If you have ever been to a Karnatic concert, you would have noticed that the ensemble sitting on the stage is usually only a few people strong। If the main performer is a vocalist (let us assume this, for the time being !) he is usually accompanied by a violinist and a Mridangam player। If he is lucky, there is also a Ghatam player tapping on a clay pot for accompaniment. There is, of course, a person strumming the Tanpura or the Sruti box and if the musician is a senior artiste, some of his disciples too sit on the stage and sing along - sometimes camouflaging the flaws of the Guru and reaching higher notes their Gurus cannot reach.
It is always a dream of every student to become a performing musician and to be top notch। But before being let loose on concert stages, they still have one final plateau of excellence to reach - the ability to perform what is called a 'Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi' or RTP or simply 'Pallavi'. (Note again, how we use the same word Pallavi to mean two different things) Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi is a total elaboration of a specific Ragam and is one hundred percent improvisation and creativity. It is the perfect place for a musician to show off his skill and mastery in enunciating a Ragam. The Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi is in fact the centerpiece of a Karnatic music concert.
First of, the musician chooses a 'strong' Ragam to perform his RTP. Oftentimes he picks a Melakarta Ragam, where the scope to make creative melodies is enormous (because they have all the allowed seven notes in the scale - remember they are all Sampoorna or 'complete' Ragams) He would also often choose a complex Talam to set his musical phrases in. Let us say he chooses Shankarabharanam and set to a Talam with a eleven beat cycle (!). In real concerts, usually the artiste does not reveal the Ragam of his RTP before hand. The audience and often, the accompanying musicians find out the Ragam just when the musician begins to play the RTP.
The first part of the RTP is simply the Alapanai of the Ragam (the word 'Ragam', is also a synonym for Alapanai, remember ?) After the Alapanai, the singer usually takes a break (and sips 'hot water' or milk kept on the sidelines) when the violinist takes over and tries to play the same musical phrases the singer just sang. This calls for a tremendous memory and ear for musical phrases. Of course, no one keeps tabs on how accurately the violinist follows the musician. The closer the violinists and the musicians are, the better. (This probably explains why specific violinist play for specific musicians because they 'know' each other well)
The second part of the RTP is called Tanam - don't confuse it with TaLam. Here the Ragam is elaborated even more. But now, the improvisation is in a faster tempo and set to a rhythm. Syllables such as 'Tum', 'Tanam' etc are used in this section (as opposed to syllables typically used in Alapanai). The violinist usually follows the musician after every passage. (unlike in the Alapanai part where he waited till the musician got done with the whole Alapanai) If instrumentalists are performing the RTP, in Tanam segment, they would play the sympathetic strings for added effect.
After the Tanam, the singer then starts on Pallavi, which in the context of RTP is just one line of text - often made up by the musician himself. He could very well have chosen 'Baa baa black sheep' as the Pallavi if he can massage the line to fit the Talam. Here, the Mridangam and Ghatam join in. The musician would embark on a series of 'Neravals' stretching the one line of Pallavi into several melodic phrases. The violinist of course follows the musician one step behind. Interestingly, at this point, the Mridangam would play when the musician sings and the Ghatam player would play for the violinist. The musician would cap it all off finally with a spate of Kalpana Swarams, by which time all the dimensions of the Ragam would have been (hopefully !) brought out.
Then the singer would break into an impromptu Raga Malika - singing Kalpana Swaram sequences in a bunch of Ragams, one after another. He chooses the Ragams in the Raga Malika to be widely apart, instead of being only subtely different. (Often 'light' ragams or Hindustani type Ragams are chosen). If Shankarabharanam is the Ragam for the RTP, then derivatives of Shankarabharanam are usually not chosen in the Raga Malika section). At the end of the Kalpana Swaram passage of each Ragam, he would sing the old Pallavi in that particular Ragam. The grand finale is when he breaks into a long series of Swarams (typically in the reverse order of the Raga Malika Ragams) and finally landing on the initial Ragam he had set out to play - (Shankarabharanam).
At this point, the singer typically lets the percussionists (Ghatam and Mridangam player) perform solo. This is called Tani Avartam or Tani Avartanam or Tani. This is also the time when the audience too takes a break and typically indulges in disruptive behaviour like chatting, rushing home or even dozing off. The percussionists grab this opportunity to perform the intricate aspects of the Talam.
A good Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi can last upwards of an hour and it is a vehicle for showcasing a singer's talent.
A TYPICAL KARNATIC MUSIC CONCERTOne of the dangers on writing about a 'typical' music concert is that these days there is no clear definition of what is 'typical'. Only a few years ago, instrument solos were rare in the Karnatic music tradition. Now, they are all over the place. These days several Karnatic musicians follow the Hindustani format as well and just sing a Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi and a few additional pieces. There are of course, numerous other changes that always keep happening - some trend-setting, some others just passing fads. Let us however look at a garden variety Karnatic concert.
A typical concert lasts around three hours. And most concerts do not have a 'program' given out ahead of time. By and large, the audience does not know what song is going to be performed next, even though these days most musicians have become reasonably Westernized and 'announce' their next song and what Ragam and Talam they are set in and who composed the song.
The musician would start the concert with a fast paced Varnam. This not only serves as a warm up piece for the ensemble to synchronize, it also sets the mood for the concert. And of course, it allows the latecomers in the audience the time to find their seats and sit down before the heavy-duty songs are sung. Usually, the singers will also resort to some gimmicks in the Varnam itself - such as playing the Varnam in several speeds or adding their own Kalpana Swaram passages.
This will then be followed by a song about Vinayaka in the Ragam Hamsadhwani or Nattai. Given there are only so many songs in Hamsadhwani and Nattai about Vinayaka, you can almost predict what is coming. Then the singer performs a variety of songs - choosing them appropriately so that he has the right mix and order of Ragams, tempo and audience appeal. He would choose to express his creativity whereever by performing Alapanai or Neraval or Kalpana Swaram at the appropriate parts of the songs. Then eventually he will perform the Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi.
After the RTP, the concert winds down and tends to get 'light', where the musician plays several short, light numbers. Instrumentalists sometimes tune their instruments to a higher pitch, (That is, intentionally shift their basic octave higher) to give the concert an artificially bright mood (and also to wake up the sleeping members of the audience) These light pieces are usually called 'Tukkadas' (literally meaning 'pieces') They could be popular, recent numbers or 'trademark' songs of a particular performer or even movie songs. Many Tukkadas are set in light Ragams or rare ragams and some in Hindustani Ragams. They could be a Bhajan song, a folk song, song in an obscure language, a Tillana (which is basically a dance song, often set in high tempo, with a lot of dance steps set to syllables such as 'teem', 'takka timi', 'thaa thai' etc), or a Javali (a short, 'quick' composition) Toward the end of the concert, members of the audience usually request their choices - often honored by the musicians. Finally, the concert is officially ended by singing a brief number called 'Mangalam', usually in the Ragam Madhyamavati, but sometimes even in Ragams like Surati.