There are two kinds of varna-s—tanavarnam and padavarnam. Tanavarna-s are generally sung, though eminent dancers like Yamini have taken up compositions like Viriboni for dance exposition. The paucity of the words in the libretto restricts the instance and the amount of abhinaya. In that celebrated case, the beauty of Bhairavi, as brought out by Viriboni in Ata tala, sought to justify Yamini's choice.
The pada varna-s on the other hand, have all the ingredients that call for, and give room to, the various aspects of dance that are to be showcased in the major item of the recital. Most of these are in Telugu, some in Tamil, and a few in Sanskrit and in Manipravalam, a concoction of Sanskrit and Malayalam. The last two categories are invariably confusing because the correct meaning of the text is very difficult to get at; and splitting of the words in different ways gives rise to various interpretations that can't be easily reconciled. Possibly there are varna-s in Kannada too but they haven't surfaced in Madras. As yet.
Padma Subrahmanyam took a Meera bhajan and restructured it like a varnam. satisfying all the requirements of a varnam. There has been no comparable adaptation of Tyagaraja kriti-s. Generally, Endaro mahanubhavulu (Sri), Sadhinchene (Arabhi), Jagadunandukuraku (Nata). and the Tamil pasuram Pachai mamalai (ragamalika) which are done in the place of a varnam and sometimes even announced as varna-s. Just because teermanam- s are sprinkled here and there, and the swara passages are inherent, these do not become varna-s. More importantly, they do not have the leisurely, evolutionary development of the raga and of the main theme. In some, the words fly by so quickly, at the pace pre-determined by the composer, that meaningful abhinaya to them, either by expression or gesture, is not possible. Even if it is properly and synchronously performed by a dancer with prodigious capacity for speed, the audience will not be able to correlate the word with the deed and derive all that it should from the said abhinaya.
But of course there are a few varna-s of exceptional melodic grace wedded with textual beauty. Of those that I have examined, Manavi kaikonarada in Sankarabharanam/Adi, by Ponniah Pillai of the Tanjavur Quartet, is by far the most worthy, an exemplary synthesis of word, meaning, melody and swara.
No matter what is claimed, raga-s like Manohari, Mukulabharanam, Chittabhramari, Kafi, in which there are varna-s, cannot have the grandeur, grace and the textured substance or raga-s like Sankarabharanam, Anandabhairavi, Bhairavi, Husseini and Todi. For example, the tune that has been devised for Manavi. and the swara patterns that have been strung together to form the muktayi swara, are unusually appealing. They form a sturdy base for the dance to quietly shimmer or boldly scintillate.
The teermanam-s, whatever their form as called forth by the nattuvanar-guru, do not disturb the flow of the meaning in this lyric. Finally, the text of the song is in chaste Telugu, Telugu that is correct in grammar and idiom. In some Telugu varna-s, the language is divided between words that are Telugu and grammar that is taken from Tamil. Sorae have words that mean little or nothing. A few have no stylistic cohesion, no logical coherence.
Because the authors were writing in a language that wasn't their mother-tongue.
Of course, a good part of the problem is caused by the fact that the Telugu is transliterated into Tamil, which allows different interpretations with diametrically opposite meaning : palukaga (spoke), palukaka (without speaking); or dheera (valorous one), theera (to assuage). A contributory factor is the wrong pronunciation by the singers, wrong interpretation by the choreographers and dancers who do not have a chance to get at the correct text and proper meaning from the usual sources.
In this particular varnam, the fourth stanza, a piquantly beautiful one with two meanings (an intended embellishment : sleshalankara), is generally omitted. The excuse given is that it is too explicitly erotic. Fiddlesticks ! Its sensuousness is that of an ingenue, delicate in fragrance, natural in suggestion.
Here's an antidote to all the ills. The correct text, transliterated into English. Word for word meaning, which sometimes makes for odd English. This is unavoidable as the dancer should know where the meaning of a phrase begins and when it changes. And a meaningful paraphrase.
Pallavi: Manavi kaikonarada chakkani sami
Request in-hand take won't you beautiful lord
Won't you hear my request, beautiful Lord!
Mamara meeri yunna danara
Infatuation overmuch it is to me
My desire for you is over-whelming
Anupallavi: Vinara sruanjapurini velayu ma brihadeesa
Listen Tanjapuri-in manifesting great Brihadeesa !
Hear, great Brihadeesa residing at Tanjavur
Ninnu nera namminanu nikkamuga madilona
You well believed-I truly (my) heart-in
Truly, I believed you, totally, sincerely
Five-arrowed one here
Now the five-arrowed Cupid
MSS (Muktayi swara sahityam) (1) Sami nee sati dora ne kananura
Lord your equal lord I see-cannot
Oh Lord, you have no equal
MSS (2) Panchasarudu viluvanchi virisaramu enchenura
Five-arrowed one bow-bending flower-arrow considering
Cupid, with his bow strung is picking up a flower arrow
Ika vanchana tagadura
Henceforth deceit right it isn't
You shouldn't disappoint me any more
MSS (3) Dharadhipatiyani doradoralu pogadera kavijanulu
Land-lord proclaiming chieftains etc. praised (you) poets
Chieftains and others proclaimed you as the king ; poets
erigedara kalushamela dheera napai kripajoopara
know you prejudice-why valiant one me-on compassion show
know you for a patron, why bear a grudge, valiant one, show
marulu minchenura nannu gaikora
desires overflowing me hand-take
compassion, my desires are increasing accept me
MSS (4) Vemaru chilakalu (ve maruchilukalu) kalakalamani
Many times parrots (thousand Cupid's parrots) prattling
parrots (thousand Cupid's parrots)
palukaga nenetu taludura
speaking I how tolerate
How can I bear the constant prattling of
Ela eevala nannelajagela srilola
Why now me-to rule delay-why wealthy-one
O prosperous one, why do you tarry in accepting me
Neekidi mera kadura
You-to proper not-it is
This isn't proper on your part
Kotimanmadhakara Nee sari sati lerani
Crore Cupid-as-beautiful your equal aren't there
Oh One as beautiful as a crore of Cupids, that you have no equal
manchi pata paduchu
good song singing
Sarasaksha nee kripanu napaini leka
Lotus-eyed one your compassion me-on without
Beautiful eyed One ! Is it just not to show compasion
nyayamemi eevagalu chalu ela neeku mrokkera
Justice-what these ways enough why you-to I bow
Enough of your waywardness. Why do you continue that way? I bow to you.
The first line is normally sung as 'chekora'. The original text says 'kaikora', which means the same thing. Though it is addressed to a god, Brihadeesa, it should not be done as a devotional but as a love song laced with devotion. That is, for the anupallavi, steadfast belief ('Did you not rush to the succour of another steadfast believer Markandeya ?' can be shown as a sanchari), regular indulgence in daily pooja ritual can be shown for the second line after showing for the first, the greatness of the town, the hero conferring good fortune on it by choosing to reside there, his stature etc. Here for the sanchari, any episode pertaining to Siva, illustrating his beauty, valour, readiness to come to the aid of devotees can be shown.
Though there are no hard and fast rules, no sanchari-s are to be done for the pallavi. The pallavi can be divided into three parts, and any number of variations performed for these.
The first part can show the message being sent through a friend, a bird, and in Siva's case, through a deer (but not a serpent). Writing of a letter too. The second part can show how beautiful he is. But this should not contain any thing that has to be repeated later for 'ma brihadeesa' or 'kotimanmadhakara'. For the third part, various signs of being love-struck can be arranged in the proper ascending order. Seeing him. Struck by his looks. Thinking about him. Developing love and pining for him. Being put off by food and drink. Hating the moonlight and finding the proffered sandal-paste scorching. The singing of friends, the" playing of veena, bumblebees or koels sounding abhorrent. A sakhi or two also can be shown, trying to appease the heroine's pangs. There should be a gradual build-up of her torrid turmoil and torture in his absence.
The charanam can show the glory of Cupid, riding forth splendiferously on a parrot, with a bow made up of a bent sugarcane, a string of bumblebees, five different flower-tipped arrows, where they strike, what effects they have, that is, the cruelty with which he is treating the heroine. The fifth arrow is not shown as used, as it results in death ; but only the fear of its effect.
For the first MSS. The idea that his equal cannot be found is best illustrated by the story of both Vishnu and Brahma turning into a boar and swan and trying in vain to find the root and tip of the Siva linga ; or by the story of Tripura-dahana ; or by his vanquishing of the deadly poison Halahala which couldn't be handled by anyone else.
MSS (2) should show the passion of the heroine. No need to repeat what has already been essayed for the charanam. And appealing to his sense of decency. 'I am such a vulnerable girl, shouldn't you be kind ?' should be the note.
MSS(3) should be a brief paraphrase of all that has been shown earlier. Care should be taken not to repeat the same stances, even though the ideas and images that are sought to be conveyed and created may be the same.
MSS(4) is the clinching argument 'How can I bear this' is the first part. 'Why don't you come right now' is the second. The next two lines are again a quick, mercurial paraphrase of all that has been done earlier.
It must be remembered that in MSS(3) and MSS(4), lengthy sanchari-s should be avoided. As a matter of fact if sanchari-s are taken to mean other stories interpolated, these should be done only in the anupallavi, charanam and MSS (1). In the following, variants of the same idea can be shown (this can be done in the earlier part too).
As the song progresses, the delineation should be quicker which is not to be confused with quickening the pace of the song. It should be remembered that two minutes of a particular snatch of abhinaya done at the beginning of the song will seem like thirty seconds, and at the end of the piece, like five minutes. This is no reflection on the dancer or choreography but on the law of diminishing returns that applies.
The final denouement for the last two lines should be a joyous assumption that he is going to fulfil the heroine's longing. It should never be ended with 'suffering in your absence' kind of a grimace. If done expertly, the audience must think that Brihadeeswara is already in the wings waiting to embrace the heroine on her exit
When I think of this varnam, I can't but recall Bharatanatyam Karaala's exquisite exposition of this magnificent piece some years ago at the Music Academy. She pulled it off so superbly that one could read love, longing, devotion, and affection in that longing and find a surging release in her dance. If that isn't a many splendoured thing, what is?