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[Editor's Note: 1) This article has links to several audio files, all of which are in Real Audio (32 kbps, streaming stereo) format. To play these, you will need the Real One player, available for free download, from Real Networks 2) The audio clippings included in this article, are strictly for informational and illustrative purposes only 3) Click here for the standard transliteration scheme]

tAnam is one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing components of a Carnatic music concert. What is the history behind tAnam and how has it evolved over the ages into its present-day format that uses certain characteristic syllables with its own unique rhythm?


"tanyatE iti tAnaH" says sAr.ngadEva in sa.ngIta ratnAkara, the encyclopedia on music. tanyatE, means elaboration, hence tAnam is that which is capable of being elaborated. The connotation of the term tAnam and the method of rendering this particular musical entity have changed drastically from bharata's period to what it is today.

Pa~ncamarabu, a Tamil treatise by aRivanAR, which predates even the silappadikAram gives an explanation for tAnam singing that is more suited to present-day renditions. V. P. K. Sundaram reflects this in the commentary to this book. The 45th song in the treatise says:

ninRArnda mannagaram tannODu
nILathAl Ezhum nidAnattAl nindRu
iya.nga ccheydalE tAnam pADudal

(Meaning: Singing the syllables ta, na, m in the seven swarasthAnAs with care)

The commentary also states that the syllables ta and na could be sung with long vowel extensions and ta can also be varied as tE, tI and tO. In fact, Tamil treatises talk of tennA tena as a way of singing ALatti or AlApana.

It is also interesting to note that one of the six a.ngAs of a prabandha is called tEna. sa.ngIta ratnAkara defines this a.ngA as:

tEnEti .sabdastEnaH syAnma.ngaLArtha parka.sakaH |
Om tatsaditi nirdE.sAttatvamasyAdi vAkyataH ||
taditi brahma tEnAyam brahmaNA ma.ngaLAtmanA |
lakSitastEna tEnEti…||

tat signifies Brahman. tEnA, however, happens to be the instrumental case of the word tat, which means "because of it". Just as tattvamasi or Om tatsat signifies Brahman, the third case "tEna" is also said to have an auspicious connotation.

pAr.svadEva, author of sa.ngIta samaya sAra has also taken the syllables like ta and na, indicating that the tEna could consist of these "meaningless" syllables too.

tennA tennEtiyO varNO gitE'sau tennakO mataH ||

Interestingly, dhruvapada or dhrupad singing consists of three parts, of which the first is called nom tom singing. This too is accompanied by "meaningless" syllables like ta, na, ri, tom, nom, nu, di & ri. It is said that these letters are related to words like Om, tvamanantam, hari Om, etc.

sa.ngIta ratnAkara, nATya .sAstra, dattilam and other Sanskrit treatises give a different musical interpretation to tAnam. These texts have spoken of tAnam as a series of five or six notes arranged in a specific combination. These are derived by the deletion of one or two notes from the seven-note mUrcanAs. The straightforward combinations of notes are called .suddha tAna and the permutations are called kUTa tanas. The .suddha tAna can be SADava or auDava series. In fact, each of the tAnas, .suddha or kUTa, has names assigned to them. Bharata has however used term mUrcana tAna for both auDava and SADava tAnas. mata.nga, in his work, has stated that mUrcanas are always in ascending order and tAnas in descending order. There are several other details about the various .suddha and kUTa tAnas, which are beyond the purview of this article.

tAnam today

tAnam, in its present-day form seems to have acquired a totally different structure. It is rendered predominantly as part of the rAgam-tAnam-pallavi section of the kaccEri. While the raga AlApana is absolutely devoid of a rhythm component, tAnam has its inherent rhythm, which is manifest in the form of patterns of three, five or seven notes. As mentioned earlier, tAnam is sung with syllables such as ta, nam, nom & ananta. There have been discussions on tAnam singing at the Music Academy and other places, where elders like Muthiah bhAgavatar are claimed to have said that tAnam should be sung using the words ananta, Ananda and so on. But there is neither any theoretical support for this contention nor a mention in any musical treatise.

tAnam is essentially sung in madhyama kAla and the same tempo is maintained throughout. Sometimes, some musicians start at a slower tempo and gradually increase the speed. A number of patterns of 3, 5 or 7 swarAs are strung together and at the end of each turn, a finale in the form of:

a- nam- ta
a-- nam- ta
nam- tom- ta nom ta!

Here is a very good example, from my guru sangIta kalAnidhi Dr. S. Ramanathan, in sankarAbharaNam.

An elaborate tAnam in Bhairavi, gradually increasing in tempo, by Sri. K. V. Narayanaswamy

The tAnam can incorporate akAram passages, bRgAs and so on and is sung around a note that is predominantly the jIva swara of the rAgam. It may be relatively easier to sing a tAnam in straightforward, scalar rAgams. It is generally tougher to sing tAnam in rakti rAgams and rAgams that admit viLaMba kAla phrases.

Here is a tAnam in bEgaDa, by Sri. M. D. Ramanathan.

Here is another tAnam, this time in sahAna, by Sri. G. N. Balasubramanian.

Fast-paced or durita kAla tAnam is called ghanam. In fact the primary ghana rAgams - nATTai, gauLa, Arabhi, varALi and .sRI are named so because they are most suited for tAnam singing.

A ghana-rAgamAlika tAnam by Sri. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

We also have the dvitIya ghana rAgAs like nArAyaNagauLa, rItigauLa, kEdAragaula, nATakuri~nji and kEdAram that are also said to be suitable for tAnam singing.

Here is a tAnam in kEdAragaula, again by Sri. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

A nATakuri~nji tAnam by Sri. K. V. Narayanaswamy

Sometimes, the tAnam is sung with tALam and one does hear the mRda.ngam accompaniment, as is the case with the navarAtri concerts at Thiruvananthapuram.

A tAnam in pantuvarALi, at the navarAtri manDapam, by Sri. M. D. Ramanathan

A tAnam in kIravANi, by Sri. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (with mRdangam accompaniment)

There are different types of tAnam based on the characteristic gait of animals and birds. a.sva (horse), gaja (elephant), maRkaTa (monkey), mayUra (peacock), kukkuTa (cock) and maNDUka (frog) are some of these tAnams, other than of course, mAnava tAnam! tAnams are also classified on the basis of figurative patterns, says Prof. Sambamurthy. They are cakra (cyclic), vakra (zig zag), mi.sra (mixed), mAlika (garland), gambhIra (majestic) and vidya tAnam. sAttanUr pa~nju iyer, an eminent singer of the last century was said to be adept in his exposition of various types of tAnams.

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