Leave the zeitgeist of Beating Retreat alone

A few traditional ceremonies have an old-world charm associated with them. It’s not advisable to tinker with these for enhanced visual appeal

by Ashok K Mehta

Nobody will deny that the 1,000 drones-empowered son et lumiere was a resounding spectacle to showcase the nation’s atma nirbharta programmes and technological triumphs. But its timing, coupling it with Beating Retreat, was terribly wrong and a breach of yet another military tradition.

After the buglers had sounded the retreat and the Tricolour brought down at sunset, it was time for the customary ceremony to conclude with the massed bands marching back over the hump fading into the skyline of Rashtrapati Bhavan followed by the President’s cavalcade. Surprisingly, instead of North and South Blocks being illuminated thereafter as had been the practice since 1950, a scintillating drone show followed that lasted much longer than the 10 minutes advertised. No one will deny that its visual richness was stunning but darkness had set in, exposing the President, Prime Minister and other VIPs to risk. Beating Retreat got overshadowed, not complemented, by the ill-timed show and a legacy tradition violated. No one has ventured to point out that once the Retreat is played, it’s time to shut shop for tomorrow, which will be heralded by sounding another bugle call: Reveille.

Beating Retreat is an English tradition signalling the end of combat for the day, bringing down the ensign, muzzling guns, putting swords back into sheaths and scabbards on bayonets. It was also used to call back patrols to the castles and, in the case of the Dutch, to stop serving beer. In Indian military units throughout the country, when Retreat is sounded at sunset, soldiers outside their barracks spring to attention, cease working and return to quarters. A soldier’s day begins with reveille at sunrise with various bugle calls during the day signalling different events marking the soldier’s routine.

For 70 years, Beating Retreat marked the sombre end to Republic Day celebrations. It was never followed by another event; in this case, a drone show-cum-projection mapping, which was a breach of tradition. Instead of a 15-minute truncated sound-and-light show at the end of Beating Retreat, a longer and more comprehensive drone display can be organised at the same venue next day. If coupling the visual spectacle with Beating Retreat passes away as Indianising the event, I have nothing to say. But for diehard veterans, it was an erosion of a traditional military custom symbolised by the flag, bugles and dusk announcing its end.

In the past, the organisers have tampered with songs and music in order to Indianise the ceremony. The Pipes and Drums bands are essentially tuned for Scottish musical scores and don’t adapt easily to foreign renditions. Yet, Indian military maestros have succeeded in adapting them, especially to hill songs from the Himalayan region. The highly exaggerated swaying of bagpipers has gone a sway too far and requires the swagger to be moderated. The brass band is more amenable to playing Indian tunes but regrettably very few Indian marching tunes (except for Kadam kadam badhaye ja; Saare jahaan se achcha and Jai Bharati) are recognisable. The first and second tunes herald the arrival and departure of the bands over the hump. Our bands have excelled with displays by trumpets, drums and bugles and shown their rich repertoire. Once tablas and another time the sarod were attempted to synergise with marching music but they proved a big failure of fusion. The last Beating Retreat consisted for the first time of all 26 marching tunes being Indian though, except for two, none other was familiar. Doordarshan neither mentioned the name of songs nor displayed them on the scroll. The interminable debate over dropping the last foreign composition, Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn Abide with me, for Mere watan ke logon was necessary. The choice of the replacement song, no matter how moving, harks back to the humiliating defeat of 1962. Instead, Vaishnav jana to tene kahiye, another Mahatma Gandhi favourite, could have been chosen to eternalise Bapu’s memory who is the leit motif of commemorations.  The bands performed to perfection though the new Indian tunes will take time to become familiar. A first and aptly demonstrating jointness was the Navy, not the senior service Army, bringing down the Tricolor and wrapping it up. Next time, this ceremony can be done by a tri-service honour guard signifying the integration underway of the armed forces.

TV channels must be forbidden from giving ball-by-ball commentary by military experts and their anchors stopped from competing with each other to show off their military vocabulary. This jarring intervention has gone on for too long. Doordarshan should orchestrate the Republic Day celebrations with competent professionals. The MoD should call up senior veterans as advisors for the military component of the celebrations. They could have forged a consensus over fusion of martyrs’ flames, suitable national hero for the canopy and choice of gutsy marching music. Remember, Beating Retreat ceremony is essentially a musical tribute to India’s martyrs. In 2003, the Delhi Government brought together Amjad Ali Khan and Ustad Bismillah Khan (Bharat Ratna) to remember the Unknown Soldier as part of Republic Day celebrations at a separate event. Indianising military traditions is a delicate process; handle with care.

(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander, IPKF South, Sri Lanka, and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed are personal.)

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