Varnam is the most enthralling, interesting and a challenging item in a bharatnatyam recital. It is a piece-de-resistance where in the expertise of the dancer is known.
There is a perfect synchronisation of Bhava, Raaga and Taala, thus giving the dancer abundant scope for displaying her rhythmic talents along with rich and variegated abhinaya. It is also a measure of one of the ‘Dashapraanas’ (the 10 vital characteristics of a good dancer), that is ‘ashrama'(endurance), since it is the longest and the most demanding item where in the dancer uses her feet dancing to the Adavu-Jatis, the hands and the hastaas indicating the meaning of the song, while the feeling (inner emotion) is potrayed by the saatvika abhinaya through subtle facial expressions.
Varnam is nearly 45 minutes to one hour long item and creates an impression of beauty, grandeur and profundity while depicting the changing moods of love for the hero who is a God. The mood is of Shringaara Bhakti- the worship through love.
Stucture of Varnam:
Varnam is divided into two sections:
The ‘Purvaranga’, that is, the first half comprising pallavi, anupallavi and muktaayi swara, also called as chitta swara with abhinaya being alternated with pure dance steps.
The second half is the ‘Urraranga’, also called as the ‘Ettugada’ or ‘Charana’ comprising ettugada sahitya and ettugada swaraas.
The first half opens with a ‘mukaala termaanam’, that is a teermaanam in three kaala (speeds) which is choreographed with complex and graceful adavus, performed to the recital of the ‘shollukattu’. Then the pallavi and anupallavi sahitya is alternated with nritta followed by the muktaayi sahitya and the muktaayi swara indicating the end of ‘purvaranga’. The pallavi sahitya is rendered once again and then the charana (ettugada) begins with the alternate occurence of sahitya and swara on one hand and abhinaya and pure nritta on the other hand. After the last charana swara , the sahitya is rendered again and brought to an end on aappropriate note till the cycle of taala is completed.
There are two kinds of Varnams- one is Pada Varnam and the second is Taana Varnam.
Taana Varanam is mainly intended for musical practice. Much of it is in middle or fast tempo. Though it has sahitya but the sahitya does not have much room for the exposition of rich and variegated abhinaya.
Where as PadaVarnam which is also known as ChaukaVarnam is sung in slow tempo (chaukakaala meaning vilamb or slow tempo) and hence give ample scope for abhinaya as well as the nritta.
Varnam was not part of the Sadir Attam till the 18th century. The earliest composer of Varnam is beleived to be Melattur Veerbhadrayya who was in the court of Prataapa Simhaa (1739-1763). The idea of a musical composition with sahitya for all angas was probably suggested by ‘Husseni Swarajati’ by Veerbhadrayya himself. He is also known to have given a definite shape to Carnatic music. Patchimiriyam Adiyappa, Ramaswami Dikshitulu (1735-1817), Mudduswami Dikshitulu (1775-1835), Shyama Shastri(1763-1827), Ponnaiya and Vadivelu of the Tanjore Quarttette and more are some of the later nattuvanaars who composed Varnams.