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Music Theory Part 3
Compositions in Carnatic Music

What are Jathiswarams?

Jathiswaram is a song consisting of only swaras (notes) and jathis (complex beats) to
which the dancer dances while having no abhinaya, or expression. It shows how
versatile the dancer is, and her capabilities. It is different from other dances in that
other dances involve abhinaya, and tell a story through facial expressions, and how the
body moves to the music to narrate the story. Jathiswaram does not do this.

Jathiswarams brings out three aspects of dance – unity of music, rhythm and
movements. Ragam and thalam are the major aspects of Jathiswaram.

Raga can be understood as special musical space where certain patterns of swaras or
tunes live in. Raga has it own mood. It guides flow of melody as cannel guides the river.

Thalam and kaalam (tempo) give feeling of time. They make melody move on, define
how fast it should flow.

Besides general thalam and kaalam of music composition, which are constant, each
dance adavu has its own rhythmic pattern. Sequences of adavus are fitting inside
avartanam as sketches are fitting pages of artist’s sketch book.

Jathiswaram reminds me mountain river – streams of melodies appear here and there
divided by stones of rhythmic patterns spread all along the main cannel of Ragam,
bending gently to and fro, following shape of the mountain.

Message of Jathiswaram is beauty. It is pure Nritta item, thus anga shuddha (proper
postures and movements) in combination with flow of melody and rhythm should evoke
sense of harmony and joy of dance in hearts of spectators.

Jathiswaram includes one jathi (sollukattu) and several korvay-s with mai-adavu in
between.First two-three korvay-s are executed to Pallavi, one korvey as a rule includes
Pallavi in combination with Anupallavi, next korvays are executed to Charanas.

What are Varnams?

Varnam is a form of song in the Carnatic music repertoire. A varnam is a relatively long
piece and can range from 30 minutes to up to an hour. It is usually set to Aadi or Ata
tala. It is the center piece in a recital of music or dance. The lyrics are simple and consist
mostly of long syllables and swara phrases of various lengths which bring out the
essential features of the raga. It has two types: Taana varnam and Pada varnam.

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Varnams are considered as vocal exercises in a particular raga. The patterns in a varnam
are characteristic patterns of a particular raga. Varnams are considered as the complex
of the vocal exercises in Carnatic Music. They are designed to help develop voice culture
and proper control of rhythm. Indeed, varnams are often practiced in double and triple
speeds and proper rhythmic control (tala) must be kept.

Types of varnams

Named for its thanam-like rhythmic qualities, tana varnams only have lyrics for the
pallavi, anupallavi and charanam. With rhythmic elements like a padam, pada varnams
are generally sung to accompany South Indian classical dance, including
Bharatanatyam. Unlike the tana varnam which only has lyrics for the pallavi, anupallavi
and charanam and swarams for the rest of the sections a pada varnam also have lyrics
that correspond to the muktayi and chittai swaras of the varnam, so generally, pada
varnams contain more lyrical content than a tana varnam. The swaras in this type of
varnam are suitable for intricate footwork. Padajathi varnams are simply pada varnams
that also contain jatis in it, making it again more suitable for South Indian classical

Contents of a varnam

The varnam is subdivided into several sections:
• Pallavi: The first section of the Varnam, sung with lyrics or sahithyam.
• Anupallavi: A sort of recapitulation, sung with lyrics or sahithyam also.
• Mukthaayi Swaram: Sung completely with syllables—or swaras -- (like sa ri ga ma pa
da ni sa). In Pada Varnas it is known as Mukthaayi Swaram-Sahithyam.
• Charanam: Sung with lyrics
• Chittai Swarams: Sung completely with syllables. In a Pada varnam, there are lyrics
which correspond to the Charanam swaras. The swaras occur in several groups or

Generally, a varnam is sung as follows:
• Pallavi
• Anupallavi
• Muktayi Swaram
• Pallavi (in double speed)

Repeat, then Pallavi sung in triple speed, or in original speed.
• Charanam
• Charanam Swara Group 1
• Charanam
• Charanam Swara Group 2
• Charanam
• Charanam Swara Group 3
• Charanam
• Charanam Swara Group 4
• Charanam

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There are generally 3–5 swara groups in every varnam. In a concert, the entire
charanam section is sung at approximately 1.5 speed. Sometimes when repeating the
Pallavi the Anupallavi and Muktayi Swarams are repeated in double or triple speed.

Varnams are generally sung in two varieties of talas, or metric systems, Adi Tala (8 beat
cycle) and Ata Tala (14 beat cycle), where Ata Tala varnams are generally more
complicated and advanced. In most of the Adi Tala Varnams the tala is placed in the 2
kalai version. So therefore each beat and finger count is placed twice.

Famous Varnams

Adi Tala Varnams include:
• "Sami Ninne" in Sree Ragam composed by Karur Devudu Iyer
• "Ninnukori" in Mohanam ragam by Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar
• "Evvari Bodhana" in Abhogi ragam by Patnam Subramania Iyer
• "Valachi Vacchi" in Navaragamalika (9 ragas, similar to Ragamalika which literally
translates to a garland of ragams.

Ata Tala Varnams include:
• "Viriboni" in Bhairavi ragam by Pacchimiriam Adiyappa
• "Nera Nammithi" in Kaanada ragam by Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar
• "Chalamela" in Sankarabharanam by Swati Tirunal

The Arabhi ragam varnam is supposed to be the only longest piece with jantai and tattu

The Valachi vachi varnam is a Navaragamalika composition.

The "Maathe malayadhwaja" is a very Unique Varnam due to the fact that the Chitte
swara has two different types of sahitya arranged according to it. The first is a rhythmic
poetry describing the king and has the Raja mudra and the second is a lifting Solkattu
swara which is very nicely embodied in expression by Bharatanatyam dancers.

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
Varnams and in the Tana Varna Tarangini of BM Sundaram there are 806 Varnams in

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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, for example 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.

Swarasthana Pada Varnam of Ramaswamy Dikshitar in Todi ragam and Adi thalam. The
sahityam uses only the seven letters "sa, ri, ga , ma pa, dha and ni", all of Todi.


sarigAni dAni pAmarini nI pada
samAgamamAga nIganinisA


garimamadAri padAri sadAri
gamapadAnigA nidAni pasagani


marimari ganisAga nipani dagadani
mAnigAniga nimmanigAdA
mari nI pathama manigAmarEnigA
manali venkatakrishnendra nAto

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

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.

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).

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

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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.

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.

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 cauka varnam is a
term that is based on tempo and even pada varnams can be cauka varnams.

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.

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 and this has sangatis too.

Temple Music

The present day practice of presenting Varnams, Keertanas, Javalis,Tillanas in
Nadaswaram concerts is of recent origin, perhaps 60-70 years. Earlier, concerts at the
temples were significantly different. Ragas were rendered with their full
embellishments/laya structure and appropriate to the presiding deity.

The Nitya Pooja or daily prayers normally comprised 6-8rituals. Each time an
appropriate raga was rendered on the Nadaswaram. This wasthe tradition and continues
even today.

The expert on Agama Sastra Sri Ramaswamy Dikshitar, has laid down a detailed
structure for Nadaswaram recitals at the temples.

The first pooja, Tiruvanandal, is performed between 5 am and 6 am to wake up the
Gods. During such times, ragas like Bhoopalam, Bowli, Malayamarutam are played.

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During the 7 am Vila Pooja, ragas like Bilahari,Kedaram are rendered.

Around 8 am ragas like Dhanyasi, Saveri, Aaaveri, and around 10 am ragas like Surati,
Mukhari, Manirangu are played.

At noon, during the UcchikalaPooja Mukhari, Poornachandrika, Mandari and similar
ragas are played.

At 8 in the night during the Ardhajama pooja, ragas like Sankarabharanam,Bhairavi,
Kambhoji, and at the 10 pm Palliarai pooja, ragas like Anandabhairavi, Neelambari are

Thus it is a very scientifically laid down structure which was not only appealing but in
keeping with the time of the day. The village folk could easily identify the time without
clocks merely by listening to the ragas and the songs. Devotees would also be able to
know which pooja was being performed.This evidences the fine-tuned prayer scheme
prevalent in south Indian temples.

The playing of ragas is keeping with the temple rituals.

Rendering of Mallari, Pancha Nadai, Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi etc during the procession of
the deities were the traditions prevalent over many years. In recent times, Madurai Sri
Ponnuswamy Pillai, Tiruveezhimalai brothers, Tiruppambaram brothers and Sri
Karaikurichi Arunachalam contributed to the change in the concert format from the
earlier raga-oriented approach to the present format of handling ofVarnams, Kritis,
Keertanas, Tillanas etc.

Kucheri Paddhathi

The modern concert format or kutcheri paddhati was formulated by the late Ariyakudi
Ramanuja Iyengar in the 1930s when Karnatak music was going through a period of
flux, which the elite of Madras, which dominated bodies like the Madras Music
Academy, trying to streamline it to suit the middle classes who were also growing in
musical maturity.

By introducing the compact formula in his own concerts he set a new trend. Ariyakudi
reduced the concert to manageable proportions and duration, with a mix of heavy and
light items so as to sustain audience interest.

The introductory Varnam is followed by a kriti dedicated to the deity Ganapathy, the
remover of obstacles, and a few other short kritis with or without brief alapana.

Midway through the recital a kriti with scope for an elaborate alapana, niraval and
kalpana swara is selected. Taken on to the end of this piece is the tani avartanam, where
the percussionists display their skills.

After a few short items, the weighty Ragam-Tanam_Pallavi is offered by some (though
many get away without it), which takes up three-quarters to one hour.

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The recital then begins to wind up with hymns, padams, javalis, tillana, slokas in
ragamalika (a chain of ragas), folk songs… The concluding piece is the auspicious
Mangalam composed by Tyagaraja.

Ragam Thaanam Pallavi

The piece de resistance of a Karnatak concert is the Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi (RTP). This is
a very lengthy item of pure manodharma. It starts with an elaborate alapana which is
often split into two parts. The first part consists of an impressionistic sketch of the raga
painted with broad brush strokes. This is followed by a detailed treatment with all the
subtleties, Nuances, brigas and virtuosity that the artist can command.

The alapana is follosed by the tanam. Tanam is free of tala restrictions but it has a
particular gate and cadence and is sung by uttering the syllables “tanamta-anamta-
nomtomtanamta.” According to Rangaramanuja Ayyangar:

“Tana is a very old word that originally meant a musical phrase. But somewhere in the
last century it acquired a new connotation… The veena took it over and adapted it to suit
its own genius… It was so attractive that ere long the vocalist picked it up.
Appropriately, he labeled it Tanam and used the word as its sole text. When repeated
over and over it changed into Ananta, infinity, signifying the interminable vista of
scintillating sound images that flowed from it.”

Pallavi, the third part if this virtuoso exercise, is an extended niraval. The word Pallavi
in this context, as distinct from that forms the first part of a kriti, is made up of the
combination of the first two letters of pada (words), laya (rhythm) and vinyasa
(variation). The musician selects a text of one self-contained line and sets it to a complex
tala. The starting point, the point of rest and the distribution of the words of the text are
very important. This is elaborated like a niraval exposition but in a far more complicated
manner with differing speeds and talas. Sometimes the musician ands the Pallavi by
singing the same text in a chain of ragas called a ragamalika.

Pallavi singing is the most demanding part of manodharma sangita and may be termed
as pure music, without the intervention of a composer. The text of the Pallavi may be
composed by the musician or may be a popular one; but it is of secondary importance as
it is only a peg to hand a wealth of musical ideas which have to be of the highest order.
Not everyone can sing RTP and, as mentioned earlier, this was a field of specialization
for musicians of the 19th century, who had the honorific title “Pallavi” prefixed to their
names. It was also considered a male monopoly and women did not dare to enter their
exclusive domain.

The great Pallavi experts of the 20th century like Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer,
Kancipuram Naina Pillai, Patnam Subramania Iyer and Mudicondan Venratarama Iyer
carried this tradition up to the 1930s. With the systematization of kutcheri paddhati or
concert format by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar in the 1930s, musicians gradually began
to delete this heavy item from their repertoires till it began to cause genuine concern
among musicologists. In 1970s special efforts were made to revive it.

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Manodharma Sangeetham

Manodharma sangeeta or extempore improvisation forms the acid test of a musician’s
calibre. It is the creative component, giving full freedom of expression to the artiste
without departing from the basic grammar of music. Every musician in the Indian
system is a music-maker if not a vaggeyakara and can evolve a highly individual style
depending upon the quality and timbre of the voice and the intellectual capacity. The
innate compulsion to improvise is fundamental to Indian classical music and Tyagaraja
understood this very well when he gathered various musical ideal together and wove
them into a complete musical expression in his kriti while when at the same time
allowing enough room for improvisation. By creating music with scope for manodharma
the Trinity were able to satisfy the emotional as well as the intellectual aspirations of the

Manodharma sangeeta comprises raga alapana or raga elaboration, niraval or variations
on a theme of the text, and kalpana swaras (also known as swaraprastara) or
mathematical solfa patterns. It is possible to incorporate these three branches of
improvisation in the course of presenting a kriti.


Alapana or the delineation of the contours of the raga is not bound by tala constrains.
The musician is free to wonder over the musical landscape as long as the raga from is
adhered to. The syllables used are ta-da-ri-na-ta-da-na. Karnatak music uses groups of
phrases rather then a note-by-note elaboration to reveal raga swaroopa. These phrases
of the musical language have evolved over time and keep evolving under the influence of
geniuses. They are used by all musicians and it is in fact said that the audience should
not be kept in suspense about the identity of a raga but should be able to recognize it
from the very first phrase. The test of a musician lies in the manner in which they are
linked up, with touches of individuality. When these phrases are sung in a very fast
tempo towards the end of an alapana, they are called brigas.

There are no hard and fast rules regarding the tempo, the choice of the octave for the
starting point or the length of the alapana. Good musicians can bring out the essence of
a raga in five minutes while others may beat about the bush and never succeed in
bringing out its true flavor. “The ramifications of the raga and tala in our systems are
unique. There are hundreds of raga and tala varieties, but each one of them can acquire
an individuality depending upon the genius and sadhana of individual
vidvans" (Balasubramaniam). By and large very long alapanas are not popular except in
the case of the main kriti of the session where it is expected to be elaborate.

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The kriti itself provides infinite scope for improvisation in the form of niraval. While the
actual rendering of a kriti may not be changed (trough interpretations may vary) the
musician is allowed to select a phrase that is striking and take off into flights of fancy.
The main composition remains suspended and the selected phrase from any part of it is
savored and presented in varying forms. Niravals, when expertly handled, can give a
fresh sparkle to the lyric. They are not, however, obligatory and are sung only for the
major kritis.

Kalpana Swara

At the end of niraval it is customary to sing kalpana swara which have to land on the
beat. They may also be sung without a niraval necessarily preceding them. Kalpana
swaras can be made as complex as the singer wants and often sound like a lot of
mathematical jugglery (known as "kanakku swaras"). Such “fireworks”, to quote Veena
Dhanam, are not aesthetically pleasing. Only musicians of a high calibre can make
kalpana swaras sound attractive as well as clever.

The point of take-off into niraval and kalpana swaras, the choice of the kritis for such
elaborations and even the duration of manodharma sangita as a whole are all elastic and
left entirely to the musician. A lazy musician may even avoid the effort of improvisation
for a greater part of the concert and get away with a string of kritis learnt by rote.

Raga & Gamaka

Indian music is based on melody and the raga is pivotal to the system. Raga (what
which pleases) is a melodic structure governed by rigid rules but it allows the
practitioners a great deal of freedom to improvise. Ragas are derived from scales with
particular combinations of notes with a definite relationship to the tonic which when
sung evoke certain moods and emotions. The swaras of a raga have to be strictly
adhered to and only permitted deviations which enhance the aesthetic quality of the
raga are possible.

A peculiar and inseparable part of Karnatak ragas is the gamaka. To explain this
complex term it would be ell to quote Professor Sambamoorthy, the greatest authority
on Karnatak music of the 20th century: “Gamaka is a collective term given to the various
shakes, graces, ornaments and embellishments used in Indian music. It constitutes
another dimension in music. In other words when the plain character of a note is altered
so to result in a musical effect it becomes a gamaka”.

The slower the tempo of singing the greater is the scope for the manipulation of a swara.
The fast tempo tends to slur over gamakas and rob the raga of its essential character.
Some ragas like Todi, Varali, Bhairavi, Begada, etc., are heavily gamaka-oriented and
singing them without the right oscillation of the notes would destroy their identity. Todi,
for example, sung without gamaka would turn into Sindubhairavi which corresponds to

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Hindustani Bhairavi. Ragas like Hamsadwani and Bilahari and some minor ragas do not
have gamakas.

Notes are plain in Hindustani and Western music, while in Carnatic, they are given
'gamaka' (resonance) and thus made more lively”. He adds that it is this reliance on
microtones that lends a distinct character to Karnatak music.

Gamakas make notation of music difficult as they can only be taught by the oral method.
Notation in Karnatak music is only as useful as the script of a play to an actor. It makes
a musician aware of the structure of a Varnam or kriti but the actual rendering of it has
to be learned from a guru.

Kalpitha Sangeetham

Modern Karnatak music was born on the banks of the Kaveri at the time of the Trinity
(18th-19th century). It consists of kalpita sangita (composed music) and manodharma
sangita (extempore music). Kalpita sangita is made up of geetham, for beginners,
varnam, which is the foundation of the musical edifice, and kriti, a three-part


The Varnam is generally song at the beginning of the concert and is regarded as a
warming-up exercise. But it has great intellectual and aesthetic beauty and there are
very few musicians (Veena Dhanammal one of them) who have given it importance that
it deserves. There are two types of Varnams – tanavarnam for music and padavarnam
for dance. The former has very little sahityam and more of swara passages; while the
latter has more sahitya for abhinaya (interpretation). Most of popular varnams are
composed by the musicians of the Tanjavur court in the 19th century.


Of all the musical forms the kriti introduced by Tyagaraja is the most popular. This is a
three-art structure composed of the presentation of an idea, its development and final
resolution in a resentment. The first part, Pallavi, means a creeper, a tendril which is yet
to grow and blossom. It constitutes the basic idea of the kriti of the burden of he song
and is repeated at the end of each section like a refrain.

The second part is Anupallavi or that which follows the Pallavi and is a short
elaboration of the theme. The charanam (which literally means “foot” or that which
moves round) sums up the idea and knots it into a whole. Musically, the Charanam is
made up of two parts. The first part is largely a repetition of the Anupallavi but with
different words. There may be more than one Charanam in a kriti.

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The structure of a kriti may be illustrated as follows:

(Pallavi = A. Anupallavi = B. Charanam = C.)

The kriti form takes the following pattern:

B (A)
C (A)
What sets the kriti apart from an ordinary keertana (hymn) is the sangati or variations n
a theme of the Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam built into it by the composer. Sangatis
were innovation of Tyagaraja. As in the case of literature and scriptures, there are
interpolations in music too, with musicians adding their own sangatis to well-known
kritis. The greater part of compositions sung today consist of the kriti of the Trinity,
Swati Tirunal and the Tamil composers of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Other forms of kalpita sangita

Other forms of kalpita sangita like the Tevaram, Divya Prabandham, Tiruppugazh,
Devarnama and Tiruppavai are sung at the end of a concert. Padams, javalis and
tillanas which are part of dance music also become part of mainstream classical music
and are sung in the latter part of a concert. Padams are sung in a very slow tempo and
are extremely difficult to handle. The late Veena Dhanam and the members of her
family, Jayammal, Brinda and Mukta have been the acknowledged experts in this field.
Javalis, popular love songs in lilting melodies, appeared in the Tanjavur court in the
18th-19th centuries. This again has been an heirloom of the family of Veena Dhanam,
whose lineage goes back to the court dancers of the 18th century in Tanjavur.

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