Unusual Pallavi Themes

by V.N. Muthukumar and M.V. Ramana
First published on SAWF on August 19, 2002

M. V. Ramana is currently at the Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University.

M.V. Ramana

M.V. Ramana


Until the late 19th century, the primary location for performances of Art music was at the abodes of kings and other rich patrons. These concerts are described as being centered on ragam-tanam-pallavis, elaborate exercises in musical creativity, usually in major ragas like Sankarabharanam, Todi and Bhairavi. The modern concert format (kaccheri paddhati), on the other hand, is largely dominated by kritis, which were either composed by “the trinity” – Syama Sastry, Tyagaraja, and Muthuswami Dikshitar – or vaggeyakaras following their styles.

The relationship between these two musical forms – ragam, tanam, pallavi (RTP) and kriti – is complex. One hypothesis that is often advanced is that many kritis were constructed using a famous pallavi as the pallavi or the first line of the kriti. The proponents of this theory claim that the above hypothesis explains why the word “pallavi” refers to both. Some of the examples quoted in this context are gana lola karunala vala in Todi (where the kriti was composed by Chinnaswami Dikshitar) and mahimai teliya tarama in Sankarabharanam (where the kriti was composed by Anai Ayya brothers). This is also supported by the tradition of singing certain pallavis in fixed ragas.

In course of time, the converse also became prevalent, viz., musicians started using the pallavi line of a kriti (usually a famous one) as the refrain of an RTP. Examples of this are the (Begada) pallavi, lokavana chatura and the (Kharaharapriya) pallavi, rama nee samanamevaru. T. Lakshmanan Pillai describes a great musical contest between Coimbatore Raghava Iyer and Tanjavur Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer that took place in the court of Ayilyam Tirunal. On the second day of the contest, Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer sang a pallavi in Kharaharapriya which employed the first line of the kriti, cakkani raja. [1]

There are also pallavis constructed from other lines of a kriti, e.g., oru taram sivachidambaram endru (from sabhapatikku in Abhogi) and tamarasa dala netri tyagarajuni mitri (from amma ravamma in Kalyani) – as the refrain of the RTP.

There is at least one unambiguous case where a pallavi led to a kriti. Tamizh Thatha U. Ve. Saminatha Iyer recounts the following incident in one of his books. [2]  Ghanam Krishna Iyer, a contemporary of Tyagaraja (and Saminatha Iyer’s great grand uncle) once went to Tiruvaiyaru to meet Tyagaraja. Saminatha Iyer says:

…Tyagaraja and Ghanam Krishna Iyer knew each other well. Tyagaraja’s disciples, Kamarasavalli Nanu Iyer and Tillaistanam Rama Iyengar sang Tyagaraja’s E papamu in the raga Atana. Tyagaraja then requested Krishna Iyer to sing. Inspired by the singing he heard, Krishna Iyer composed a pallavi in Atana, cumma cumma varumo sukham (lit. does pleasure come for free?) and began singing it with great relish. Being in the presence of a great vidwan (Tyagaraja) and his disciples, Krishna Iyer sang with enthusiasm and as his singing progressed, the listeners came to appreciate the ghana marga that Krishna Iyer was proficient in. After he finished singing, Tyagaraja honored him by presenting him a shawl.

Later, when Krishna Iyer returned home, at the insistence of his disciples and others, he composed a kriti in the raga Atana using this pallavi as the refrain of the kriti.

Aruna Sayiram

Aruna Sayeeram

Our first recording features this kriti. Aruna Sayeeram sings Ghanam Krishna Iyer’s cumma cumma.

For a variety of reasons, the bulk of lyrics in Carnatic music, in both kriti and pallavi formats, are mostly concerned with devotional themes. Kritis exemplify this tendency to a much greater extent. Practically all are along the lines of “O Lord(ess)! Save me” or “Blessed am I”. The only prominent counter-example to this practice is Tyagaraja, whose kritis span a variety of themes. [3] For example, some are addressed to “the Guru” and some others deal with music. It is not clear why latter vaggeyakaras have not chosen to follow this path and explore it further.

Pallavis, on the other hand, explore a larger variety of themes. In fact, some of them may not have any obvious theme. (For example, the pallavi we mentioned earlier uses the line cumma cumma varumo sukham, which by itself is devoid of context; the sentence does not even have a subject.) One reason for this may be that lyrics play a relatively minor role in RTPs.

A story may help clarify this point. [4]

There was a Zamorin at Calicut who was fond of music and had also a good knowledge of the art. He used to patronise deserving musicians and give them rich presents. Once a great pallavi vidwan happened to go to Calicut; the Private Secretary to the Zamorin, himself a rasika, arranged for a concert by the vidwan at the palace. The Zamorin had one weakness – he would ask the artist to give beforehand, the wording of the song he proposed to sing. When the vidwan had elaborated a raga and was about to begin the pallavi, the Zamorin made his usual demand. The vidwan got wild and shouted ‘Which fool would care about the sahitya of a pallavi?’ and went away from the palace. The Zamorin also got angry. The Private Secretary was a tactful man; he pacified the two and arranged for a recital the next day: he had managed to get the Zamorin to waive his stipulation regarding the wording of the pallavi. The vidwan started the pallavi and elaborated it with such mastery and skill and charm that the Zamorin was highly pleased and made extra presents to the vidwan. When, the artist was about to leave the palace, the Zamorin asked him to give the wording of the pallavi at least then. The vidwan faced the Zamorin and said, ‘I am prepared to give you the sahitya on the condition that you will not get angry.’ The Zamorin agreed to the condition, and the vidwan gave him the sahitya, and immediately ran away. The Zamorin was taken aback, and got into a rage, but he could not do anything as the vidwan had in the meantime run away. The sahitya was samoodiri thavidu thinnu meaning that the Zamorin ate the chaff, the implication being that instead of enjoying the pure art of music, the Zamorin was after the words which especially in a pallavi was as insignificant as the chaff as compared to the grain.

The emphasis on pallavis having some religious content may be more a phenomenon of the 20th century. This is borne out by looking at the refrains of some traditional pallavis compiled by P. Sambhamoorthi [5]:

A Bhairavi pallavi illustrated

A Bhairavi pallavi illustrated

aattangarai oratthile oru vandu girrena girrena katthute (On the banks of a river, a bee hums “girr girr”) – Raga Bhairavi, Jhampa Tala.

kutthalatthu kurange maratthai vittu irange (Get off the tree, O monkey in Kutralam) – Raga Bhairavi, chatusra jati triputa.

Along similar lines, U. Ve. Saminatha Iyer refers to the pallavis sung by Peria Vaithi and says they were hardly noted for their lyrical content. [6]

Tiger Varadachariar

Tiger Varadachariar

Lest the reader think that such pallavis are mere oddities, we refer to the great musician Tiger Varadachariar. In the words of S. Y. Krishnaswamy, Tiger felt that “pure music, which is important in a pallavi, for instance, depended very little on words. He then proceeded to demonstrate this view by singing a pallavi which translated to ‘the breeze blows through the window’.” [7] T.K. Sethuraman narrates an incident when Tiger performed in Sirkazhi village and was asked to sing a new pallavi after he had sung an elaborate alapana and tanam in Kambodhi.

Via Agra: (seated L to R) Lalgudi Jayaraman, Palani Subramania Pillai and K. V. Narayanaswamy

Via Agra: (seated L to R) Lalgudi Jayaraman,
Palani Subramania Pillai and K. V. Narayanaswamy

Apparently, a street-vendor came around at that time, selling brinjals (eggplants) shouting “katharikkai, katharikkai” and Tiger sang katharikkai vanga vayendi tozhi. (Come with me to buy brinjals, O friend.) Another pallavi he was fond of elaborating was uppuma kindadi penne, nanraka. (Hey lass, stir the uppuma well.) Unfortunately we have not come across any recordings of Tiger singing such pallavis.

The pallavis we mentioned so far are not in vogue. There are, however, a few traditional pallavis that deal with unusual themes. Perhaps the best example of a popular pallavi without a devotional theme is the one in Natakurinji, ciranta engalatu nattai kurinji enbar (This great land of ours is called kurinji [8]).

This pallavi was one of K. V. Narayanaswamy’s favorite pieces in Natakurinji.

Madurai Mani Iyer with Lalgudi Jayaraman and Palani Subramania Pillai

Madurai Mani Iyer with Lalgudi Jayaraman
and Palani Subramania Pillai

There are also several pallavis composed in praise of an individual. Our first example is a pallavi sung by D. K. Pattammal, at the Tyagaraja Aradhana in Tiruvaiyaru. The lyrics of the pallavi are the first line of Tyagaraja’s famous pancharatna kriti in Sriraga, entaro mahanubhavulu, anthariki vandanamu (There are several great people and I bow to them all). It is worth noting that Pattammal, who is often described as a musician with great fidelity to tradition (whatever that should mean), sings it in the raga Kambodhi and not in Sriraga. [9] V. Sethuramiah and Palakkad Mani Iyer accompany Pattammal in this recording.

D.K. Pattammal

D.K. Pattammal

The next example is Madurai Mani Iyer’s rendition of mahatma mani mozhi vazhi nadappom, maperum talaivar gandhi (Let us follow the footsteps of the great leader Mahatma Gandhi) in Shanmukhapriya at an AIR concert on Gandhi Jayanti. Mani Iyer was a staunch Gandhian and has also sung pallavis about the rattinam (spinning wheel).

Balamuralikrishna is a musician who has innovated extensively. Not surprisingly, he has sung several interesting pallavis, which are often marked by intelligent and catchy movements. Here we present a short pallavi in Natabhairavi, the theme being musical notes.

Another singer who exhibits a flair for wordplay in coming up with unusual pallavi lyrics is T. N. Seshagopalan. He also had an interesting variation on the pallavi mentioned earlier, ciranta engalathu, by singing it in Nattai, Kurinji and Natakurinji.

M. Balamuralikrishna, Nagai Murali(violin) and K. V. Prasad

M. Balamuralikrishna, Nagai Murali(violin) and K. V. Prasad

Among present day singers, Sanjay Subrahmanyan seems to sing several pallavis based on unusual themes. Some examples are vandadum solaiyile, malayamarutam visum in Malayamarutam, parukkulle nalla nadu, engal bharata nadu in Shanmukhapriya and apakara nindai pattuzhalathe, ariyatha vanjarai kuriyate in Chakravakam. We present the first of these in the following clip. The recording is from a concert organized by the Carnatic Music Association of North America (CMANA) in New Jersey this year. Sanjay is accompanied by R. K. Shriram Kumar on the violin and K. Arun Prakash on the mridangam.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan accompanied by R. K. Shriram Kumar on the violin and K. Arun Prakash (not in the picture) on the mridangam

Sanjay Subrahmanyan accompanied by R. K. Shriram Kumar
on the violin and K. Arun Prakash (not in the picture) on the mridangam

Note that the pallavi includes the raga name and refers, obliquely, to a popular song in Harikamboji. [10] Sanjay’s rendition is a good illustration of how even a small pallavi can be elaborated through intelligent vyavahara.

In the above, we saw that pallavis deal with a variety of themes. A few post-trinity vaggeyakaras have composed kritis along the lines of the pallavis discussed here. Some examples are Tanjavur Sankara Iyer, Balamuralikrishna, and T. S. Lakshmanan Pillai. Pillai’s kriti in Punnagavarali, vayillata made, is arguably the only kriti that talks about animal rights. We wonder why more such kritis cannot be composed and why it is that most kritis stick to familiar themes.



We thank the Carnatic Music Association of North America (http://www.cmana.org) for providing us with a recording of clips from Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s concert. We also thank Sanjay Subrahmanyan for obliging us by singing the pallavi in Malayamarutam. We thank “Pallavi” (http://www.pallavi.org) for permitting us to use photographs from their albums and S. Pasupathy (http://www.comm.toronto.edu/~pas/) for discussions and providing us a recording. Some of the photographs in this feature were culled from the magazine, Sruti. As always, it is our pleasure to thank Anita Thakur and Rajan P. Parrikar for their assistance in putting this feature together.



[1] T. Lakshmanan Pillai in The Immortals of Indian Music, Ed. Leela Omchery and Deepti Omchery Bhalla (New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 1998).

[2] Dr. U. Ve. Saminatha Iyer, Sangeeta Mummanikal (Madras: Dr. U. Ve. Saminatha Iyer Library, 1987). On Saminatha Iyer, see http://www.geocities.com/visvaamithra/menu.html

[3] We have elaborated on some other contributions of Tyagaraja earlier and in Outlook.

[4] This excerpt is from R. Srinivasan, Facets of Indian Culture,(Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1962), Chapter 8.

[5] P. Sambamoorthi, South Indian Music, Book IV (Madras: Liberty Press, 1975).

[6] Dr. U. Ve. Saminatha Iyer, Nalluraikkovai, Vol. 2 (Madras: Dr. U. Ve. Saminatha Iyer Library).

[7] S. Y. Krishnaswamy, Memoirs of a Mediocre Man (Bangalore: Bhamati Books, 1983), p. 221. Besides this quote, the book offers an interesting account of several prominent musicians through the eyes of someone who interacted closely with a number of them.

[8] Tamil grammar recognizes five tinais or regions: kurinji (mountains), palai (desert), mullai (forest), marutam (plains) and neital (coastal). This has prompted modern grammarians to invent a sixth or aaram tinai – cyberspace.

[9] A few years ago, critics castigated Charumati Ramachandran for singing a pallavi that consisted of words from prominent kritis in a different raga. This, claimed the critics, was in violation of tradition. As must be amply clear from this article, this charge is baseless.

[10] A recording of the song is available in the feature on Harikamboji.