Beating Retreat ceremony with nationalised flavour disappoints many - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 3 February 2018

Beating Retreat ceremony with nationalised flavour disappoints many

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 4th Feb 18

The spectacular 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 became an annual feature. This year, the ceremony featured 18 brass bands and 15 pipes and drums 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 became 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 (CAPF) 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”.

Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi, a well respected former army vice chief 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 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 amount 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 organizing the Beating Retreat each year.

Hussain – an accomplished concert flutist, 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 trivializing 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.

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 catching 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 approved 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.


  1. Let us flow with the changes.
    This too will not be forever, the next generation will make change again.
    So let current leadership decide , let the retired guys play with their grand kids, having done their bit.

    1. We only want what the old guys who have retired want. When we want change we will do it in our own evironment.

      We see the parade because we want to see tradition.

      The last thing we want is for some people born during 1960-1970s to screw up what every body liked.

      As a mellanial, of the 21st century there are some very few things on which I want ZERO change. This is one of them.

      The current leadership can decide, but let it be very very clear that the young masses want the military ethos to be rigid and very traditional.

      And if you dont, our generation will change it back to what it was.

      Its a solemn ceremony, not a spectacle.

      - Young Indian

  2. Its an elected governments progative to decide these things. Not of appendages of a defeated regime

    1. Yes. Then let the elected government hear its young youth loud and clear.

      Somethings must never change. Military traditions are one of them.

      If i want to watch entertainment i see bollywood. If i want to watch historic tradition i see republic day ceremonies.

      Im sure no hindu would like POP music being played during aarti on the ganga. Nor would a muslim during his ceremony or pop music and salsa dances at church.

      Please change it back.

  3. hindu rastra... over the years... invaded... invaders... only band, bajha, baaraat... never militaristic...

  4. 1700+ words on a topic that doesn't affect the defense preparedness of my country. Clearly Mr.Shukla is scrapping the bottom of the barrel to find some scrap to throw at current government.
    Appreciated your bold coverage on LCA- Tejas and efforts being made by vested interest to scuttle our indigenous program. Please keep such articles coming and avoid frivolous article like above.

    1. No it does affect the defence preparedness of the country.

      It affects morale and state of mind. All soldiers are proud of their traditions and rituals an diluting them cascades into diluting everything else today its ceremonial tradition, tomorrow it will be uniform and grooming standards, next discipline and then break in confidence and professionalism. Resulting in a drop in our fighting spirit and capability.

      Some things must never change or corrode. Just like the metal on the Ashok stambh our national emblem.

      War is fought in the mind, you may have great equipment but if your mind is weak, no amount of equipment indegenous or otherwise can save you from defeat.

      If you want a recent example - ISIS vs Iraqi army. Iraqi army ran away when they were clearly the better equipped. Reason - Weak mind, poor morale, poor training.

  5. Congressi Ajay Shukla found nothing else to write about !!

    1. You may be right, many articles are pro liberal. But this one is fact. These new changes are utter rubbish.

      No new changes are required. No government congress or BJP or any other party needs to tell the Armed forces what its traditions must be.

      India's fighting traditions and most of its fighting units are older than India or any political party.

      We dont want changes in the way we do aarti on the ganga, we dont want changes in the traditions of our Arned forces.

      Both are equally precious to us.

  6. I don’t wish to upset anyone here but there is smirking and amusement amongst the families of the Diplomatic corps in Delhi (some who are musicians themselves) whenever the Indian army band plays on the occasions when we are invited, as you often go out of tune. Moments of the last performance sounded like from a Middle school band whose music teacher has been away on maternity leave.
    However one of the wives is a Chello player on an international symphony orchestra, always defends your Army bands. She has played for us her old commercial records of outstanding music from the Raj played by Indian Army bands.
    It seems your music training schools have undergone a steep decline due to neglect. Could it be that decisions are made by senior people with no ear or understanding of music.
    India has amongst the best musicians it seems to be your Army Bands are not given priority.

    1. Yes. You are right, all these new idiotic changes are due to the decline in musical standards.

      What has happened - Quality of bagpipes have come down and hence the music of the bagpiper have gone down.

      This and a lack of understanding of bagpipe music has led to the appearance of brass bands in larger and larger numbers.

      Later, since brass bands are versatile in nature there have been some experiments with non martial music.

      One look at the poor standard of dress (informal wear) worn by VIPs and their behavior (noisy little children not sitting still, parents on the smart phone taking pictures during the ceremony and talking to each other) will show you that they have never been to such ceremonies nor do they understand the concept. They are only used to loud bollywood natch gaana, which they obsess on.

      So the ceremony is slowly and unfortunately changing to meet the aspirations of its uncouth audience.

      India has become richer, but we have no class or 'sabhyata'. The average indian was poorer in the olden days but atleast he had much more 'sabhyata' in him.

  7. Some time I wonder that why government and army can't made basic infantry weapon in India and today I got the answer

  8. So sad but nothing can be done. There is no point breaking the rock with your own head. Let the change carry on with time.They would not understand your language.

  9. if you don't like it then don't see it....people want to be there in VIP enclosure and enjoy the attention and then come back and be grumble!
    the present day military bosses are ok with this and if the retired (and tired) community have a problem then go meet the chiefs and convince them. writing letters would have been good when they were joining the service but if you want a change then go talk to the decision makers if you can.
    but seriously Ajai is this topic worth discussing!!
    I haven't yet seen an article on Kulbhushan Jadhav in your blog! or why LCA is floundering with just 6 being made against a promise of 16 per year! or defence reforms if they will ever happen!!

  10. The 2017 was the worst, I haven't watched the 2018 one yet. I remembered that traditional instruments section actually ruined the music. The thing that people who made these changes do not get is that some tunes can't be played in every instrument. Thus it was very laughable when I heard th marching bands tried to play the traditional music tune. THe combination wasn't right. Let Beating the Retreat be as it is. And the effort by the band to play AR Rahman's Vandhe Mathram wasn't that enthusing. It is best for Marching bands to play music that is playable on their instruments. Old experts need to be brought in to assess what went wrong.

  11. What part of military has not bowed to saffron political pressure? I think it is time to drop Rafales and look for for Pushpak vimans and Brhamastras! Time for COAS to hand over his chair to some MP (even a Rajya Sabha entry will do), or bureaucrat from PMO.

  12. Bogey - Def Min.
    Bogie - Rail Min


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