms helped people realize the individuality and scope of rAgams



The first type of musical form which a student of music learns after solfa or sargam abhyAsa gAna exercises is the gItam. gItam has very simple melodic structure and is mostly a continuous composition without the sections pallavi, anupallavi and caranam. Some gItams have two or more sections called khanDikAs. Sometimes, the opening section is repeated after every khanDikA. gItam is sung at a medium tempo and does not have melodic variations (sangatIs)

The structure of the gItam is such that it can be sung in three speeds. This prepares the students for tackling the other musical forms like prabandhAs later on. prabandhAs are longer compositions with many more khanDikAs. Dikshitar’s style of composing was steeped in prabandhAs. In his composition sUryamUrtE (saurAshTram), Dikshitar uses 2 akSarams for dhIrga syllables and 1 akSaram for all hrisva syllables. He adheres to this even in his 2 kaLai compositions. 

Thyagaraja and Shyama Sastri have composed in a different style in that they have resorted to the prose order where there is lot more scope for the musical aspects and for expanding the musical composition

gItam is a continuous piece and is sung from beginning to end without repeated tAlA cycles. No section is repeated usually.



Svarajati and jatisvarams are musical forms that are familiar to both music and dance students. As the names of these forms suggest, they have 

  • swara – solfa
  • jati – rhythmic syllables
  • sAhityam  – text


The architect of svarajati as a musical form is Melattur Veerabhadraiah who lived in the 18th century. His svarajati in the rAgam husEni is the earliest example of a svarajati. Shyama Sastri later composed svarajatis that are concert worthy. 

Svarajatis are of three types:

  • Those learnt in the abhyAsa gAna section – simple form without any jatis intended for students
  • Those that are typical dance forms with solkaTTus, rhythmic syllables etc
  • svarajatis of Shyama Sastri – performed only in music concerts and not in dance concerts


Svarajatis used in dance concerts are replete with nAyakA-nAyikA bhAvA and are suitable for performing abhinaya. There are also simple svarajatis that are taught to students after they acquire a sufficient number of gItams. A svarajati is neither as syllabic as gItam, nor does it have as many vowel extensions as in a varNam. In a svarajati, the text and the tone play an equal role. Some composers of svarajatis are Shyama Sastri, Shobanadri, Swati Tirunal, Chinni Krishna Dasa, Melattur Venkatrama Sastri, Ponniah, Vadivel, Adiyappaiah, Veena Seshanna and Mysore Sadashiva Rao



The structure of a jatisvaram is also like that of a svarajati but it does not have sAhityam  and comprises of only solfa syllables. There are some jatisvarams of Tanjore Quartette that have half Avartanam of solfa syllables and half Avartanam of jatis. 

The first half of svarajati is performed at a slower pace and the later half is performed at a faster pace. Svarajati has more scope for abhinayam. These are the main differences between svarajati and jatisvarams

Svarajatis and jatisvarams are optional in music concerts but are indispensable in dance concerts.

In jatisvarams and svarajati which have pallavi, anupallavi and caraNam, the pallavi is sung first followed by the anupallavi. The pallavi is then repeated. This is followed by the caraNam. If there are many caraNams, they are sung in a sequential order and the pallavi is repeated after every caraNam





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.



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 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 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



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’s kalyANi varNam “nIvE gatiyani” in tisra maTya tALam



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.




Most of Patnam Subramanya Iyer’s 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. 



He concentrated more on developing the rAgam. His varNams are thus more rAgam oriented. He followed Patnam Subramanya Iyer’s 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



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



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



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




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.



Many books have been published on varNams. Some of them are:

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


The following varNams were either sung fully or partially in the lec dem:

  1. inta cAlamu (tAna varNam) – bEgaDa – Adi – vINa kuppaiyer 
  2. sakhiyE inda vELayil (pada varNam) – Anandabhairavi – Adi – ponnaiAh 
  3. nIvE gatiyani – kalyANi – tisra maTya – shyAma sAstri
  4. inta kOpa (ghana navarAgamAlikA varNam) – rAgamAlikA – Adi – kALahasti venkaTasAmi rAja
  5. sAmi nI pai – nAgasvarAvaLi – Adi – paTTaNam subramaNya iyer
  6. nera nammiti – kAnaDA – kanDa aTa – rAmanAthapuram srInivAsa iyengAr
  7. jalajAkSa – hamsadhwani – Adi – mAnmbuchAvaDi venkaTa subbaiyer
  8. entO prEma – suruTTi – Adi – pallavi gOpAla iyer
  9. annamE – Arabhi – Adi – tiger varadAcAr
  10. ambOruha pAdamE – ranjani – Adi – g.n.bAlasubramaNiam

11 thoughts on “Lec Dem on Varnam

  1. Dear Ram,
    I’ve been reading your posts for the past one or two months…
    Very nice compilation throughout..
    Couldn’t have asked for a better source of such useful info…
    Keep it up!

  2. Very informative.Thank you. These help to assuage the guilt about missing such lec-dems.

  3. hi ram,
    great blog.. I came across it while searching for ‘hey govinda hey gopala’ sung by maharajapuram santhanam. nice lectures.. keep up the good work..

    p.s: i have still not found the file i was searchin for… any ideas where i can find them???

  4. The information on varnams was useful. Can you pls. let me know more info. regarding the sighnificance of sahitya in varnams, why it si sung in the beginning of the concert, etc. Where can you get T.K. Govinda Rao’s book on varnams/

  5. Ram,


    His suruTTi varNam is set to a speed well suited to the rAgam

    I am wondering which varna this one is. To the best of my knowledge, Pallavi Gopala Iyer didnt compose a varna in Surati. Can you please clarify ?

    Also the varna structure outlined may not hold true always- for example his Kambhoji varna. Appreciate if you can update from your notes !



  6. Forgot to add. The varna ‘Ento Prema’ in Surati/Adi tala is by Vina Kuppier not Pallavi Gopala Iyer.


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