Pocket guidebook to Carnatic music Song types: Varnam

Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar's Ninnukori in the raga Mohanam and two songs—Evvari bodhana in Abhogi and Era napai in Todi—by Patnam Subramania Iyer are perhaps the most well known varnams in Carnatic music.

The varnam is characterized by a preponderance of swara passages of the typical (jeeva and varja) phrases of the raga. It is an example of composed music which does not encourage manodharma.

Of the two types of varnams in vogue, tanavarnams are sung in music concerts and padavarnams are part of the Bharatanatyam repertoire. Traditionally, music concerts open with a tanavarnam.

A student of Carnatic music learns geetam, swarajati and jatiswaram before moving on to varnam.

A varnam is considered an ideal learning tool as it offers complex vocal exercises that can ensure understanding of the melody of a raga with all its swaras in their proper places and impart rhythm control. Its gamakas and phrases are regarded as truly demonstrative of the raga.

For didactic purposes, as well as in concerts sometimes, varnams are sung in single, double and triple speeds. In its vigour and pulse, the tanavarnam resembles tanam in ragam-tanam-pallavi.

Varnams are typically set in Adi tala (eight beats to a cycle) or Ata tala (14 beats to a cycle).

A tanavarnam is characterized by phrases containing long and short notes.

A pada varnam is the centrepiece of a dance performance, its most elaborate part. It is usually followed by a padam. Sringara is the dominant rasa of a padavarnam. The lyrics of the padavarnam give room for abhinaya or facial expressions and mudra or gestures.

Some varnams in Adi tala:

Sami ninne in Sreeragam by Karur Devudu Iyer

Valachi vachi, a Navaragamalika (9 ragas) varnam

Some Ata tala varnams:

Viriboni in Bhairavi by Pachimiriam Adiyappa, the first known varnam composer.  (This varnam is considered a link between the tanavarnam model and padavarnam, with its romantic lyrics).

Nera nammiti in Kanada by Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar

Chalamela in Sankarabharanam by Swati Tirunal

The varnam has a first part or purvanga and a second part or uttaranga. In the second part, a single line is repeated after a series of graded swara patterns. The usage of the device of swarakshara here is common, with the opening line containing words which are swara syllables themselves.

(Recommended reading: Sampradaya Sangita by Dr. Lalita Ramakrishna published by Kalpatharu Research Academy, Bangalore; phone 26507464, email


V Ramnarayan


Posted by Sruti Magazine , September 13, 2012