This was Sumathi Krishnan’s topic for today’s lec-dem (17th December 2010) at the Academy. She is a senior disciple of R Vedavalli. According to her, 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’s 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- Ramaswami Dikshitar’s svarasthAna varnam in tODi in praise of Manali Venkatakrishna Mudaliar has only pallavi, anupallavi, caraNam and the svaras for the last named. The cauka varnam appears to have been the speciality of this composer for out of his 6 varnams listed in the Pradarsini, 4 are cauka varnams. cauka varnam is a term that is based on tempo and even pada varnams can be cauka varnams.

Ramaswami Dikshitar’s varnam in shrIranjani was left incomplete after the first caraNam. It was completed by Syama Sastry, Chinnaswami and Muttuswami Dikshitars. If this is an instance of a varnam with four composers, there is a dual-composer varnam. This is an anuloma viloma varnam composed by Wallajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar and Veena Kuppayyar in Bhairavi. Both svara and sAhitya are palindromes from end to end. The opening line is sarasaku rAku sarasa.

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

There are rAgamAlika varnams such as the most famous valaji in nine ragas. But a more interesting example presented was Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar’s 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’s varnam has the first three as in Vinjamuri’s 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.

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. Even the standard shankarAbharaNam Adi tALa varnam has one that goes – “with love, accept and play the love sport this night. Come Kumara!” This makes sense with the earlier caraNam line going as “On the lotus eyed one” (nIrajAkshi nIpai). (I did not know of this meaning when I learnt this varnam as a young man).

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 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).

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 (I did not know he had composed) and this has sangatis too; a lovely old-fashioned sangati was demonstrated.

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.

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’s mAtE). 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.

There was a display of a lineage tree with those of the Tyagaraja parampara who composed varnams. I have a couple of doubts there, particularly in the positioning of some names. These I need to discuss with Sumathi some time.

She ended her presentation with the observation that given the variety, sufficient attention to this genre is not given perhaps because it is an opening piece in most concerts. She felt that perhaps it is time to shift it to a more central position in a concert. (I don’t agree. Musiri, Nedunuri et al have presented long pada varnams as opening pieces).

There were a number of questions.

1. BM Sundaram wanted to know the time period of Kunrakkudi Krishna Iyer. Sumathi said he was a disciple of Patnam’s and was a contemporary of Muddu Ramalinga Setupati. I differed. I have read that Patnam, Maha and Kunrakkudi were contemporaries and that puts him in an earlier generation. BMS also clarified that there were three Muddu Ramalingas in the Ramnad line and so it is difficult to use that name as a reference. He also clarified that Panchanada Iyer was not from Tarangampadi as in Tranquebar but from Talangampadi which is near Tanjavur. I have since verified and informed Sumathi that the Garland of N Rajagopalan has his life span as 1816-1889.
2. P Vasanthkumar wanted to know if Ramaswami Dikshitar’s manohari varnam was sung in kamalA manohari as in kanjadalAyatAkshi or in manohari as in sankaram abhirAmi. The speaker clarified that these are one and the same and the raga is manohari and not kamalA manohari.
3. Dr MB Vedavalli wanted to know the meaning of the word daru. The speaker said that Muthiah Bhagavatar uses this term for his varnams and it usually means a piece with a storyline to it. Dr Pappu Venugopala Rao agreed and said that in Andhra daru is equated with dhruva and there is a piece by Akundi Suryanarayana Sastry which is a daru and carries the Sarangadhara story as its theme.
4. There was one more question as to why aTa tala varnams are begun in the third beat. Apparently there are several theories for this but none conclusively proven.

Sumathi sang very well and that was a major plus in the presentation.