Varnams are considered vocal exercises in a particular raga. The patterns in a varnam are considered to be characteristic patterns of a particular raga or scale. Varnams are considered the most 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.
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 chitta 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 dance.
Generally, a varnam is sung as follows:
Repeat, then Pallavi sung in triple speed, or in original speed.
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 Annupallavi and Muktayi Swarams are repeated in double or triple speed.
Varnams are generally sung in 2 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.
Famouns Ata Tala Varnams include:
The Arabhi ragam varnam is supposed to be the only longest piece with jantai and tattu prayogas.