Varṇam is a form of song in the Carnatic music repertoire consisting of short metric pieces which encapsulate the main features and requirements of a raga.[1] The features and rules of the raga (also known as the sanchaaraas of a raga) include how each note of the raga should be stressed, the scale of the raga, and so on.[2]

Known for their complex structure, varnams are a fundamental form in Carnatic music.[3] All varnams consist of lyrics,[3] as well as swara passages, including a pallavi, an anupallavi, muktaayi swaras, a charanam, and chittaswaras.[2] There are two types of varnams, known as Taana varnam and Padha varnam.

Considered as probably the most complex form in Carnatic music, varnams play a significant role in Carnatic music.[4] A varnam is traditionally performed as an opening item by musicians in Carnatic music concerts to act as warm-up for the musicians,[5] or as a centre main piece in Bharatanatyam dance concerts. As a foundation to Carnatic music,[6] varnams are also practised as vocal exercises by performers of Carnatic music, to help develop voice culture, and maintain proper pitch and control of rhythm. The melodic patterns in a varnam are considered to be characteristic patterns of a particular raga, and assist a performer in ensuring the swaras of the raga are sung or played effectively. Teachers of Carnatic music maintain that varnams must be practised in double and triple speeds by performers in order to develop the skills of manodharma (improvisation), particularly neraval and kalpanaswaras.[6]

Type of varnams

Named for its tanam-like rhythmic qualities, tana varnams only have lyrics for the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam.[7]

With rhythmic elements like a padam, pada varnams are generally sung to accompany South Indian classical dance, including bharatanatyam.[8] Unlike the tana varnam which only has lyrics for the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam and swaras for the rest of the sections a pada varnam also have lyrics that correspond to the muktaayi and chitta swaras of the varnam, so generally, pada varnams contain more lyrical content than a tana varnam.[8] The swaras in this type of varnam are suitable for intricate footwork.[8] Padajathi varnams are simply pada varnams that also contain jatis in it, making it again more suitable for South Indian classical dance.[8]

Contents of a varnam

The name "varnam" (meaning "letter") was likely given to this form of song due to the prevalence of swara letters in this type of composition.[9]

Lyrical content of varnams are commonly either devotional or amorous.[9]

The varnam is subdivided into several sections:

  • Pallavi: The first section of the Varnam, sung with lyrics or sahitya.
  • Anupallavi: A sort of recapitulation, sung with lyrics or sahitya also.
  • Muktaayi Swaram: Sung completely with syllables—or swaras -- (like s (sa) r (Ri) g(ga) m(ma) p (pa) d(da) n(ni) (sa)(This is the higher version of the normal one). In Pada Varnas it is known as Muktaayi Swara-Sahitya.
  • Charanam: Sung with lyrics
  • Chitta Swara: 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.
  • Anubandham:epilogue to the Varnam. Some varnams have an additional part that follows the charanam and chitta swaras, that is sung with lyrics or sahitya thus leading back to the muktaayi swara or the first pallavi line itself. It is found more often with very old Varnams and it is less prevalent in the newer varnams. In modern times, some old varnams are even sung partially, by omitting the anubandham part. The most classical example of this is the Viribhoni varnam in Bhairavi, which is sung after omitting one of its chitta swaras and the anubandham.

Generally, a varnam is sung as follows:

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

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

  • Charanam
  • Chitta Swara 1
  • Charanam
  • Chitta Swara 2
  • Charanam
  • Chitta Swara 3
  • Charanam
  • Chitta Swara 4
  • Charanam

This is the usual way of singing a simple varnam. The sahitya is very short to spell, but when sung, the words are usually split, while prolonging the sound the previous pair to quadruple "words." (Example: Sami Ninne, would be sa,,,,,,,mi,ninn,,,,,nne (S,,,nsdnp,mpg,m,p,dnp,)

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 Anupallavi and Muktaayi 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:

Ata Tala Varnams include:

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

The "Mathe Malayadhwaja" by Harikesanalloor Mutthiah Bhasgavatar is a unique Varnam because the Chitta swara has two different types of saahitya arranged according to it. The first is a rhythmic poetry describing the king and has the Raaja mudra and the second is a lilting Solkattu swara which is very nicely embodied in expression by bharatanatyam dancers

See also


  1. Nettl (2005), p189
  2. Royal Carpet: Glossary of Carnatic Terms V
  3. Bradnock (1992), p631
  4. Tenzer (2006), p309
  5. Gupta (2006), p68
  6. Panchapakesa Iyer (1989), p57
  7. Royal Carpet: Glossary of Carnatic Terms T
  8. Royal Carpet: Glossary of Carnatic Terms P
  9. Parthasarathy, T. S. (1997). "More Light on Swati Tirunal". The Journal of the Music Academy, Madras. Music Academy. LXVIII: 114.


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