Prosodic Beauty

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In Carnatic music, the other important and unique feature is the prosody (lyrics), known as Sahitya. This is the very reason why there are so many composers and compositions in Carnatic music. The sahitya has always been the effective means to communicate man's moods. The greatness of Carnatic music is further heightened through masterly compositions by great composers covering a whole range of subjects from philosophy to romance in various languages.

This section aims to highlight the aspects pertaining to the literary beauty that perfectly blends with melody and rhythm.


A musical composition presents a concrete picture of not only the raga but the emotions envisaged by the composer as well. If the composer also happens to be a good poet, there is a beautiful combination of music and high flown poetry. The claim of a musical composition to permanence lies primarily in its musical setting. This is the reason why compositions in diverse languages appeal to listeners. In every composition, the syllables of the sahitya should blend beautifully with the musical setting.
In Carnatic music, a composition has manifold roles:
  • It acts as a vehicle along the path of devotion since the theme of most compositions is devotional. It not only reflects the sentiments of the composer, but when rendered with involvement, reflects the emotions of the performer too.
  • They sometimes serve as the models for the structure of a raga. For instance, there are hundreds of compositions in major ragas such as Todi, Bhairavi, Kalyani and Kambhoji, each one highlighting a different facet of the raga. Knowledge of these compositions contributes to a better grasp of the structure of ragas and their unlimited artistic possibilities. In rare ragas like Malavi, Kalanidhi and Manjari even solitary works of great masters like Tyagaraja have brought out the nerve-centre of the raga.
  • The physical structure of different compositions present a very interesting study of literary beauties. In Carnatic music some of the factors that contribute to literary beauty are:

    1. Rhyming patterns - Prasa 

    2. Rhetorical patterns - Yamakam: Identical words or syllables with different meanings)

    3. Fast-paced lyrics - Madhyamakala Sahitya  

    4. Svarakshara patterns, where the syllables of the solfa-notes and the lyrics coincide beautifully to form a meaningful word(s).

  • They suit different occasions. There are special compositions which are used exclusively in dance, like certain Padams, Javalis or Tillanas. There are also compositions for drama, like Daru, Churnika, etc.

Thus, the role of sahitya in Carnatic music cannot be over-emphasised. This explains why composers are held in such high esteem. In fact, the birth and death anniversaries of various composers are also commemorated.


Carnatic music is rich in compositions. There are thousands and thousands of compositions in different ragas, talas, languages and styles composed by great saints, philosophers, poets and historians of different periods. Thus, the lyrical content in Carnatic music has a wide range, from the religious to the romantic. Most of the composers being great musicians as well as lyricists, were Vaggeyakaras, i.e., they composed the tune and the lyrics simultaneously. The variety and complexity found in Carnatic compositions is awe-inspiring. Some songs are so easy that a child would be able to repeat it after hearing it just once, while it may take ages to master some.

Musicians try to re-create and interpret these compositions relying largely on their own aesthetic sense besides what they have absorbed from their gurus. They memorise the entire piece and endeavour to render them methodically and soulfully. An average professional's repertoire would be anywhere between 300 and 500 compositions but there are artistes who have memorised over 1000 pieces.

A typical composition in Carnatic music contains three major sections:

1. Pallavi
2. Anupallavi
3. Charanam

Classification of compositions
Compositions can basically be classified into two types:
  • Abhyasa Gana: Those that have been designed for practice purposes to improve one’s technical skills and virtuosity.
  • Sabha Gana: Those that have been designed for the purpose of performing in front of an audience.

We shall now go into the details of each of these.



Gita, literally meaning a song, is the first composition that one learns with lyrics. The lyrics are normally in praise of Gods and Goddesses.

Structure: It is a very simple composition in terms of raga and tala, that a beginner would be able to learn with utmost ease. It sometimes has all the sections of a composition, namely, Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam. Or it may just have a Pallavi and Charanam(s).

Types: There are two kinds of Gitas:

(a) Samanya Gita: Ordinary Gita
(b) Lakshana Gita: These are special Gitas that describe the characteristics (lakshana) of the raga in which they are composed.

Languages used: Sanskrit, Kannada or Bhandira.

Popular Composers: Purandaradasa, Paidala Gurumurti Sastri, Ramamatya, Venkatamakhi

Examples: Sri Gananatha - Malahari - Purandaradasa
Kereye neeranu - Malahari - Purandaradasa
Sriramachandra - Gowla - Paidala Gurumurti Sastri

Purpose: This simple composition enables an aspirant to understand the perfect synchronisation of melody, rhythm and prosody. While Gitas, in general, provide a link to higher musical forms, the lakshana gitas give an insight into the raga and its characteristics.


As the very name suggests, musical composition containing Swara and Jati (rhythmic solfas). The lyrics are normally devotional in nature, though at times, they contain descriptions of heroic deeds.

Structure: A Swarajati has all the three sections - Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanams. The Charanams have different tunes and are first sung as swaras (solfa passages) and then repeated with lyrics. Each Charanam is sung in this manner before going on to the next Charanam. Originally, this was a dance form containing Jatis, which were later excluded by Syama Sastri, who refined and perfected this form. The normal Swarajati is similar to a Pada Varnam in the structure and speed of execution. However, Syama Sastri's Swarajatis have become very popular as concert pieces.

Language used: Predominantly Telugu.

Popular composers: Syama Sastri, Pachimiriam Adiyappayya, etc.

Examples: Sambasiva - Khamas
Kamakshi - Bhairavi - Syama Sastri

Purpose: They are pleasing melodies which form the stepping stone to the next important composition, Varnam.


A musical form which has both Swaras and Jatis woven together. This form belongs to the dance repertoire.

Structure: The structure is very similar to the Swarajati. It has the usual three sections, the Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanams. Though the Charanams were originally intended to be sung with jatis, the present day Jatiswarams have no jatis or lyrics but only swaras. The emphasis here is on the rhythmic patterns. 

Popular composers: Swati Tirunal, Ponnaiyya, Sivanandam, Vadivelu and Vina Krishnamachari.

Purpose: Jatiswaram is a dance item that helps in developing rhythmic stability.


This is not only an advanced study piece but a fine concert opener too. Classical Varnams have been composed in weighty or evocative ragas, usually expressing romantic or devotional sentiments. The lyrics of the varnam are usually in praise of a God or a patron.

Structure: The varnam consists of two halves:

a) Purvanga - the first half consisting of three sections, namely, the pallavi, the anupallavi and the muktayi / chitta swaras.

b) Uttaranga - the second half consisting of the Charanam and the Charanaswaras.

The pallavi and anupallavi, usually consisting of two lines each, are sung consecutively, followed by the Chittaswara. One then goes back to the pallavi to render the whole Purvanga in multiple speeds before going on to the Uttaranga. The charanam has only one line with lyrics followed by four or more charana swaras. The Uttaranga can also be rendered in multiple speeds.


a) Tana Varnam - Normally performed in music concerts, the Tana varnam has plenty of vowel extensions in the lyrics and the words are generally in praise of God or a guru (teacher) or patron (usually Kings). It has lyrics only in the pallavi, anupallavi and the charanam.

b) Pada Varnam - This generally is considered more a part of the dance repertoire, although some Pada Varnams are used frequently in music concerts. These are normally sung in a very slow tempo in order to express the emotions. The theme here is generally love. In the Pada varnam, other than the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam, each charanaswara and the chittaswara have lyrics.

Languages used: Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit.

Popular composers: Pacchimiriam Adiyappa, Pallavi Gopala Iyer, Vina Kuppayyar, Tiruvottriyur Tyagayyar, Patnam Subramanya Iyer, Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar and many more.


  • Tana Varnams - Eranapai (Todi ), Vanajakshi (Kalyani), Ninnukori (Mohanam) 

  • Pada Varnams - Sarasalanu (Kapi), Chalamela (Natakurinji)

Purpose: The varnam is the last type of Abhyasa Gana that is learnt before going on to kriti. As the Varnams contain several important, unique, unusual and appealing phrases of a raga, it requires dexterity, knowledge, technique and good musicianship to compose and sing a varnam.

The study and practice of Varnams are of utmost importance both to the vocalist for voice training and the instrumentalists for developing good fingering techniques. The swara passages are a good basis for the performer to learn the technique of kalpanaswaras. Also practising Varnams in multiple speeds gives one a good, steady sense of rhythm.

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