In all my years of learning bharatanatyam, I have never learnt varnam. Prior to learning this dance item, I have known it to be the central and the most complicated piece in an arangetram. It can run anywhere between 25 mins to an hour and for this reason it can sometimes tire the rasikaas. The theme is usually around love or devotion, and if I have observed it right, the narrator typically is the subject, meaning it’s about her love or devotion to someone, usually, a hindu deity.
This term in my dance class, we are learning Rama Neevu, a varnam item. It has been such a joy, and it has opened me to so many nuances underlying this dance item. It gives the dancer the luxury of time. There is no rush or pressure to dazzle the audience with speed. It starts with footwork, the tempo is slowly built, and is interspersed with strings of adavus with varying speeds. For the abhinaya, the dancer warms up by portraying the literal meaning of the lyrics word by word and then improvises by giving context or performing to its implicit meaning. Varnam is storytelling at it’s core.
Mostly, I have come to realize that this is probably one item where the dancer derives much joy from dancing than the rasikaas watching her perform. Soul nourishing bliss!