Author : Deepak Sinha

Originally Published 2018-02-01 07:45:40 Published on Feb 01, 2018
Beating retreat or beating a retreat: Which will it be?

It is often said that class will tell, and so it did during the “Band Baja Baarat” that passed for the annual ‘Ceremony of Beating Retreat’ that symbolically brings to a close the celebrations of Republic Day.

In present times the ‘Ceremony of Beating Retreat’ denotes a colourful military pageant of martial music and precision drill carried out by the Pipes and Drums and Massed Bands of the Services to add spectacle, colour and poignancy to an event of ceremonial significance in the lives of all soldiers. Originally, off course, it had a more operational purpose as “Half an hour before the Gates are to be shut, which is generally at the setting of the sun the Drummers of the Port-Guard are to go upon the Ramparts and beat a ‘Retreat’ to give notice to those out with that the Gates are to be shut.” Over the years it evolved into an essential routine of military barrack life as the ‘Retreat’ is sounded daily at sunset to signify the end of the working day and start of Guard Mounting.

Even after Independence we continued to organize and conduct the ‘Ceremony of Beating Retreat’ in the traditional manner that the British had bequeathed us. It was only in 2016 that the Prime Minister’s Office is supposed to have issued directions that the function should be more “Indianised and inclusive”, no doubt a worthy ideal indeed. However, as is our wont, why bend when you can grovel, the powers that be lost little time in hastily implementing, what can only be described politely, as a direction lacking in both knowledge and ethos of military history and traditions, and what is worse, completely unaware of what military pageants and martial music signify. While the PMO’s lack of understanding can still be explained away by ignorance in matters military, how does one excuse the three-star Director General of the Ceremonial and Welfare Directorate whose brief it is to ensure that military customs and traditions are given their rightful place?

So, in double quick time, we had the Police Bands gracing the occasion in a spirit of inclusiveness. Though what connection any Police Force has with martial tradition is completely mystifying, more so since in its very role the Police is the very antithesis of the military because its success in maintaining law and order is wholly dependent on willing, close and intimate cooperation with the citizenry, unless off course one lives in a police state. The aspect of ‘Indianisation’ followed, it appears, was an even simpler process. Introduction of a few Indian instruments such as the ‘Tabla and Sitar’, with little thought for what martial music or precision drill involve, and we had the perfect Bollywood kitsch of a demented Michael Jackson attempting to harmonize his moves in a sub-standard Ravi Shankar concert. All that was missing was for the musicians to be in hoodies instead of traditional ceremonial uniforms. Whatever the musical abilities of our Band Masters may be, students of ancient Indian military musical history they certainly are not.

The tragedy of this farce is that it need not have been so, because India does have an extremely rich tradition of martial music going back thousands of years. One has only to glance through V. R. Ramchandra Dikshitar’s interesting and wonderful exposition on “War in Ancient India” (Macmillan and Co Ltd, 1944) to understand this fact. Not only does he delve into the classifications of martial music, but also more importantly, the types of instruments that were used. Clearly, it is only when one understands the significance of the music and the instruments available, then the endeavour to “Indianise”, certainly a worthwhile proposition, can be implemented in an appropriate and tasteful manner without destroying the significance of the ceremony itself.

As is well-known martial music has always had two distinct purposes. It was used as means of efficient and speedy communication and identification at a time when communication between commanders and their subordinates were restricted either by the distance their voices carried or could see and by the time taken for a messenger to convey orders. For this, drum beats and trumpet calls were the regular means used and, as a matter of fact, continues to be so used even to this day. The other use of martial music was in the realm of the psychological, where it has been used either as a means to instill courage and motivation, especially while undertaking an assault or as a means of entertainment for de-stressing soldiers. As the author writes “Even among the war instruments relating to music in the epic period we find a distinction between the music in the field and music in the camp. In the camp the melodies are softened and the warriors are greeted by the milder notes of the lyre.” In the battle field drums, cymbals, trumpets and even conch shells were used.

Before the military hierarchy actually succumbs to the so-called critical acclaim that has been heaped on this ceremony by ignorant hacks in the media, it would do well to take time off to introspect and for course correction. At the outset they must desist against all pressures for Police Bands to participate. Inclusion in a military tattoo can be achieved by introducing other military related events, like the silent arms drill, instead of permitting non-military participants. Simultaneously a more comprehensive study needs to be carried out as to how the ceremony can be “Indianised” without taking away from its essence or making Bollywood the fabled ideal. Better integration of old and new can possibly be attained if a separate band equipped with instruments prevalent in ancient times is formed and plays its own set. Change need not be synonymous with deterioration or a complete destruction of the essence of what the ceremony is meant to portray.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Deepak Sinha

Deepak Sinha

Brig. Deepak Sinha (Retd.) was Visiting Fellow at ORF. Brig. Sinha is a second-generation paratrooper. During his service, he held varied command, staff and instructional appointments, ...

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