Sumitra Nitin, “Harnessing the Power of the Varnam” – lecture- demonstration @ Ranjani Fine Arts , 13th Sept 2014

14 Sep

Vocal: Vid Sumitra Nitin

The idea of this lecture, Sumitra said, is largely addressed to the students, to help them understand, learn and practice all the attributes of carnatic music ( raga alapana, neraval, singing kalpana swaras, tanam, kalapramanam etc) through appropriate practice of the varnams. Varnam, an integral part of every students learning curve and his or her performance at the concert stage. This attempt is not to look at thearray of varnams and its specialities, but to look at the concert singing attributes through varnams. She mentioned all the aforementioned attributes of concert singing can be practiced through varnams at the early stages of the learning.

Varnam, as a form, is a late entrant to the scheme of classical music. The earliest varnam reported to be identified as the ‘mOhanam’ varNam of Sri Govinda Samayya, composed in the late 16th or early 17th century. Thus it is not an old compositional form, but one of the most used in the concerts and most useful for the students. In the teaching methodology a great emphasis is given to the learning of varnam and Sumitra said a student should learn at least 25 varnams during his learning phase. Citing the Ilayaraja’s song ‘ninnukOri’ from the film music, she said she will use the popular mohana varnam ‘ninnukOri’ for the rest of the evening to demonstrate the aspect she mentioned above.

Tana varNam

Ninnu kOri, is a tAna varNam. Tana varnams are called so because they are set in the tempo of tanam singing. She demonstrated this by singing the pallavi line of the varnam replacing the sahitya with tanam syllables. Effective practice of varnam can help a student to eminently perform tanam singing.

While singing alapana for a ragam, you have enough time to form your phrases and are sung in all three speeds. However, while singing tanam, one has to have a continuous flow and are usually sung in madhyama kalam. Varnams are also composed in madhyamakala tempo. She demonstrated these aspects singing alapana and tanam for mohanam in line with the ninnu kOri varnam.

Earlier days, there was something called ‘chittai tAnam’, a model tanam or tanam guides. Practicing chittai tanam helps you to sing tanam during concerts. However, this is not in practice now. Instead, she said, we can use the varnam to practice the tanam singing.

Pada varnam

Padams are the slowest of the compositions. One need a certain musical maturity to sing pada varnams as it is slow paced and with a lot of artistic and aesthetic appeal. One need a lot more practice to perform pada varnams. She said, Sri T M Krishna, had recently taken pada varnams to the main stream of the concerts.

* manavi kai konna rA dA – SankarAbharaNam – Tanjavur Quartette

Singing neraval for pada varnams are used during dance programs. They are very challenging as their tempo is very very slow. Learning pada varnams are of immense value to the students of music and she said every students should learn at least 2 pada varnams in their repertoire.

Since the focus is not on types of varnam, she said we will get back to tana varnams for the days discussion. She said a varnam is like a sari. A sari can be worn in many different ways. As in the case of sari, a 6 yards of cloth that can be worn as many ways, one can use the varnam during the learning period in many ways to enhance the knowledge of the musical attributes.


The first problem she will address, she said, is that of kalapramanam. How to maintain the tempo during the singing. She said, unless one is a master of laya, a student can use the metronome to steady their kalapramanam. Keeping the metronome at a constant beat, one can sing the varnam in 2 speeds and 3 speed. She demonstrated the same with the mohanam varnam.

‘Akaram’ singing

One should also practice the varnam by singing it in ‘akaram’ replacing the words.Olden times they used to practice with all vowels. However, she noted, there are two schools of thoughts in this. One school restricts the practice only to ‘a’karam, while the other schools are open to all the vowels. This will also help the students in singing the alapana for the raga.

Arohana – avarohana phrases

All the varnams, include the arohana and avarohana (ascend and descend) phrases in the composition. This would also help the students to get the grip on these phrases by practicing the specific phrases in the varnam. She demonstrated this using the Sankarabharanam varnam singing ‘daya judara rajakumAra’.


Varnam also teaches you to pronounce the words correctly. It is important for the teachers to emphasize on the right pronunciation and punctuation of the lyrics at the early stages of the learning. However most of the lyrics are in Telugu, and it might not be easy to explain the meaning to the student. Some of them are also ‘srngara rasa’ based which makes it difficult to explain the complete meaning to the students. But students should be taught to use the right words ( she quipped the use of ‘mira’ instead of EmirA’ ).

Also, most of the varnams are with out the bhAva or the emotive content in them. While there are abundance of ‘rAga bhAva’, there is no emotive bhava, especially the tana varnams. Pada varnams are definitely an exception.


One can learn to deploy various tala and laya combinations with the appropriate practice of varnam. An experienced student should practice with various tala structures, different take off points etc with varnams to equip him in future.

She demonstrated the various ‘eDuppu’ using the ninnu kOri varnam. Singing at ‘samam’ is easy but singing atheeta (one before samam) or anAghata ( one , two or 3 akshara after samam) will help the student to face any ‘laya’ and rythm based challenges. Explaining this with ‘taka’ and ‘takita’ before the kriti she explained these nuances.

One can also do trikalam and tisram, essential attributes of pallavi singing , through methodical practice of varnam.

Changes in Gati

One can also practice the changes of gati or naDai through varnams. Most of the Adi tala varnams are with 4 aksharas per beat ( chaturashra) and a change of this into 3 ( tishram) can be practiced using muktai swaras. After every 3 lines, one will have to reach samam. She demonstrated this with the counting sa she sang.  With ‘Tana’ varnams , which usually has 6 lines, this can easily performed. However for the sAvEri varnam which has 8 lines, one will have to repeat the first line of the muktai swaras to make it 9, to sing this way.

One can also do a khaNDam ( 5 counts), mishram ( 7 counts) and sankeernam( 9 counts) appropriately. However these would be a theoretical exercise, not really practiced. Ata tala varnams which has 14 counts can easily be sang in mishram. She deonstrated this with the bhairavi varnam viribONi.


Varnams typically have all the important ‘prayogams’ of a ragam. They will also have a few ‘apoorva’ prayogams as well like the ‘sa da pa’ use in Sankarabharanam or the ‘sAranga’ like sa-ri-da-pa in the kalyani varnam.  Varnams also give you the gruha swara, amSa swara and the nyAsA swara of the ragam (??). It will also help you practice to end your kalpana swaras, by carefully examining the varnams. She explained a few of these with sahana varnam ‘karunimpa’ , noting all the swara phrases are ending either at ‘sa’ or ‘ri’.

jaNTai and dhAtu prayogams

Students can practice a lot of jantai and dhatu prayogams using varnams as they have plenty of them. She demonstrated this with the ninnu kOri varnam again.

Charanam lines

Sumitra explained that the charanam line of a varnam is a mini pallavi. Explaining this with a demonstration she said all the aspects of manodharma sangeetham can be done at the charanam line. She recalled an instance where Smt Vedavalli sang a short neraval at the charanam line, later clarifying she had not done any innovation, but they were in practice in earlier days.

Swaras for Varnams

There are two thoughts about singing kalpana swaras at the end of the varnam. Demonstrating with kalyani varnam and with kAmbOji varnam, she demonstrated how one can sing kalpana swaras for varnams and how a student can learn from the varnam on how to end the kalpana swaras.


Trikalam is usually a pallavi exercise and is rather complicated for a non-laya oriented person. Singing the given line in 3 speeds with tala being constant. She explained how one can do this practicing a varnam, demonstrating through abhOgi varnam

She said, the last charana swaram of the varnam gives you the entire gamut of the ragam and are usually starts at ‘shadjam’, Kedaragaula varnam being an exception ( starts at ‘ri’). It also gives us all the constructs that is unique to that ragam. She sang a few lines to explain this aspect, singing the mohana kalyani varnam of Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman.

Smt Sumitra Nitin, concluded her short lecture with a surprise varnam composed by her. She said, this was done during an advanced training conducted by Sri Neyveli Santhanagopalan. Emphasising the importance of varnam he asked each of the participants to compose one overnight and present them in the next class. This varnam , was a result of that exercise. An interesting varnam with a lot of technical brilliance to it. One has to listen to this again with full accompaniment.

unnai nAn nambinEn guha sOdaranE – kEdAram – Sumitra Nitin.

This is a good idea for a Lec-Dem before the concert by Ranjani fine Arts and a good , relevant subject to explain. Good job done by the organisers and the vidushi.

These are some of the aspects that I could gather during the speech and I am sure with my incompetence, I would have misunderstood or missed many points.

1 Comment

Posted by on September 14, 2014 in Lec-Dem


Tags: , ,

One response to “Sumitra Nitin, “Harnessing the Power of the Varnam” – lecture- demonstration @ Ranjani Fine Arts , 13th Sept 2014

  1. Smitha Patvardhan

    October 21, 2014 at 7:51 am

    Sir, can you please provide the contact details for the lec-dem by Prince Verma on 2nd Nov.


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