Beating retreat ceremony
Mindsnack #11 : Beating retreat
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Beating retreat ceremony

I was about to type ‘ the might of the Indian military machine marching down Rajpath is quite a sight to behold’ but that does come off as very kitschy. In fact it sounds so kitschy I could be this year’s Doordarshan commentator during the telecast of the parade! What I wanted to say was that generally speaking the parade is a splendid display of India’s martial traditions (albeit given its present shape by the colonial regime). Its a great occasion to introduce kids to the real instruments of State power  after all the peacenik bombardment indoctrination they face throughout the year.  

There will be one or two folks whining about the appropriateness of celebrating modern India’s founding with such garish display of military paraphernalia. As if on cue the military will also mess it up sometimes by introducing new marching styles. There was this one Republic day parade where the Para regiment contingent marched in a weird goose stepping manner.  But like I said: generally speaking the parade is quite decent and eminently watchable. 

Almost all the marching contingents are accompanied by their bands playing some classic marching tunes that you might have been forced to march to in your high school or NCC days. But given that they accompany marching contingents  you don’t get to listen to the entire tune being played for any meaningful amount of time. As if to compensate for this and to add to the overall coolness factor of the Republic day celebrations a beating retreat ceremony is conducted on the evening of 29th of January every year.

Beating retreat is a massive and spectacular pageant where the armed forces bring out their bands for a ninety minute display of military music against the backdrop of Raisina hill. The entire ceremony is bathed in a certain Stately elegance marked by military precision but does not suffer from being perceived as a jingoistic display of power.

As with the Republic day parade the ceremonies begin with the arrival of the President and a flag hoisting. Carefully choreographed marches and music follow for the next hour or so until it is time for the flag to be lowered – this part of the ceremony is marked by the massed bands playing a beautiful rendition of Henry Franchis Lyte’s Abide with me.

It is as though the last moments of the Republic day celebrations are spent paying homage to the immortal soldier. Worldwide or at least within the Anglo-sphere Abide with me has come to be traditionally sung (or played) in homage and remembrance of soldiers who fell in battles. So, although nativization has claimed many English marching tunes as its victims  Abide with me continues to be played since the 1950s to mark the lowering of the flag.

I leave you with a short video clip of the last moments of the ceremony from a previous year. You can also watch the entire beating retreat ceremony in the same link.