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Pann (Tamil: பண்) is the melolic mode used by the Tamil people in their music since the ancient times. The ancient panns over centuries evolved first into a pentatonic scale and later into the seven note Carnatic Solfege. But from the earliest times, Tamil Music is heptatonic and known as Ezhisai (ஏழிசை).[1]


Panns in literature

There are several references to music and Panns in the ancient pre-Sangam and Sangam literature starting from the earliest known work Tolkappiyam (500 BCE). Among Sangam literature, Mathuraikkanci refers to women singing sevvazhi pann to invoke the mercy of God during childbirth. In Tolkappiyam, the five landscapes of the Sangam literature had each an associated Pann, each describing the mood of the song associated with that landscape. Among the numerous panns that find mention in the ancient Tamil literature are, Ambal Pann, which is suitable to be played on the flute, sevvazhi pann on the Yazh (lute), Nottiram and Sevvazhi expressing pathos, the captivating Kurinji pann and the invigorating Murudappann.

The Sangam landscape was classified into five regions to describe the mood of the poem and to describe the intangibles of human emotions. While describing life and romance, the poets employed the background of the natural landscape and used the pann specific to that landscape to provide the mood. The neithal (seaside) landscape, which is employed to convey the grief of separation of lovers had the associated sevvazhi pann expressing pathos. Malaipatukatam mentions Viraliyar singing Kurinjipann when offering worship to the deities of the mountainous regions. It also refers to Virali singing Marudappann before singing the eulogies of kings. Malaippadukadam also refers to the people trying to overcome their fatigue by singing Marudappann after working in the fields. There is a very interesting reference to Panns and birds/insects in Perumpanarruppatai. It says that the beetles liked to listen to Kurinjipann played on Vilyazh thinking it to be the voice of its own kith and kin, while they hated to listen to Palaipann played on flute. There are also references to the Panar taking delight in mastering the Naivalam pann.

Evolution of Panns

The post-Sangam period, between the third and the fifth centuries CE, Tamil music evolved to a higher sophistication. Cilappatikaram, written around the fifth century CE, describes music based on logical, systematic and scientific calculations in the arrangements of the dancers on the stage to represent the notes and panns. Cilappatikaram contains several chapters dedicated to music and dance, of which the most famous is the kanal vari which is a duet between the hero Kovalan and his lady-love Madavi. Cilappatikaram contains musical terminology such as, azhaku and matthirai referring to the musical pitch and the smallest fraction of an audible sound distinguishable by the human ear. From these evolved the scales.


Development of scales

One of the first scales employed by the ancient Tamils was the Mullaippann, a pentatonic scale comprising of the notes sa ri ga pa da equivalent to C, D, E, G and A in the western notations. These fully harmonic scales, constitutes the raga Mohanam in the Carnatic music style.

Mullaippann further evolved into Sempaalai, a scale based on seven notes by the addition of two more notes, ma and ni to the pentatonic scale. Sempaalai pann corresponds to the Carnatic raga Harikambhoji. In ancient Tamil, the seven notes were termed as kural, tuttam, kaikkilai, uzhai, ili, vilari and taaram. The seven basic notes are then developed into twelve swaras corresponding to the twelve houses of the zodiac.

The ancient Tamils also derived new panns by the process of modal shift of tonic and by the process of reallocating the pitch and beat of the notes. Cilappatikaram has an example of this in the chapter Arangetrukadai, where the Pann Mercharupalai is changed to derive a new Pann. By the model shift of the tonic (பண்ணுப்பெயர்த்தல்) the ancient Tamils devised the seven major palais. Using the process of the cycle of fifth (called aaya palai) or the cycle of fourth, five semitones were developed. For example, if the cycle is started with kural (sa), the fifth note will yield iLi (pa), the sa-pa relationship. In the cycle of fourth, kural (sa) will give uzhai (ma), the sa-ma relationship. These five semitones were added to the original seven notes giving 12 notes of the ancient Tamil musical octave. Among the 12 notes, the flats were called kuRai (குறை) and the sharps were called nirai (நிறை).

The seven major palais or parent scales of the music of the ancient Tamils are: Sempalai (corresponding to the present Harikambhoji), Padumalai Palai (Natabhairavi), Sevvazhi Palai (Hanumatodi), Arum Palai (Dheerasankarabharanam), Kodi Palai (Kharaharapriya), Vilari Palai (Hanumatodi), and Merchem Palai (Mechakalyani).

The four original panns of maruthappann, kurinchippann, sevvazhi and sadari thus evolved into 103 panns with varying characterisations.

Some of the panns and their equivalent Carnatic ragas were:

  • PanchamamAhiri
  • Pazham Panchuram - Sankarabharanam
  • Meharahkkurinchi - Neelambari
  • Pazhanthakka Ragam - Arabhi
  • Kurinchi - Malahari
  • Natta RagamPanthuvaraali
  • Inthalam - Nathanamakriya
  • Thakkesi - Kambhoji
  • Kausikam - Bhairavi
  • NattappadaiGambhiranaattai

Panns in Saivite hymns

After the Sangam perid and during the occupation of the Tamil country by Kalabhras, Tamil music was dormant for a period of a few centuries. With the advent of the Saivite saints such as Thirunavukkarasar and Thirugnana Sambanthar (7th century CE) who used the ancient panns in their hymns (Tevaram), Tamil music experienced a revival. Only through these Tevarams and the hymns of Vaishnavite Alvars we can still experience the ancient traditions of the Tamil panns. Sambanthar used the following seven panns: nattapaadai, Thakka ragam, Pazhanthakka ragam, Thakkesi, Kurinji, Viyazhak kurinji, and Meharahakkurinji.

See also


  1. ^ Adiyarkunallar's commentary to the Aychiyarkkuravai, the seventh book of Cilappatikaram gives the number of Srutis and how they were allotted among Seven notes. Rowell 2000, pp. 138-144


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