The Beating Retreat ceremony that marks the end of the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi each year has its origins in ancient warfare. At the end of the day’s battle, drums would be sounded to signal a halt in fighting, the withdrawal of forces, the gathering and disposal of the dead and the lowering of flags to honour those who had made the supreme sacrifice. Over the centuries, the ceremony was adapted in various ways. In England, an order from King William III in 1694 stated that drummers would march down the main streets of various townships, their drumming answered by drummers in military encampments. Following that tradition, the Beating Retreat ceremony still takes place in London today at the Horse Guards Parade, near Buckingham Palace, for two nights in June. Like the ceremony in New Delhi, this is an extravaganza of military music and precision drills performed by the horse mounted bands of the Household Cavalry, along with the massed bands of the Household Division. A senior member of the British royal family, often the monarch herself, takes the salute on at least one night. Inspired by this London ceremony, the Indian military choreographed its own Beating Retreat ceremony in 1952. That has become an annual feature. This year, the ceremony featured 18 brass bands and 15 pipe and drum bands, besides an Indian instrument ensemble. It was in 1961 that Beating Retreat took on its current form. India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wanting to impress Queen Elizabeth II, who was visiting New Delhi for the first time as monarch, ordered Major GA Roberts, advisor in military music to army headquarters, to create a spectacular ceremony for the royal visit. Roberts did not disappoint. Beating Retreat, which continued largely unchanged since, has become as widely watched as the Republic Day parade itself. However, changes began creeping in from 2016, as the Bharatiya Janata Party government sought to infuse Beating Retreat with a nationalist flavour. What was once a purely military ceremony, featuring only army, navy and air force bands, was opened to a combined Central Armed Police Forces band and from the Delhi Police. This was reluctantly accepted by old-timers from the government and the military, partly because of the uniformly high quality of the police bands. However, the inclusion of a jugalbandi — an ensemble of traditional musical instruments, such as the sitar and tabla, performing in tandem with the military bands — evoked gasps of outrage from the traditionalists. So too was the inclusion of an army symphony orchestra, which played music significantly different from the marching tunes that are the staple of military brass and bagpipe bands.
And there has been widespread criticism of naval drummers performing a Michael Jackson-style “moonwalk”.Former army vice-chief Vijay Oberoi, who lost a leg in the 1965 war with Pakistan, fired the first shot after the changes first appeared in 2016. In a widely circulated media article, which dismissed the diluted Beating Retreat as an “absurd spectacle” and a “tamasha”, he flatly accused the military brass of bowing to political pressure. “I need not remind you worthies that traditions are at the core of the Indian military and flouting them on account of pressures/requests from political and other bosses amounts to letting down the troops whom you lead and who are always ready to even sacrifice their lives at your orders”, Oberoi wrote. Oberoi’s article, which resonated with many military personnel, objected vehemently to the “symphonies” included in the performance, and the “swaying, if not gyrating” by bandsmen, who he criticised as “breaking out into some sort of a bhangra.” After this year’s performance, which incorporated even more changes, Oberoi wrote: “I am ashamed to say and depressed to see that despite my public objection to the changing of the format two years ago, things have only got worse.” Amongst the military music fraternity, Oberoi’s criticism is echoed by Major Nazir Hussain, who, from 1997 until 2004, held the post of Advisor in Military Music to army headquarters, playing a central role in organising the Beating Retreat each year. Hussain — an accomplished concert flautist, who has played in several Beating Retreats in his younger days — says he has nothing against change in itself. “Change should take place and a performance like the Beating Retreat should evolve and improve. But a military band performance, which basically plays marching music, cannot be mixed with a chamber orchestra, or an ensemble playing traditional Indian music”, he says. Hussain is also outraged by the inclusion of popular Bollywood songs into military functions. Hussain says there are decades-old Army Orders — promulgated documents that have the force of law in the army —prohibiting military bands from playing Indian filmi music or from participating in marriage functions. “When you start trivialising military bands by mixing incompatible instruments and popular music and dance into their performances, you are changing a solemn official ceremony into a ‘Band, Baaja, Baraat’ type performance,” scoffs Hussain, referencing a low-brow Bollywood film. People at Vijay Chowk after the event Photo: PTI Hussain and other musicians of his time say much of the slide stems from the decline in musical and cultural education and awareness amongst decision makers. “Defence minister George Fernandes was a musician himself, who sang in a church choir. General Balaram, the army’s adjutant general who was responsible for organising Beating Retreat, played the clarinet. He would listen to an orchestra and point out, ‘The third clarinet missed a note’”, recounts Hussain. In the first decades after independence, the strong musical tradition left by the British enabled Indian military musicians to compose a large repertoire of Indian military songs. Over the years, legendary Indian military musicians like LB Gurung, FS Reid, Harold Joseph and Subedar Major Bachan Singh Negi composed a string of stunning quick and slow marches, like Hanste Lushai, Konkan Sundari, Gangotri, Hathroi, Channa Bilawari and Gorkha Brigade, which gradually replaced British tunes like Colonel Bogie in military parades and band performances. In addition, a tradition emerged of composing a band tune for each army chief, it’s name incorporating his nickname. Over the years, this gave birth to catchy tunes like Sam Bahadur (named after SHFJ Manekshaw), General Tappy (TN Raina), General Krishna (KV Krishan Rao), and others. Hussain recounts the stringent processes in getting a tune officially approved. “After I composed Veer Siachen and Veer Kargil to honour the martyrs of those tough battles, the tunes had to be approved by a demanding board of officers. Only then were they included in the army’s list of band marches”, he says. “Indianisation is a good thing. But replacing foreign compositions with our rich heritage of Indian military music would do it more effectively and respectfully than bringing in sitar and tabla players, pop music and dancing drummers”, says Major Karun Khanna (retired), who coordinated the ceremony from 1974-to-1976. Ironically, the sharpest criticism of Beating Retreat centres on the changes made to the sole foreign composition that is still in the programme — the rendition of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn, Abide With Me, which was traditionally played on tubular bells, producing a rich, almost mesmeric effect that audiences loved. The bells have been replaced with a Glockenspiel, a percussion instrument with a shallower sound. One of the most heart-thumping moments of the Beating Retreat would come on the last note of Abide With Me, when the switch was flipped to light up Rashtrapati Bhavan and Parliament House, with lines of traditional sodium bulbs highlighting its shape. That effect was replaced this year with colour-changing columnar lights, which failed to produce a comparable effect. Social and cultural components of the BJP government’s agenda are already being opposed by liberal sections of society. But in “Indianising” military ceremonies like Beating Retreat, the BJP will have to take on the most conservative organ of the state — the military.