If the President’s address to Parliament and the Economic Survey left you with no time for Beating the Retreat then let me reassure you that you missed nothing. I watched it, as I try to do every year, and was deeply disappointed. In fact, upset. Even annoyed.
This used to be my favourite ceremony. It was a celebration full of colour and sparkle, foot-tapping music and precision marching which would end with a blaze of lights. On all those counts it’s changed for the worse. And that’s been done by people who think they’ve improved the ceremony but, in fact, torn its heart out.
In a critique aptly titled Tweeting Retreat, my friend Col Ajai Shukla, the strategic affairs editor of Business Standard, lamented: “I don’t know what they’ve done to what used to be the most military of ceremonies. Dancing drummers, squatting sitar players, music is anything but military. Sad to see the generals allowing tradition to be sacrificed at the altar of meaningless change!”
What the generals forgot is that Beating Retreat (which is its proper name) is a tradition and the soul of tradition is continuity. You alter it at its peril. This particular one goes back to 1690, when James II of England first ordered that drum beats would herald the return of troops at the end of the day’s battle. It’s, therefore, a culmination. It marks the final moment. And it is an intrinsically military ceremony.
Over the centuries Beating Retreat has become “a spectacular evening pageant of music and military precision drill.” The key word is ‘military’. First, that means the music has to be marches. This is what gives it the foot tapping quality. Sadly, the music may have been composed by Indians but it wasn’t marches.
Second, the instruments must be those of a conventional military band. The much-loved sitar has no place. What on earth was it doing there? And will they next introduce the shehnai?
Third, the band must march or drill to the music. Virtuoso drumming might look impressive but is, I’m afraid, misplaced. You can’t march to it. While the attempt to introduce an element of jazz was just silly.
As my disappointment turned to dismay, I recalled the Beating Retreats of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. They would thrill the audience. The bands themselves were uplifted by the music. Military marches have that effect. Imitations of Bollywood do not.
Finally, as the sun dipped below the horizon and the evening shadows lengthened, Raisina Hill would come alive in a blaze of light. Everyone would gasp at the suddenness of that moment. This year they changed the lighting. Recessed, subdued and in the colours of the flag, the wow-effect was missing. The new lighting may be impressive in the dark but in the early evening it makes little impact. It only cheats you of the expected climax.
I suppose I should be grateful for two mercies: ‘Abide with me’ and ‘Sare Jahan Se Acha’. I half expected they would have been dropped, the former because it’s a Christian hymn, the latter because its composer is considered one of the founders of Pakistan. This year, at least, both survived.
My point is simple: a nation that doesn’t value its traditions but, instead, plays with them cannot honour its past and could undermine the national sentiments it values. There are some things you don’t change. You keep them, year after year, as they’ve always been. Beating Retreat is one.