Layam and Kalapramanam in Carnatic Music

Published in
9 min readFeb 27, 2019


Melody and Rhythm are at the core of music. Let us start with the definition of rhythm from the Oxford English dictionary:

Rhythm:’ The systematic arrangement of musical sounds, principally according to duration and periodical stress.’[7]

One of the synonyms for Rhythm is Tempo.

Tempo: ‘The speed at which a passage of music is or should be played.’[7]

The more holistic meaning of Layam is around having a sense of rhythm which results in ‘harmonious equanimity’ [4].

Layam and Laya refer to the same word in different Indian languages.

Smt Vidya Shankar says ‘Rhythm is Laya. The word laya is derived from the root lai to move. So, laya means movement. The speed variations of this manifestation of movements fall under the categories: Vilambita or slow, Maddhyama or medium and Drutam or fast.’[3]

Dr S A K Durga says ‘The Laya stands for the interval of time between the beats and movement in time. Thus the term “Layam” means both rhythm and tempo created by the even measured flow of the uniform duration of Kala(time). Layam or the perception of time is a very fundamental factor in music. The flow of time is calibrated. If the unit of calibration is small, one feels the passage of time as quick or fast which is the Druta Laya. If the unit of calibration is large, one feels the passage of time as slow which is Vilamba Laya. If the unit of calibration is neither small nor large, the passage of time is felt as medium and is the Madhya Laya. The tempo of rhythm is therefore broadly classified into Vilamba, Madhya and Druta Laya-s. ‘[4]

Prof S R Janakiraman clearly articulates the balance needed between melody and rhythm: “Importance of Rhythm and Tala in musical compositions is beyond estimation. What meter is to poetry, tala is to musical compositions. A blend of melodical rhythm and rhythmical melody is one of the chief requisites of ideal music. Of rhythm and melody, neither should dominate to the detriment of the other. Laya or abstract rhythm could be traced to times immemorial. Tala was much later in origin. Analysis of ever flowing rhythm into definite solid structures results in tala.

Note scale is Raga and time scale is Tala. The scale may be correct yet the raga may not be rendered correctly. So too the tala may be correctly reckoned — the sequence of Angas(components) and their manipulation, execution etc., but the timing of reckoning may not be precise and that is called Avalaya which has its parallel in Apaswara.’[5]

A critical aspect of accuracy in laya is Kalapramana which is the ‘steady maintenance of tempo’.[2]


The sections below are translated highlights of the Lecdem on Kalapramanam by Sangita Kalanidhi R Vedavalli. Hyperlinks to Carnatic music genres(Varnams, Kritis, Ragas) feature multiple artists.

Meaning of Kalapramanam

Smt Vedavalli starts by explaining the meaning : ‘ Kalapramanam is Kalam+ Pramanam’. Kalam has many meanings, it can refer to Lord Siva, to time; the context depends on which word it is joined with. For instance, Kalaharanam (lost time), Nalla kalam (good time), Kashta kalam(bad time). Pramanam also has many meanings such as accuracy, Theermanam(certainty).

So, when they come together, Kalapramanam, time + accuracy, precision in the time and tempo.

And this also applies to multiple things in daily life. Speech can be understood only if it is in the right kalapramanam. The meaning will be lost if the words are jumbled together when we speak too fast or if we elongate and speak too slowly. When we walk, we maintain an appropriate speed. Even in science, so many things depend on accuracy of the speed such as the rotation and revolution of the earth. In the circus, the motorcycles have to maintain the right velocity when they go upside down in the circle, otherwise their riders will tumble.’ [1]

Kalapramanam in Carnatic Music

‘In our classical music, the critical skills developed in the early lessons set the solid foundation for the more advanced performing genres. When singing Sarali Varisai in 3 speeds, the speed gets doubled each time. For beginners, the second speed will run a bit, and so the third speed will become too fast to sing and will then get slowed down. Hence the teachers will keep saying, Don’t run, don’t run. This running should not happen; need to step up properly from first to second to third speed with precision in tempo. And when this is established, teachers will even teach 4–6 speeds. This principle is the same for the starting Sarali Varisai to the advanced Pallavi (Ragam Tanam Pallavi). If we master this kalapramanam accuracy from the outset, when learning the Swara Exercises (Sarali, Janta and Dhatu varisai), it is not going to be difficult to master Pallavi singing and there will be no need for rote memorization. ‘[1]

Critical Importance of Varnams

Smt Vedavalli then focuses on the pivotal role of Varnams :‘When we come to Varnam that is when the kalapramanam will ‘kick(trip us up). Varnams are actually more complex than Kritis(songs) to sing with fidelity to kalapramanam. When the student completes the Pallavi and Anu Pallavi in the first speed and starts the second speed after Muktayi svaram, the ‘running’ will happen. Difficult to determine why it happens, but it happens. The analogy is similar to the fact that it is difficult to see the minuscule increase in height of a growing plant or child on a daily basis, but it becomes noticeable when there is enough of a change. And for some reason, even if the first speed is started at a slow pace, the second speed instead of being its double, tends to become faster. Senior teachers used to say that the tendency for a beginning student to run in music is similar to the tendency of a small child to run very fast since they have not yet mastered the ability to calibrate their speed; something similar happens when learning to sing. The teacher has to keep calling this out to increase the awareness of the student when there is even a minute deviation in the tempo that needs to be maintained.

Even today in concerts, after the Tani Avartanam(percussion solo), and the musicians come back to the kriti, it is a natural occurrence for the tempo to have increased a little bit. But, if there is too much increase in second speed and then third speed is decreased to adjust, then it goes askew. Hence, it is extremely important when learning to be mindful of kalapramanam and to internalize it. To keep practicing with awareness and carefully checking that the same tempo is being maintained. Then, we can experience this ourselves.’[1]

Examples of Varnams

Multiple Adi Tala Varnams in the ragams Vasantha, Surutti, Arabhi, Thodi, Sankarabaranam, Saveri, Khamas, Sriranjani, and Ata Tala varnams in Kalyani and Bhairavi sung by Smt M S Subbulakshmi and Smt Radha Viswanathan at this link

Sami Idi Vela Varnam in Ragam Kannada and Adi Talam composed by Shri Patnam Subramania Iyer and sung by Smt R Vedavalli

Chalame Pada Varnam in Ragam Natakurinji and Adi Talam composed by Shri Moolaiveettu Nattuvanar Rangaswamy and performed by Shri K S Gopalakrishnan (flute), Shri M S Gopalakrishnan (violin) and Shri Umayalpuram Sivaraman(mridangam)

Kanakangi Varnam in Ragam Thodi and Ata Talam composed by Shri Pallavi Gopala Iyer and performed by Shri M S Gopalakrishnan and Narmada Gopalakrishnan(violin), Shri J Vaidyanathan(mridangam), Tiruchi K Murali(Ghatam) and T J Sourirajan(morsing)

Vanajakshaa Varnam in Ragam Ritigowla and Ata Talam composed by Shri Veenai Kuppaiyer performed by Shri Ramakrishnan Murthy (vocal), Shri R K Shriramkumar(violin), Shri Arun Prakash(mridangam) and Shri Anirudh Ahreya(kanjira)

Kalapramanam in Raga Alapana

Smt Vedavalli illustrates how tempo has to be considered when improvising ragas too, even in the absence of explicit rhythm or tala. ‘Kalapramanam matters even when singing Raga Alapana(improvisation). Some ragas are in faster tempo and others need to be sung slower in Vilamba kala.

Thodi, sankarabaranam have both; Nalinakanti tends to be in fast tempo while ragas Ahiri, Neelambari tend to be in slower tempo like a soft breeze. For example, Amba Neelayadakshi in Ragam Neelambari should not be sung fast since it is a vilamba kala kriti in a vilamba kala ragam. Ragas Sahana and Yadukula Kambodhi are also slower paced.

When singing a raga alapana, seniors will say that we need to sing the accurate second speed of phrases sung in the slower speed.’ [1]

Variety of Kritis in different Kalapramanam

Smt Vedavalli emphasizes why the underlying kalapramanam must be consistent and apparent for every facet of the kriti : ‘Each kriti has its own kalapramanam. The 2 Kalai Chaukam Vilamba Kalam (slower pace) sounds good only when sung in its correct pace. For example : Chakkani raja in Ragam Kharaharapriya and Talam Adi, its sangatis have been created to align with this kalapramanam. If it is faster, it will not be aesthetic.

If something is off when a kriti is being performed in a concert, the culprit is most probably the wrong kalapramanam; whereas when the same kriti is sung with accurate kalapramanam, it will shine.

Our understanding of the kriti increases, the more times we sing it. You should not record(when learning), practice a few times and immediately perform on the third day. This was not considered to be acceptable in the past. Iyengarvaal (Shri Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar) used to practice a kriti 100 times before singing it on stage. Even if we have learnt the kriti, need to sing it this many times to internalize and correctly understand the kalapranam. The slow pace of yester years is not there for most things today — from cooking rice faster in pressure cooker to music. Still, need to find the time to practice the kriti multiple times.

Just as you should not speed up a slow paced kriti, should not slow down a kriti in Druta kala (fast pace) like Nenarunchinaanu in ragam Malavai and Talam Desadi. This sparkling speed generates viruviruppu (excitement). Need to practice to master singing it at this faster pace.

In between tempo, Madyama kala kritis created so beautifully by composers, should not slow it down or speed it up; need to sing it accurately. Example: Rama Nee Samanaevaru in Ragam Kharaharapriya and Talam Rupakam

Shri Muthuswami Dikshithar appreciated the beauty of the vilamba kala and most of his kritis are in this slower majestic gait containing the essence of the raga. Shri Thyagaraja has given us both — kritis in vilamba kala and faster speed. Shyama Sastri has composed kritis in vilamba and maddhyama kalas; unless, we are singing it faster, not aware of his kritis in fast tempo.

Then, there are kritis that are started after 1.5 beats and tend to be faster paced; and they will not sound nice if they are slowed down.

The Sahitya(lyrics) in vilamba kala kritis will not have too many words in order to facilitate the musical extensions in this slower pace while the druta kala Nenaruncinanu kriti seems to have a syllable for every beat. While Chakkani raja includes akaara, these vowels akaara/ekaara elongations make the vilamba kala shine (spurikaridu).

These great composers have given so much thought and careful analysis to all these aspects; they have also studied the musical treatises. It is not just outpouring of bhakti. That is why the Carnatic Music Trinity’s compositions are in a different league. There is variety in their kritis, even those in the same raga or tala.

Composers have chosen the raga and tala so beautifully for their compositions. If we understand and adhere faithfully to their intent, then it will be outstanding in all aspects such as sahitya bhava(feelings aligned to the underlying meaning of the lyrics), rasa(emotion) of the raga, and kalapramana (tempo precision).

And the concert will be more enjoyable when it is holistic and if the featured songs and their sequence are in different tempo — vilamba, madya, druta. Similarly, it is extremely pleasing to hear tempo variations in sangatis (phrase variations) in the song such as the singing of a faster paced sangati after a kaarvai(pause) or vice versa.‘[1]

Examples of kritis in different tempo

Druta Laya

Madhya Laya

Vilamba Laya

Vilamba Laya with Madhyama kala sections




life long student of Music