Musical Forms of Carnatic Music

The musical forms in Carnatic music are all vocal forms, i.e. all the compositions are written with words to be sung. The same compositions are also played on various instruments adapting the songs to the musical and technical possibilities of the instruments. The musical forms can be studied under two categories, music for educational use and music for the concert platform.

1.Abhyasa gana (abhyasa-practice and gana-song).
2.Sabha gana (sabha-audience)

In other words, abhyasa gana comprises forms that are designated for practice to improve one’s technical skills and virtuosity and sabha gana are meant to be performed in front of an audience.


Gita: Gita literally means “song”; this is the first composition that one learns with lyrics. The lyrics are normally in praise of gods and goddesses. It is a very simple composition in terms of raga and tala that a beginner would be able to learn with utmost ease. This simple composition enables an aspirant to understand the perfect synchronisation of melody and rhythm. It sometimes has all the sections of a composition, pallavi, anupallavi and charana, or it may just have a pallavi and charana(s).

There are gitas in all the seven talas. For every note or swara there is usually a syllable of the words or a vowel extension. There are two kinds of gita: 1. Samanya gita (samanya meaning ordinary) 2. Lakshana gita (lakshana meaning characteristics that describes the characteristics of the raga in which they are composed).

Swarajati: Swarajati also belong to the abhyasa gana group and are learnt after gitas. As the very name suggests, swarajatis are musical compositions containing swara and jati (rhythmic syllables). Similar to varna in structure, the swarajatis has three sections: the pallavi, the anupallavi and the charanas. The charanas all have different tunes, which are first sung in swaras (sol-fa) and then repeated with the lyrics. Each charana is sung in this manner before going on to the next charana. Originally, this was a dance form containing jatis, which were later excluded by Syama Sastri, who refined and perfected this form.

Jatiswara: Jatiswara is a musical form, which has both swaras and jatis woven together. This form belongs to the dance repertoire and is very similar to swarajati.

The structure of jatiswara is very similar to the swarajati. It has the usual three sections, the pallavi, anupallavi and charanas. Though the charanas were originally intended to be sung with jatis (rhythmic syllables), the present day jatiswaras have no jatis or lyrics but only swaras. The emphasis here is on the rhythmic patterns.

Varna or Varnam: Of the abhyasa gana group, the varnam is the most important. Varnams are erudite appealing features of the raga but also all the unique and unusual phrases that are typical to a particular raga. Hence, it requires dexterity, knowledge, technique and good musicianship to compose good varnams.

The swara passages are a good basis for the performer to learn the technique of swarakalpana (improvisation based on the swaras or sol-fa syllables). 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 practicing varnams in multiple speeds gives one a good, steady sense of rhythm.

Even though the varnam belongs to the “technical group”, it is also performed in concerts. The varnam consists of two halves: 1.purvanga or the first half 2. uttaranga or the second half.

The purvanga consists of three sections: the pallavi, the anupallavi and the muktayi or chitte swaras. The uttaranga consists of the charana and charana swaras.

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

{The charana is usually one line (one rhythmic cycle) with lyrics. The charana swaras are groups of swara passages}.

There are two kinds of varnams:
1.Tana varnam
2.Pada varnam

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 charana.

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 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 charana, the chitte swaras and the charana swaras are first sung in swaras (sol-fa syllable) and then repeated with the lyrics. The swara passages are usually accompanied by nritta (pure dance movements) and passages with the lyrics are normally accompanied by abhinaya (expression).

The varnam is the last type of abhyasa gana that is learned before going on to the kriti form.


Kriti: A kriti is the most important form belonging to the sabha gana group. Kritis form the major part of all existing musical compositions. A kriti is a composition based on a particular raga and a particular tala. The composer is not too restricted in the sense that he can choose the raga, tala, speed, style and text that he wants and can concentrate on bringing out the beauty and the feeling of raga. The rendering of a kriti involves a great deal of elaboration and ornamentation (neraval and swara-kalpana improvisations).

The kriti evolved from the older form, the kirtana, which was in vogue around the 14th century. In the kirtana, the emphasis is more on the sahitya or text, mostly devotional. The kriti, though almost always devotional in nature, can also be secular. The emphasis is more on musicality and aesthetic content, the music being much more complex than in the kirtana form. In the charana one usually find the mudra ( the name of the composer to mark that the compositions are his own). There are at least seven different forms of kriti.

Padas or Padams: Padas are beautiful, scholarly compositions. In the past, the term pada was used to denote any devotional song, but now it stands for a particular music form, which belongs to the realm of dance music. Though the padam belongs to the dance repertoire, it is often sung or played in concerts due to its excellent musical quality. This form was perfected in the 17th century by the composer Kshetragna who is rightly known as the father of the modern padam. The text generally deals with the concept of the nayaka-nayaki bhava (emotions of the lover and the beloved). The most common emotions that one comes across in padams are: yearning in love, the trials and tribulations of love, the hopes, frustrations and disappointments in the path of love, anger, jealousy, etc. These emotions make it the perfect vehicle for the dancer to do abhinaya.

Javali: The javali is a much lighter form compared to the padam, in its musical emotional content. The javali evolved around the 19th century. Javalis deal with human relationships and are very sensuous in content. Javalis are performed in concerts, usually in the second half, and also in dance concerts.

The word javali is derived from the word javadi, which means shringara-based poetry in Kannada. The lyrics deal with emotions like infidelity and jealousy.

Tillana: Tillanas are short, lively and invigorating compositions. This is another form that belongs to dance music, but is performed in a music concert towards the end. The tillana consists of three sections: pallavi, anupallavi and charana. The pallavi and the anupallavi usually consist of swaras (sol-fa syllables) and jatis (rhythmic syllables). The charana has all the three: lyrics, swaras and jatis. The form derives its name from the syllables ti-la-na.

The great king-composer Swati Tirunal was the first to compose tillanas, in the 19th century. They are of two kinds: those that are played in concerts and those that are performed in dance concerts. In the former, there is more emphasis on the raga and they are performed at a faster tempo. The latter are performed in medium tempo and jatis are worked into the composition so that they allow the dancer to exhibit variations in footwork.

Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi: This is a very complicated and involved form, which is performed in the latter part of a concert. The pallavi, which consists of a single line of composition, is the only pre-composed part. The rest of it is completely improvised. Hence, it is a very demanding and challenging form, both technically and musically, where all the different aspects of one’s musicianship are put to the test.

The ragam portion challenges the performer’s creative capacity in the detailed unfolding of the raga. The pallavi is a challenge to his ability to improvise with complex and intricate patterns. Hence, the performer must have good technique, a deep knowledge of the rules of raga and a good command over the intricate rhythmic patterns of tala.

Ragam: In this section, the performer freely improvises on a particular raga, without any rhythmic accompaniment. The performer elaborately develops the raga, in stages, maintaining all its rules and staying within the strict framework.

The ragam portion starts slowly, bringing out the charm, appeal and the intrinsic mood of the raga. This is systematically built up in speed and intensity ending with pharans (fast passages), which allow the performer to exhibit his technical virtuosity.

Tanam: This is the second section. Here, the improvisation continues, without any rhythmic accompaniment. Though there is no percussion accompaniment, the performer introduces the element of rhythmic pulses into his improvisation. At the end of each phrase, a recognisable typical rhythmic cadence is used to indicate the end of that section.

Pallavi: The third section consists of a single line composition of the lyric which is usually set to a single cycle of tala (except in the case of talas like Chapu and short talas like Rupaka). The lyrics may be devotional or secular in content and may be in any language. The word pallavi is derived from the three syllables (Pa-la-vi) padam (words), laya (rhythm) and vinyasam (variations). The pallavi is referred to in the Sangita Ratnakara of Sarnagadeva (13th century) but it did not evolve till the 18th century.

Here are some of the main features of the Pallavi:

  • Neraval: Literally meaning “filling up” or “spreading out”, the neraval consists of filling up portions of the pallavi line with new, creative ideas. The performer improvises new melodies around the lyrics of the pallavi, but keeps the rhythmic structure constant.
  • Tri-kalam (tri means three and kalam means speed or tempo): In this section, the pallavi line is played in three tempos keeping the tala constant.
  • Swara kalpana (swara means sol-fa or note; kalpana means imagination): This consists of improvisations based on swaras, in medium and fast speeds. After each passage or section of swara kalpana, the performer returns to the pallavi line. This type of improvisation depends upon the performer’s technical and musical ability.
  • Ragamalika: The pallavi often ends with this section which literally means garland of ragas. The performer improvises in a variety of ragas and, at the end of each raga section, comes back to the rhythmic theme of the original pallavi.

Tani Avartanam: Though the Tani Avartanam is not a separate musical form, it forms an important part of the concert mode. This refers to the solo playing of the percussionists. This is pure rhythmic improvisation by the percussionist(s). If there is more than one percussion instrument in a concert, the mridanga takes the lead and the other percussion instruments like the ghatam, khanjira, morsing follow, while taking care to develop on the same theme that the mridangist chooses. After a few rounds of this, the percussionists launch into the kuraippu (meaning reduction in Tamil, this is a purely rhythmic exercise). Once the kuraippu reaches the final point, all the percussionists join together and meet on a common ground called the mora (pre-composed rhythmic structures which extend over a few cycles of rhythm). The mora is followed by the final climactic rhythmic pattern, once again called the korvai.

Tani Avartanam takes place, either after the performance of a major composition (kriti) or as a part of ragam-tanam-pallavi.

Here the percussionist has the freedom to play anything he wants within the framework of the tala and the established tempo.