Varnam is the central and most elaborate number in a Bharatnatyam Margam. It is a demanding number testing not only the stamina of a dancer but the training, the skill, the imaginative faculty of a dancer to improvise and to successfully alternate between pure dance and abhinaya. If all these come together this engrossing number is a visual delight.
In the first half of the varnam, the dancer usually begins with a trikaala jati (a jati rendered in three speeds) followed by a line of sahityam (prose). The entire varnam is an intertwining of pure dance and abhinaya followed alternately. Each line of sahityam corresponds to one avartanam and is repeated four to six times. The sahityam is preceded by a jati. Varnam is a term borrowed from Carnatic music. In technical parlance, this dance composition commences with usually four and rarely six feet of sahitya, each corresponding to one avartan of the talam.
The song of the varnam is usually in shringara rasa and dwells upon the longing of the nayika, to meet the nayaka, who maybe a God or a king or a patron. A series of pure dance sequences alternate with abhinaya for almost every line of the song and reach a climax in which raga, bhava and talam, find synchronisation, with the feet showing jatis in varied and roundabout gaits, the hastas depicting the meaning of the song and the mukhajabhinaya, the facial expressions bringing out the various hues of emotions.
In the second half of the varnam, the swara sequences intertwine in the song. They are danced like short jatis, followed by abhinaya on the sahityam corresponding to the notes of these swaras. When the abhinaya is performed in tattu mettu, the toe-heel foot pattern, ending with aradi, a phrase repeated three times, the entire combination gives varnam a complex character. The abhinaya weaves in sanchari bhava with the sthayi bhava, finally ending in a tattu mettu sequence and an araddi.
The structure of varnam has many leveled layers. The sahitya deals with the description of the nayaka, the pallavi and anupallavi describe the many virtues of the nayak, the charanam describes the yearning of the nayika for her love.
The varnam gives full scope to the dancer to improvise on the rasa. She weaves the sanchari bhavas (the transitory states) to enhance the sthayi bhava (the dominant state) to evoke the rasa. Pada Varnams or chauka varnams are used by dancers for expositions. Tana varnams are usually intended for musical practice as they have little scope for abhinaya because of limited sahityam in it. However, in the pada varnam there is a judicious balance between abhinaya and rhythmic nuances. Since a varnam is comparatively an elaborate number, many exponents abbreviate it and compress it to a duration of say thirty to forty minutes.