Musical forms or structures can be classified into two basic formats: Abhyasa Ganam or those useful for the purposes of learning and practicing music and Sabha Ganam, those useful for the purposes of performing such as, in a concert or public gathering. Those of us who have learnt to sing or play instruments such as violin, flute, or similar instruments would have gone through the rituals or various steps during the process of such learning. For example, early music lessions begin with Sarali Varisai (S R G M P D N) , Jantai Varisai (SS RR GG MM PP DD NN SS), Thara Sthayi and thakku sthayi varisais, Thattu Varisai, Alankaram, Geetham, Swarajathi, Jatiswaram, and Varnam. Similarly, at the next higher stage, we begin learning Varnams, Kritis, Padam, Javali, Thillana, RTP, Ragamalika etc. These are Sabha Ganam. We will discuss some of these musical forms in the following paragraphs.
Geetham: is one of the simple musical forms and permits a student to learn a composition without the complexities of Pallavai, Anupallavi, Charanam etc. It is a stepping stone for the next higher musical form, the Kriti. Usually Geetham is sung from start to finish without a break. Learning Geetham is very helpful in voice training. Geethams themselves come in various forms such as Sadharana or ordinary Geethamm; Sanchari Geetham and Lakshana Geetham (highlighting the characteristics of ragas, both Janya and Janaka ragas).
Swarajati: Unlike a Geetham, a Swarajathi has divisions similar to a regular kriti into Pallavai, Anupallavi, and Charanam. It is not necessary to have all three divisions in every Swarajathis; some do not have Anupallavi. Swarajati is useful for a student to learn the intricacies of both swaras and thalam or rhythm control at the same time. While Swarajatis are useufl learning tools, not all Swarajathis are simple and some Swarajatis composed by Shyama Sastri, for example, are quite complex and requires extreme dexterity and knowledge to render.
Varnam: Is the bridge between the two musical forms, Abhyasa Ganam and Sabha Ganam. Learning many Varnams and in many ragams makes a student of music very proficient in the art. Varnams, not only bring out the lakshana or characteristics of a raga but, they also render the voice flexible and mellifluous and trained in handling complex swara patterns and in obtaining control over layam or timing. Varnams are divided into Pallavai, Anupallavi, Cahranam, Muktayi Swaras and Charana Swaras. Two major varnams forms are: Tana varnam and Pada varnam; sub-classification of these include: Padajati varnam, and Ragamalika varnams.
Taana varnam, as the name implies, are in the form of tanams. In taana varnam, sahityam and lyrics are used only in the Pallavi, anupallavi, and charnam. Taana Varanams are used primarily for musical practice and are often set in madhyama (middle) or Duritha (fast) tempo. In contrast, PadaVarnam, also known as ChaukaVarnam, is sung in slow tempo (chaukakaala meaning vilamba or slow tempo) and hence gives ample scope. Some of the well-known Taana varnams include Sarasijaakshhaa in Kedara Gowlam, Saarasakshi in Kalyani, and Mahishaasura Mardhini in Andolika (composer: Muthia Bhagavathar).
Pada varnams are very often used during dance. Padams, when repeated, allow a dancer to exhibit footwork and various expressions. Some of the well-known pada varnams include: Chalamela in Natakurunji, Pankajakshi in Kamboji, Sami Ninnekori in Atana.
Padajati varnam is a hybrid of tana varnam because, in padajati varnam, some of the jatis or rhythmic words spill into the main body of the varnam.
Ragamalika varnam, as the name implies, is composed in several ragas.
Keertana: is a precursor to the kriti form of music. Keerthanas are generally in praise of God, pleading to God or narrating some mythological events. In Keertana, the lyrics are more important than the swaras or niravals. Keertanas are also somewhat similar to Kritis in that they also have Pallavi, Anupallavi, and Charanam divisions. It is also likely that there are several charanams in a Keertana. Keertanas are particularly suited for group singing and for bhajan-type environment where bhakthi and devotional singing is more important than musical talent.
Kriti: Is the highest musical form. It has clear divisions in terms of Pallavi, Anupallavi, and Charanam (although some kritis do not have aunpallavis). Most of the great composers's creations would fall under kritis. The great advantage of a kritis is unlike, Geethams, kirtanas, and other forms, a kriti give much scope for a musician to engage in creative embellishments such as niravals, sangatis, etc. It also gives scope for thala or rhythm expositions and a kriti by starting on various starting points or eduppus such as Samam, Anahata and Athita, provide complexity during computational expositions.
Ragamalikai: Is a composition set in several ragas or a garland (malika) of ragas. Ragamalikas are not restricted only to Kriti form but also extends to Geethams, Swarajatis and Varnams. Each unit of a ragamalika will be set to a different ragam and at the end of each unit, it will be denoted by Chitta Swarams set in the same raga as that of the Pallavi. This type of signature is called Maguda Swarams. The Sahityam or lyrics used duri ng the Maguda Swaram is called the Maguda Sahityam and is useful for connecting the various units of a Ragamalika with the Pallavi.
Javali: Is a musical form primarily used during dance. Most Javali's are set in madhyamakala or medium speed. They mostly express simple themes including love and other emotions expressed between a man and a woman.
Thillana: Thillanas are popular both in Carnatic music concerts and during dance programmes. Thillanas can range from the simple to the most complex in terms of its rhythmic arrangements. Thillanas use both sahityams or lyrics and jatis or rhythm words and generally set in medium or Madhyama kala.
The above discussion highloighted some of the popular and frequently used musical forms. However, this is not a complete list. Unlike the Hindustanti counterparts, Carnatic music composers focus more on devotion and bhakthi and philosophy and less on Sringara or love and romance. This is true of most of our composers regardless of the State from which they hailed or the language that they used to compose the songs. For example, Telugu composers such as Bhadrachala Ramadas, Giri Raja Kavi, Kannada composers such as Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa, Malayalam composers such as Swathi Tirunal, Sanskrit composers such as Jeyadeva, Narayana Theertha, and notably, the Triniti from Tamilnadu have composed many songs that had an undercurrent of bhakthi. Consequently, forms of music that highlight the bhakthi and devotional aspects take prominence over other forms of music.
The musical forms that highlight the bhakthi aspect had developed enormously in Tamilnadu, several hundred years before the advent of other famous composers. Some of these examaples include: Thevara hymns composed by Appar, Sundarar, Manickavasagar (Please refer to their history in Carnatic Music Composer section), Nalayira Divya Prabhandam of the Alwars; Thiruppugazh of Arunagiri Nathar, Thiruvarutpa of Ramalinga Adigalar, and later day poets such as Subramania Bharathiar, Papanasam Sivan, and Periyasami Thooran.