Beating The Retreat: A Wartime Leftover

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In England of the late 17th century CE, soldiers waited to hear the drumbeats that signalled an end to the day’s fighting during a war. Every evening at sunset, as soon as the drumbeats sounded, combat ceased, troops would sheath their weapons, lower their flags, parade in the streets, and then retreat to their quarters. They, quite literally, ‘beat’ the ‘retreat’. Get it?

The practice continues to this day in Commonwealth countries including India. Of course, now it is no more than an elaborate ceremonial display called ‘Beating The Retreat’. A colourful and lively musical military pageant, the Beating The Retreat ceremony is observed on solemn occasions in India. Led by military bands, the most elaborate one is held on 29th January every year, to mark the end of the four-day Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi.

South Block, New Delhi | Yash Mishra

On this occasion, bands from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Central Armed Police Forces show off their musical talent in a well-practised, precision drill at Vijay Chowk, close to Raisina Hill, where Rashtrapati Bhavan is located. The 2021 ceremony saw 15 Military Bands and 15 Pipes & Drums Bands from Regimental Centres and Battalions participating.

As the bands play, each regiment flaunts its standards and colours while either marching or parading on horseback, another remnant from ancient times. Standards and colours are flags associated with regiments and battalions, and bear their insignias and emblems. They were used in earlier times to mark the location of the troops’ commander in the chaos of battle, so that the soldiers could maintain their formations. Today, they bear a deep emotional connection between soldier and regiment.

Nehru Impresses The Queen

The Beating The Retreat tradition was initiated in India by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who asked Major G A Roberts of the Indian Army to design and choreograph a programme that was fit for royalty. The occasion was a visit by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1961, the royal couple’s first visit to India since Independence. Queen Elizabeth was chief guest at the Republic Day parade that year and Nehru wanted to put on a spectacular display to impress the royals.

Jawaharlal Nehru | Wikimedia Commons

From British marching tunes such as Sons of the Brave and the Colonel Bogey March to Indian patriotic songs such as Qadam Qadam Badhaye Ja and Sare Jahan Se Acha, to the popular Christian hymn Abide With Me, the tunes belted out by military bands at a Beating The Retreat pageant have always evoked a sense of national pride.

However, in 2020, there was talk that the popular hymn Abide With Me would be dropped. This stirred much debate as the tune had been part of the Beating The Retreat ceremony since the Mysore Palace band performed it at the first Republic Day function, a tune that Mahatma Gandhi found very moving.

Glimpses from Beating The Retreat 2015 | Yash Mishra

Written by Scottish-Anglican poet Henry Francis Lyte, the hymn became popular in the trenches during World War I and is also sung at Church services. It was traditionally the last song played before the national flag was lowered. In 2022, it was replaced with the patriotic song Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon, written by Kavi Pradeep in honour of soldiers martyred during the 1962 India-China War.

Mixing It Up

The Beating The Retreat ceremony has been at the centre of debate in recent times due to what is seen as a great departure from tradition by including traditional Indian musical instruments such as the sitar and tabla performing in tandem with military bands. The move has drawn protests from some quarters, including retired Army personnel, and when popular Bollywood tunes made incursions into the Beating The Retreat repertoire, it was the last straw for some.

Glimpses from Beating The Retreat 2015 | Yash Mishra

One senior army official said the solemn ceremony had been turned into a “spectacle”. He also pointed out that it was wrong to “trivialise military bands by mixing incompatible instruments and popular music and dance into their performances”. Retired army officers say that if the intention is to drop foreign compositions, these tunes should have been replaced with Indian military music, not pop music, “dancing drummers” and film music.


Cover Image: Yash Mishra