Pallavi - Can any poetry be a Pallavi?

Posted on 09 October, 20208 min read

Pallavi is the primary format for developing and showcasing a Raga with rhythm and lyrics, in Indian Classical Music.


Recall from the earlier post on Raga Alapana that a typical performance of Indian Classical music has two parts:

  • Anibaddha Sangeet - Raga music which is not bound by lyrics, meter or tala.
  • Nibaddha Sangeet - Raga music which is bound by lyrics, meter and tala. Although parts of Nibaddha Sangeet are composed, it is still very much open to improvisation within the constraints of the lyrics, meter and tala.

Pallavi is the primary format of Nibaddha Sangeet. It is also popularly known as a composition, Kriti or Bandish.


The word Pallavi is believed to be a compound word made from 3 words: Padam, Layam, and Vinyasam:

  • Padam is a lyrical or a musical phrase,
  • Layam is a rhythmic structure or Talam, and
  • Vinayasam is the rhythmic exploration of the set musical phrase within the framework of the Raga Lakshana.

Pallavi is often preceded by an Raga Alapana. It can be a short Raga Alapana, or an extensive development referred to as Ragam Tanam or Alap, Jod, Jhala. We already covered the structure and performance of a Raga Alapana. Pallavi has also been referred to as Rupak Alapti. In fact, Rupak Alapti could be considered as the precursor to modern day Khyal genre of Indian Classical Music.

Pallavi has two characteristics - Dhatu (musical aspects) and Matu (poetic or lyrical aspects). Essentially, it is poetry set to music, in a tala or rhythmic cycle of beats. Here we need to make a distinction between literary poetry and musical poetry.

While literary poetry has its own structure and meaning, not all literary works are suitable as a musical composition. In addition to poetic meaning, a musical poetry also needs to have a metre, a rhythm based structure, and a musical structure where the musical and grammatical characteristics of the Raga are maintained. This is reflected in the title given to a musical poetry composer, Vaggeyakar, one who sets (kar) words (vak) to song (geya).

Structure of a Pallavi

Let us look at each of the different aspects of Pallavi, Padam, Layam and Vinyasam to understand the structure of a Pallavi. We will use short snippets from the Pallavi section of a Veena-Vani duet in Raga Bhimpalasi as examples to demonstrate different parts and aspects.


Recall that Padam refers to lyrical or musical phrasing. It can include four stages which are referred to as Pallavi - Anupallavi - Charanam - Anucharanam, or Sthayi - Antaraa - Sanchari - Abhog.

  • Pallavi or Sthayi - main lines showcasing the Raga structure which are often repeated.
  • Anupallavi or Antaraa - bridge lines which connect two sections, or two halves of the octave.
  • Charanam or Sanchari - a footnote or concluding part which again covers the whole Raga.
  • Anucharanam or Abhog - an optional additional section of Sanchari which contains the composer’s signature.

This four part composition was earlier known as Udgraha - Melapaka - Dhruva - Abhog in the Prabandha style of compositions. Prabandhas are not very prevalent now.

Pallavi or Sthayi

Listen to the snippet below for an example of a Pallavi or Sthayi. The lyrics go as follows:

कुंजन में रचो रास अदभुत गति लिए गुपाल

कुंडल की झलक देखि कोटि मदन टट को|

Sample 1. An example of Pallavi or Sthayi

Anupallavi or Antara

Listen to the snippet below for an example of an Anupallavi or Antara whose lyrics go as below:

अधर तो सुरंग रंग बांसुरी उपाय संग

ऐसी छबि देखि देखि मोहन के मुकुट पर मेरो मन अटके|

Sample 2. An example of Anupallavi or Antara


Recall that Layam refers to the rhymic cycle or structure. The lyrics or tune of a Pallavi (i.e., Padam) are set to different talas or rhythmic cycles like Aditala (8 beats), Chautala (12 beats), Mishra Chapu (7 beats), Jhaptala (10 beats), etc. The musical phrases are typically set in a way such that they line up with specific accents in the rhythmic cycle. For example, the starting point and the ending point of the musical phrase should match corresponding accents in the rhythmic cycle. If you are curious to learn more about the principles of Indian rhythmic cycles, check the next post on the Indian Tala System.

Let us revisit the snippets in Sample 1 and Sample 2 and note how the lyrics and tune are set to Chautala (12 beats). The lyrics starts on beat 1. Watch Sample 1 again and observe the vocalist, Aparna Shastri, indicating or gesturing the rhythmic cycle with her hands. Can you follow the rhythmic cycle of 12 beats as per the artist’s hand gestures? As you may have noticed, this part is accompanied by the percussion instrument Pakhawaj, played by Dhaval Mistry. The pakhawaj keeps beats, and creates rhythmic patterns consistent with the flow of the composition.


Recall that Vinyasam refers to the act of rhythmic exploration. Also called Vistar or Niraval, it uses different combinations of Jatis to create aesthetically appealing variations. Note that Sahitya Bhav or the spirit of the literature is a very important consideration. An artist should maintain the structure, meaning and beauty of the composition, while musically and rhythmically exploring it.

Specifically, it is important to take note of Hrasva (short) syllables and Deergha (long) syllables in the song, for elongating a short syllable could either completely change the meaning of the word, or render it meaningless. Another important point to note is that the positions of lyrical syllables in the rhythmic cycle need to be consistently maintained.

While the focus is on rhythmic improvisations, it is equally important to note that the Raga Bhava (the mood of the Raga) is maintained within the confines of musical grammar as defined by Raga Lakshanas.

Listen to this snippet for an example of Vinyasam.

Sample 3. An example of Vinyasam

Notice how the artists use the lyrics, the tune and the rhythmic cycle for improvisation. The words of the pallavi are used as the foundation for melodic and rhythmic improvisations. Here different words/phrases of the composition are taken to express the emotions contained in the words through melodic improvisations, while also creating interesting rhythmic patterns. Note how the improvisations stay within the framework established by the Raga and the Tala, and the lyrics.

Note on Instrumental Pallavi

You may have noticed from the samples that while Chandraveena can follow the tune of the Pallavi, it is difficult to express the words. This does pose some limitations in the improvisation part, since there are no words to go by.

Pallavis composed for vocal music can be rendered on musical instruments, especially in a duet format like above. Note that on an instrument, there is no strict concept of Matu or lyrics but only of Dhatu or notes. However, through a clever technique of strumming, bowing, blowing and modulating, the feeling of Dhatu can be created. If listeners knows the Pallavi, they may enjoy the feeling of Dhatu and follow along. Otherwise, they would hear it just as an instrumental composition.

To circumvent these difficulties, there are Pallavis specifically composed for instruments, some of which are designed to take advantage of specific instrumental techniques of playing. These compositions are called Gat. These compositions are not based on Matu but only on Dhatu. They give complete freedom to the artist to explore rhythmic variations along with Raga improvisation, without the boundaries of Matu.

Even in vocal music, there are special Pallavis which are minimalist in nature with usually just one line of poetry, with plenty of gaps between the words. Here again, not as much significance is attached to Matu as it is to Dhatu. Such pallavis are also suitable for instrumental music.


Indian Classical Music is known for improvisation and an extempore presentation of a Raga. A Pallavi extends the improvisation from a Raga Alapana and provides a framework for further exploration of the Raga together with rhythmic cycles, lyrics and rhythmic accents.

Like in the case of Raga Alapana, the musical and rhythmic exploration and improvisation during a Pallavi, is also called Manodharma Sangeet. So it is a showcase of the artist’s imagination, while staying within the framework of the Raga and Tala.

This post is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it provides a glimpse into the process of Pallavi. I also hope that this would enable you to follow and enjoy Chandraveena music and Indian Classical music in general. Do checkout the complete recording of the Veena-Vani duet in Raga Bhimpalasi.

Notes to Readers

Please check my and channels for recordings of Pallavi on Chandraveena.

Based on this article, you can try and identify the starting point, the emphasis point and the end point of Pallavis you listen to. You may also get a better picture of Pallavi improvisations.

Usually, I play single line Pallavis on Chandraveena. For lyrical and multi-section Pallavis, listen to works by Tansen, Baiju, Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Diskshithar, and many others.