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Among the many priceless treasures housed in the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Museum in Ahmedabad is a painting from the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Collection that dates back to 18th century Murshidabad in West Bengal, earlier the capital of the former nawabs of Bengal. Seen from a distance, it appears to depict a stretch of land on which stand hundreds of people, dressed largely in off-white garments, with occasional splashes of bright red and golden yellow. The painting compels you to take a closer look, and if you succumb, you could well turn into Alice hurtling into a Wonderland that holds the key to many a secret.

I succumbed easily but was saved from getting lost in wonderland by acclaimed art historian and painter Prof. Ratan Parimoo, who explained that the painting depicts a marriage procession. If you thought television shows on big fat Indian weddings were faithful depictions of the extravagance and opulence of Indian weddings, this painting will make you think twice. Held aloft by palanquin bearers on two square palanquins open to the skies are dancers and musicians who perform as the procession moves on. On each of the palanquin-platforms is a female singer-dancer accompanied by two male musicians. The musicians are seated on the floor of the palanquin, but the women performers are upright, perhaps dancing or twirling their sashes gracefully as they dance. One of the accompanying musicians appears to be playing a pair of drums similar to the tabla, while the other appears to have cymbals in his hands. Could these dancers be performing a style that was perhaps the precursor of Kathak as we know it today?

Accompanying the procession on foot are all manner of musicians. In the forefront are two tasha players, drums slung around their necks and held to the front of their bodies as they drum up a sharp crackling beat with two slender drum sticks. Next to them are two other drummers with much larger dhol-like drums sheathed in bright red cloth, but played with drum sticks too. Positioned behind them are two drummers with frame drums that look like the chang, which the drummers beat with curved sticks. In the foreground, right next to these six drummers, are two bansuri or flute players. One is left wondering whether the flute could have been audible amid the storm that the drums must have stirred up.

Up ahead in the front of the procession are drummers on horseback, accompanied by musicians playing short wind instruments and even two huge horns raised high in the air. The procession seems to incorporate different groups of musicians along its length, some facing the front where an escort on elephant-back holding a triumphant flag steers the procession on its course. Another group faces the groom and bride on horseback, with shehnai players in tow and even what appears to be a bugler in the periphery. The drummer for this group has a pair of drums strapped to his waist which he plays as he moves along. Torch-bearers, lords, nobles, attendants and men of all ages, shapes and sizes form part of the procession that includes only three women.

Who are they? What kind of music are they playing? Was this a depiction of a real-life wedding or an event born out of the artiste’s imagination? We may never know the answers but it might still be a good idea to seek them by sending students of music to museums to visit this and other artworks as part of their study.

Write to Shubha at musicmatters@livemint.com

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