Ragam Tanam Pallavi is a form of singing in Carnatic music which allows the musicians to improvise to a great extent. It is one of the most complete aspects of Indian classical music, demonstrating the entire gamut of talents and the depth of knowledge of the musician. It incorporates raga alapana, tanam, niraval, and kalpanaswara. In more elaborate ragam tanam pallavis, a tani avartanam may follow.
"Ragam" in the context of "Ragam Tanam Pallavi" refers to ragam alapana - the first component. In this form of pure melodic improvisation, the musician starts with a refrain to create the mood of raga and lays a foundation for composition to follow. Each Ragam tanam pallavi has at least one raga associated with it.
Tanam is one of the most important forms of improvisation, and is integral to ragam, tanam and pallavi. It is the second component of this composite form of improvisation. Originally developed for the veena, it consists of expanding the raga with syllables like ta, nam, tom, aa, nom, na, etc. Tanam is a rhythmic version of the raga alapana. Although tanam is often rendered without percussion support, the element of rhythm is more obvious in this type of improvisation. It is rendered in medium speed and just before commencing the third component of this composite form of improvisation; the pallavi.
The word Pallavi is derived from the three syllables Pa - Pada (words), La - Laya (rhythm) and Vi - Vinyasam (variations). Pallavi is the equivalent of a refrain in Western music. The Pallavi is usually a one-line composition set to a single cycle of tala. The tala could range from the simple to the complex and there may also be different gatis being employed.
Pallavi has 2 portions to it. The first half of Pallavi is an ascending piece of notes and the first half of the Pallavi should always end at the strike of the beginning of the second half of the Talam cycle, called the Ardhi. Between the first half of the Pallavi and the second half of the Pallavi there will be a brief pause called as the Vishranthi and then the second portion of the Pallavi starts. Executing niraval for a pallavi is unique, as, unlike in a kriti, the artist is not allowed to change the locations of each syllable in the sahityam, as this lessens the innate beauty of the pallavi. The basic style in Pallavi rendition is to sing the Pallavi in different speeds or Nadai. In most cases the Pallavi is set to Chatushtra Nadai meaning each beat carries 4 units. So the singer will then sing the Pallavi in 3 different speeds, once with each Beat carrying one unit, then 2 units and then 4 units per beat. Once this is completed then they would sing the Pallavi in a different Nadai called Tisra Nadai meaning each beat now carries 3 units. Once these aspects are covered, the singer explores in the Kalpanaswara phase and they would start exploring different Ragas during the Kalpanaswara.
Pallavi can be sung in 2 different aspects, one called as Pratiloma and then the Anulomam. In Carnatic music the Talam is always constant and only the Swaras or the Pallavi set for the Talam can undergo Nadai bhedam.
In theory if you sing Pallavi without changing any speed but increase the Talam cycle in a geometric progression, it would be the other kind.
The Pallavi challenges the musician's ability to improvise with complex and intricate patterns. The whole exercise is very demanding, both technically and musically, since all the artiste's musicianship is put to test.