The Varnam vocabulary

Prof. C.V. Chandrasekar performs as vidushi Vedavalli and historian Chithra Madhavan look on. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan  

“The Varnams of the Thanjavur Quartet, which were so visible and performed with such beauty by dancers of so many banis from the 1960s to the 1980s, are now sadly compromised. The vision and depth of the interpretation of these compositions are a thing of the past.”

So read the invitation to the Spanda 20 seminar. It was also the premise of the two-day seminar, organised by Leela Samson’s Spanda Dance Company on its 20th anniversary, when some of those compositions were taken up for discussion and demonstration by four senior dancers – Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar, Sudharani Raghupathy, Nandini Ramani and Lakshmi Viswanathan. Some of the varnams/swarajathis discussed may not have been the creations of the Quartet, but they were equally ancient and traditional. The varnam is considered the piece de resistance in Margam, and, often, how it is handled reflects the standard of the performer. The seminar discussed how different Bharatanatyam gurus have interpreted the varnams/swarajathis of the Tanjai Naalvar tradition.

The Yadukulakhambodi swarajathi, ‘Sarojakshiro,’ was improvised by Prof. Chandrasekhar more as a varnam. The theermanams were handled by two of his students, though he showed that he is on a par with them in the energy department as he performed at the beginning of the charanam. It is no gainsaying that he brought out the bashfulness, the yearning of the nayika for Lord Brihadeeswara and her pain of separation, with such beauty that it was a lesson in abhinaya for younger artists. Some of his sancharis indicated the great height and magnificence of the temple built by Rajaraja Chola in early 11th century. But if he or historian Chitra Madhavan, who later spoke about the Big Temple, had something to say about how the various aspects of the temple had inspired the lyrics, it would have added value. Similarly vidushi R. Vedavalli could have been a little more forthcoming about the musical aspects and the historical context of the varnams of the specific era, though she did touch upon how the proper teaching of varnams at various speeds and eduppus could form the basis of singing alapana, niraval and swara as also voice training.

‘Sarasijakshidu,’ the Kalyani varnam by Sivanandam was believed to have come down through oral tradition for a long time. Kittappa Pillai, a descendant of the Quartet, had mentioned to Nandini Ramani that it might have been in the notebook of Madras Nallappa Nattuvanar, father of Kandappa Pillai, who was the teacher of T. Balasaraswati. According to Nandini, the varnam continued in the particular style only through Kandappa Pillai’s only son Ganesan, who was a close associate of Bala and had conducted her recitals for many years. It was revived in the 1980s and Kittappa Pillai himself wanted to learn it from Ganesan in 1996 and include it in a publication they were planning.

Nandini sang and also performed parts of the varnam; in her abhinaya, she indicated many of the alankarams done to the fascinating image of Lord Krishna in His varied forms during the annual 18-day festival of the Sri Rajagopala temple of Mannargudi, also known as Champakaaranya Kshetram. It was mentioned that there was ‘Sarasasikamani’ with the same tune, but it was addressed to king Sivaji, son of Serfoji.

Nandini also dealt with the Khamas swarajathi, ‘Ma Mohalahiri,’ composed by Kadigai Namasivaya Pulavar and tuned by Subbarama Dikshitar. The song is part of musical opera, ‘Vallibharatham.’ Bala and others, including Nandini, had the opportunity to learn it directly from Seithur Sundaresa Bhattar, a violinist-vocalist and one of the last of the golden lineage of Ettayapuram, when he was nearly 80.

The second day saw Sudharani Raghupathy present the ragamalika varnam, ‘Sami ninnekori’ and the Huseni swarajathi, ‘Emandayanara.’ She confined herself to abhinaya about the nayika pining for the company of Lord Brihadeeswara or the jeevatma yearning for the protection from and union with the Paramatma. She brought out the emotions of the heroine such as inviting the hero to come close to her, the pain of waiting, and playfulness in His company effectively. Explaining the meaning of the lyric, she said the hand gestures or facial expressions had to deal with the totality of the meaning of the varnam and the emotions it contained. The sancharis should handle the episodic, emotional and esoteric aspects. The 300-year-old lyrics also talk of the 1000-year-old temple and thus is still relevant, according to her. Two theermanams were performed by her disciple.

Sudharani’s abhinaya included rituals of the temple such as performing the abhishekam of the 11ft lingam by climbing a ladder and the Navasandhi natyam. Navasandhi is not performed any more, but she has had the privilege of performing it at the Big Temple when she was doing a research project. She could only briefly deal with ‘Emandayanara’ due to time constraints. The question of whether the length of the theermanam should be the same as the avartanam of the music came up quite a few times during the seminar. Sudharani said, according to her Guru Kittappa Pillai, there was no hard and fast rule about it, but it should always be even number of avartanams and not odd.

Before presenting the Thodi Varnam, ‘Daanike,’ Lakshmi Viswanathan described how this raga used to pervade her house when she was young and how it became part of her life at every stage. She learnt dance first from Kausalya of the Vazhuvoor school and after that from a disciple of Kittappa Pillai. Finally, when she went to Ellappa Pillai, he began with ‘Daanike,’ a composition of Sivanandam. She felt that the ragabhava was the main aspect of a padavarnam and that was because they were composed by people who knew dance. Lakshmi compared the varnam, which combines all the aspects -- raga, bhava, tala, swara and technique -- to various aspects of a temple. As for the nritta part, the adavus were all codified during the Maratha period by King Tulaja. The final arudis in Ellappa’s style were short and simple. Lakshmi performed parts of ‘Daanike’ including the theermanams and sancharis.

She then took up ‘Viriboni’ in Bhairavi, believed to be composed by Pachimiriam Adiappaiah, though some question it. Again due to lack of time, she handled it briefly, though at one point, she danced for swara and sahitya of the pallavi to indicate the beauty of the composition.

On the first day Chitra Madhavan spoke of the Big Temple and the Kazhugumalai Murugan temple and on the second day about the former and the temple at Mannargudi with illustrative visuals.

All the musicians provided excellent support to the dancers, which stressed the importance of the relationship between music and dance as well as the musicians and the dancer.

Day 1 was presided over by Padma Subramaniam, who spoke briefly about the subject. The second day, it was Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s turn. He elaborated on what Vedavalli had touched upon the previous day and sang a varnam line with different speeds and eduppus.

However, one question which did not quite get a clear explanation was the difference between a varnam and a swarajathi!

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 1:45:51 PM |

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