The following is a conversation reproduced between three people (and a note added by Sangeetha Shyam) about what compositions aka “items” can be chosen for a Margam. In other words, How to choose compositions for a Margam? This conversation is majorly a guideline. If you have other pointers that you like to share with others, please do comment on this post.
Raghu: I wanted to ask you. I don’t know much about Raga and their characteristics. But, I have heard that in a Margam the compositions should have balance of heavy and light ragas. Also repetition of ragas is not recommended.
Madhana: Raghu, we discussed about ragas in a Margam before. repetition is definitely not encouraged. That’s why I asked Subha about Shankharabharanam Margam, where the entire Margam has only one ragam. i.e., Shankarabharanam.
Like subha said there should not be two ragams with anthara gandharam and something like that.. There is more to this. The main purpose is not be too heavy on vocalist’s throat and also not make it very heavy listening for the audience.
Raghu: I see.
Subha: Usually you don’t repeat ragas and don’t repeat talas. You also don’t follow a ghana ragam/antara gandhara ragas or something like that with another ghana ragam. Ghana ragams are like Shankarabharam, Todi, etc. Technically most Varnams are in ghana ragas or ragas of family close to ghana ragas. Javalis are in desi ragas, ragas that are lighter and often has Hindustani influence like khamas, behag etc.There should be only one chapu tala composition in a Margam.
Madhana: Are all these written rules or unwritten? if written, what’s the source? any idea Subha?
Subha: I think they are more of guidelines than written rules. I am not sure if they are written in the NS. I have to check. My teacher told me most of these but also said her guru Lakshman sir told her. So, I am not sure if she ever mentioned them to be written. There is another dimension to this whole topic. There are many ragas that have a lot of content and possibilities. traditional carnatic ragas with weight that people choose for RTP fall in that category. Like Kalyani, Todi, Shankarabharanam etc. They can be sung to give different moods and the sangatis possible are endless. In olden days, vocalist used to elaborate one raga for many hours. This is especially true with hindustani improvisation rather than krithi centric usage. But it is also true that one carnatic raga has been used to describe different emotions by different composers. One contemporary example is if you know Hindi and Tamil, you will realise that many Rehman tunes used in sombre situations in tamil have been used for item song in Hindi or vice versa. It all depends one execution of bhava. Here Bombay Jayashree’s explaining how Nattai can also be used to create a sober mood. [Timestamp 6:36]
However, there are ragas like Kathaana kuthuhalam and Hamir kalyani where there is little room to do things differently. As a general rule a lighter raga has little scope or is easily identifiable because of repeated prayogams.
So to answer Madhana’s question, Shankarabharanam Margam is working on the premise that given one raga, how many moods can you successfully evoke. That really depends on the raga you choose. I have heard that Todi is a majestic raga, in the sense that the possibilities are infinite. Ditto with Shankarabharam and Kalyani and other such weightu (heavy) ragas. So Shankarabharam Margam is acceptable since
- its a universal scale (not just carnatic or indian)
- it allows for different variations
- artists can evoke different emotions with just one scale
That doesn’t mean every Margam should be or shouldn’t be done on one raga. If handled elegantly, you don’t need a bunch of ragas to evoke different moods. If handled foolishly, you can have the perfect raga and tala for the situation and still screw up. :)
The simplest answer is ragam-tanam-pallavi is all in one raga but have different target bhavas. Ditto with Margam in one raga. At the end of the day, you want to take the audience on a journey closer to divinity. It doesn’t have to be any one kind of journey (technically)
Raghu: Yes, I agree with you that one ragam can be made to evoke different bhavas.
Madhana: Subha, True. I agree with your explanation. Makes sense! Yes. Same ragam can be used to create different moods. In addition, for one ragam in the entire Margam, the vocalist should be good enough to evoke those moods through his/her singing. The inherent difference in the various compositions is not enough, IMHO! I was just curious why would one chose to do a whole Margam in one ragam.
Raghu: No, that was not the question. My question was more towards how does a dancer chooses which pieces he/she wants to dance to in a Margam.
Subha: Yeah. I was answering Madhana’s question
This is what I go through the process of choosing a Margam
I usually try to cover all 6 gods in a shanmarga fashion
So, mostly I like a Varnam on shiva but vaishnavites may take a Varnam on vishnu. Whatever it is, you decide the Varnam first
Then for Shabdam you choose a different god than Varnam because they are back to back. Shabdam ragas are always Kambodhi or Ragamalika
Then for Padam I choose one vilambakala Padam if possible
For me that is usually on Krishna, if not on Ambal or something…
Make sure if the Varnam is in Adi, the following Padam is not
If the Varnam is in rupakam, the following vilamba kala krithi in Adi etc
Javali is usually not in any of these weighty ragas…and is much faster paced anyways
Thillana, make sure is in a raga not explored or a deity not covered
Javali is usually on Muruga/Krishna. Try not to have too many Krishnas
Jathiswaram and alarippu is picked mostly from what you know. Just make sure you don’t repeat ragas. If you choose a chapu alarippu, make sure Javali is not in chapu
If not alarippu, then another invocatory item like kauthuvam, pushpanjali is used. Make sure it covers Ganapathy somewhere otherwise, it’s hard to fit him later in the Margam.
Maybe a shloka on Ganapathy and then the alarippu.
That way you cover, Ganapathy (invocatory), Skanda (Javali/Padam/Shabdam), Vishnu (Padam/Varnam/Javali/Thillana), Shiva (Varnam/Thillana/Shabdam) and Parvathi (Padam/Thillana/Varnam). One of them is bound to repeat
The sixth is supposed to be surya in shanmarga but the repertoire doesn’t cover it per say.
Ragas considered for Varnam are usually what you know. They tend to be all the ones you have learnt like Anadabhairavi, Nattakurinji, Sankarabharam, Todi, Dhanyasi, Bhairavi etc. you fix one and then arrange/rearrange the others and then eliminate the talas/chapu that are back to back
Also, make sure they are all not in one nayika type. So, no two crying songs one after the other or two khandita nayikas or two mugda ones.
For the Varnam/Padam/Javali part or even the Shabdam for rare cases
There are more donts than dos here. More like “they don’t make sense” rather than “shastras don’t allow us” types.
Some people also classify by language. tamil, telugu, etc. so one song from one language. Abhang and Bhajan are understandable by marathi/hindi speaking people among the audiences.
For kids, instead of Javali folk or kavadi chindu songs or patriotic songs goes well.
There are infinite possibilities.
Another thing is kshetram or places…You usually don’t repeat kshetras. Two songs on same places makes it redundant. Usually if you take care of gods, you take care of this
But sometimes you have to make decisions…you might want to do a Tishra gati Thillana but, if it is on a kshetram that your Varnam has covered it’s okay since in a Thillana and the kshetram reference comes briefly. There are other exceptions too…you can do a whole Margam on Krishna if you cover different bhavas in sringara/bhakti…like Vatsalya sringara, Rati sringara, Dasya bhakti, Sakyam etc. so songs on yashoda, radha, meera bhajan and kuchela song is fine too…but one song on a common gopi in love with Krishna and the immediate next song with radha in love with Krishna is usually to be avoided.
Subha: because then both would fall under Rati sringara…. at most it can be as different as samyoga and viraha.
Raghu: oh, I see…
Subha: so give variety and have some logic to what you do. There are not rules in natyashastra that cant be broken, its true for most shastras…so says natyashastra…
Raghu: Natyashastra does not codify Margam, right?
Subha: not about Margam, generally about rules in NS and other scriptures…
Therefore, by extrapolation our ancestors trust that anything done prudently is fine. For the uninitiated, these are broad guidelines. However, one should always use their discretion developed with age and experience rather than blindly follow rules types
Subha: chapter 36 (last chapter), verse 83: (translation) “The author does not want a cent percent adherence to the rules laid down by him. Playwrights and sponsors of the plays can use their discretion based on the extra scientific knowledge and later inventions etc.”
Raghu: Which source are you citing?
Subha: “The Natya Shastra of Bharatamuni” translated into English by a board of scholars, Sri Satguru publications Delhi, India. You can refer any other NS book you have. 36, verse 83 
Raghu: I don’t know that book. I will look into another source to see if the translation is similar.
Raghu: Another translation says “Thus many practices sanctioned by Sastras have been described in connection with the performance of dramas. Whatever remains unmentioned should be included into practice by experts from an observation (lit. imitative) of people (i.e., their usage). Footnote: This shows that the author of the Sastra did not like to see drama eternally tied to his prescriptions.” 
This is an excellent list. Thanks…I think this discussion is worth to document. Can I have the permission to put this in the BN.and.WWW blog? :D
Subha: if you will acknowledge me and re write the English :D
Madhana: aruvi maadhri kottardhu guidelines! (like a waterfall)
Raghu: What about the amount of karanas in nritta? Or in other words poses?
Subha: what about them?
Raghu: Is there anything about how many karanas can be used or something like that?
Subha: Actually karanas not being poses but a set of movements, nritta as per the NS is only made of karanas. So there is no question of how many karanas-as referred to poses
Madhana: Wouldn’t it be constraining the choreographer, if there are guidelines for these too?
Raghu: I have seen some dancers doing poses of Karanas in the middle of the dance.
Subha: well, the posing started majorly with Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai who thought temple sculptures (not karanas as in natyashastra) should be integrated into BN. He was also at that time choreographing a whole lot for movies with kamala and they are beautiful.
Raghu: yeah, Kamala Lakshman is famous for the statuesque pose she gave in her programs.
Subha: karanas according to NS are a set of movements. So there is no question of posing karanas if you were to literally go by NS
Madhana: hastha paadha samayogaha
Subha: that’s why Padma Subrahmanyam developed a set of movements associated with each karana
Raghu: Yes, that’s true.
Subha: NS is not about dance at all…it has to do with production of drama
Dance or Nritta being the inaugural piece
Raghu: Of course that’s why it is called Natya.
Subha: karanas in nritta and so on. So you can imagine why there isn’t any guideline over posing. Because there is no such concept there, You are either dancing or acting
Sangeetha Shyam adds:
- The purpose of the program. Appropriateness of the main item for the theme, duration and venue.
- What the audience like/relate with. I have seen a taana varnam (Telugu) fail in a setting where the audience were all people of Tamil origin. It became a smoke break. Smaller doses of the unknown become a novelty and are tolerated. Big chunks of the unfamiliar are sometimes lethal. So, choosing language and content to suit the rasika is premium. On the contrary, attempts to break boredom in the usual circuit rasikas by giving them something new is also very welcome. In a few cases, enough research is done to justify the inclusion of particular items in the margam.
- The appropriateness of the items to the dancer in terms of gender, skill, competencies etc.
- Format of the program: Group or solo. It could probably influence song selections.
- For a dancer who performs often, it is important to evaluate if he/she is doing an item too often during the season.
- The Natya Sastra of Bharatamuni – Translated into English by A board of Scholars
- Page 238 from The Natyasastra by Manmohan Ghosh Vol II (http://archive.org/details/NatyaShastraOfBharataMuniVolume2) Published by the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, 1961