Beating the Retreat: India
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The Times of India, Jan 30 2016
Beating retreat from tradition
The Beating Retreat ceremony in 2016 held at Vijay Chowk on 29 Jan evening saw a break from tradition. For the first time, there were bands from Delhi Police and central police forces apart from the massed bands of the three services. Also, there were Indian percussion and stringed instruments that held the audience in thrall till the end of the ceremony.
The event officially ended the 67th Republic Day celebrations, which itself began with a departure from tradition when a French military contingent marched down the Rajpath for the first time.
This time there were 15 military bands and 18 pipe and drum bands from across the various regimental centres and battalions. 26 compositions were played of which 20 were composed by Indians. There was a rendition of A R Rahman's `Bharat HumkoJaan Se Pyaara Hai' from the film Roja on Indian instruments like the tabla, sitar, santoor and flute.
The bands of BSF , ITBP and Delhi Police played symphonies like `Samvidhan', ` Abhinandan' and `Cariappa', much to the liking of the general audience.
Patriotic songs from Bollywood movies, both old and new, got the audience to hum along. One of the most liked performances was by Navy drummers who got the crowds on their feet with their modish and disciplined banging of the head as they played ` Admirals Ensignia-II' composed by US Prasad.
Major Karun Khanna (Retd) of Hodson's Horse, a veteran of the 1965 and 1971 wars, called it “absolute nonsense“ and an unfortunate thing to have happened. He had co-ordinated the Beating Retreat ceremony in 1974, 75 and 76.
Departures from tradition
From ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ chants to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, Beating the Retreat ceremony this year looked and felt different. It had a completely Indian flavour with the use of Indian classical instruments and scores, while the post-event illumination was also done differently. Broadly, one could say it was a departure from tradition.
President Ram Nath Kovind arrived in the presidential car, abandoning the use of the horse-drawn buggy that President Pranab Mukherjee had re-introduced in 2014. There were 26 performances this year of which 25 were composed by Indian musicians. The only western tune played was ‘Abide with me’, a hymn that was a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi.
Once the President took his seat, a faint melody was heard that gradually grew distinct as the marching bands came from the Rashtrapati Bhavan end. The composition they played was called ‘Indian soldiers’. Over the next one hour, 18 military bands, 15 pipes and drum bands and the tri-services band kept the audience enthralled. Indian tunes like Tejas, Veer Gorkha, Sher-e-Jawan and ‘The Great Marshal’ drew loudest of cheers from the crowd. The jugalbandi between the ensemble of Indian soldiers playing classical instruments - a concept introduced in 2016- was perfectly executed with the discipline and order maintained by the bands even while they made circular, spiral and serpentine formations.
Thundering slogans of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ by the soldiers participating in the ceremony after the ‘drummers call’ remained a curious topic of conversation among the audience. The adults in the audience tried to hum along familiar tunes like Vande Mataram, Saare Jahan Se Achha and Vaishnava-jan, children were impressed by the pomp and pageantry of the event. Yashasree Alankar (10) was fascinated by the camels while her father, Abhishek Alankar, loved the Michael Jackson-inspired moonwalk.
The Navy band presented ‘INS Nilgiri’, ‘Namaste India’ and ‘Jai Bharti’ compositions. They used ‘glowing drum sticks’ and the drums were decorated with white LED lights. With their special moves, the Navy drummers delighted the audience.
The post-event illumination was also different this time, which colour-changing LED lights replacing the usual sodium bulbs. Not everyone liked this change though. “It looks more like disco lights. Not something for such a solemn ceremony,” said Jalaj Malik.
The crowd loved it.
Military veterans’ reaction
Many military veterans are unimpressed with the changes made to the Beating the Retreat format this year. Unimpressed is perhaps an understatement-—many are seething with rage to see “squatting tabalchis”, “hip-swinging drummers”, and “Bollywood-style trumpeteers”.
“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,” said Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi (Retd), the former director general of military operations, Indian Army.
He was echoed by Major Karun Khanna (Retd), a veteran of 1965 and 1971 wars: “I am ashamed that the armed forces allowed this tamasha. Is this a Retreat? It is ridiculous!”
Khanna was the inter-services coordinator for the ceremony from 1974 to 1976. “Today it has been reduced to a nautanki! Unrecognisable music, out of tune and disrespectful to the solemnity of a Retreat,” he said.
Keen watchers of matters military say the format has been been changing since the last few years. “For the worse, I would say. Bringing sitar, tabla, violin are all fine for shows or concerts. Not a military parade. The Retreat is a parade. It has dignity and sanctity. You cannot reduce it to a tamasha,” Oberoi said.
Lieutenant Colonel Manoj Channan (Retd) of the armoured corps said a “solemn military ceremony has been reduced to band, baaja, baraat”.
The changes have been made as part of what is unofficially being called an “Indianisation” process.
“This shows a lack of understanding of India’s own military traditions. Those who want to change things believe the Retreat is a British tradition. But the Mahabharata war used to end every day with the sounding of the conches. At forts, garrisons would play drums and Indian pipes to sound recall to infantry or cavalry patrols and foraging parties,” said military historian Mandeep Singh Bajwa.
“Playing more Indian tunes is all fine. And I liked some of the tunes played at the Retreat this year. But soldiers on the march don’t play sitar or tabla. In fact, before the Indian Army converted to western pipe and brass bands, the shehnai and dhol used to be the instruments. But this is sheer gimmickry,” Bajwa added.