The learning or teaching of the classical dance of Bharatnatyam begins with the foot movements known as tatta adavus, followed by the mudras, which together are then composed into Jattis. Pieces such as “Alaripu” and “Jatiswaram” are adavus performed to swara patterns. The next step in the progression of learning is a Shabdam.
As the name suggests, shabdam is the first item in a bharatnatyam recital, which has words in it, also commonly called “sabda”. Therefore, it is also the item of a maargam where abhinaya or expressions are introduced. Also called Yashogati in Sanskrit, it is usually in praise of lord Krishna, Rama, Shiva, Murugan or the patron king. Almost all shabdams consist of four lines of literature, sung in Kamboji raag and misrachaapu talam. These are often sung in Ragammalika, starting with kamboji raag. They start with the syllables “tat tai yaa tai, tat ta taam”. The songs of shabdams usually end with the words “salamure” or “namostute” as they are sung in praise of deities or kings. The lines of the song are usually followed or preceded by a short jati with use if syllables like “taa hata jam”. A large number of sabdams were composed by the “Vaggeyakaras” of Melattur village of the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu.
The subject matter of sabdam usually consists of the life and praise of a particular god or king. For example, in the sabdam devoted to Lord Krishna, the pallavi begins with a description of Krishna stealing the clothes of the lotus eyed gopis while they go to the river for a bath. Only after a lot of pleading does he return the clothes to the gopis. In the anupallavi, there is a description of Krishna stealing butter with his friends and being caught red handed by his mother Yashoda. He is also shown flirting with the gopis and hugging them when they are on their way to fetch water in their earthen pots. Finally in the charanam, he is praised as the God Vishnu, as the preserver of mankind.
Thus, all sabdams are a reflection of the life episodes of various Lords which set examples of the kind of virtues and values that need to be followed by one and all.