Home Opinion Why R-Day’s Beating Retreat saddened me

Why R-Day’s Beating Retreat saddened me

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They say the older you get, the more you cling to the past. I guess that must be true. It seems to be one credible explanation for my embittered response to last Sunday’s Beating Retreat. I didn’t like it. Not one single bit. But I’ll come to that later. Let me first explain the background against which I watched the ceremony a week ago and, therefore, why I feel the way I do.

Beating Retreat is a military ceremony that possibly began in the 17th century when James II was King of England. It was intended to signal the end of battle as troops would retreat at nightfall. In the 1950s, India borrowed the concept to mark the end of three days of celebrations around Republic Day.

Over the years, we may have changed the music, from British marches to those composed by Indians, but we preserved, protected, and, indeed, cherished the concept. We never thought of it as foreign or alien. It was as much Indian as the Indian Army. And, remember, the Army we have today was created by the British. It’s not embarrassed by its origin. Indeed, it honours and values the traditions it has inherited.

Now I have always preferred Beating Retreat to the Republic Day parade. No doubt I’ve marvelled at the precision of the marching and watched mesmerised as the daredevils defy gravity, if not reality. I can’t deny that. But the music of the Retreat and the colourful uniforms of the bands, set against the stunning backdrop of North and South Block, with camels on the ramparts and, finally, the sun setting beyond the horizon, was always haunting. It was also inexplicably uplifting.

What is fixed in my memory forever are the retreating bands, climbing Raisina Hill, playing Sare Jahan Se Achha. As they reached the crest, the sun would start to set, and, in a burst, countless yellow lights would illuminate the entire vista. It made everyone gasp with delight. To use today’s terminology, it was a wow moment.

Alas, much of that is history. It happens no more. For a start, the music has altered, drastically if not dreadfully. The foot-tapping military marches, whether of Indian or British origin, are no longer played. They’ve been replaced with ragas, which have no place in a military ceremony. They’re best heard at home or in a concert hall. Not played by military bands at Vijay Chowk.

Even worse, what was played this year — if that’s the right verb — was unrhythmic and unmelodic. This one change destroyed not just the meaning but, perhaps, the very essence of Beating Retreat. But does anyone care?

Other things have disappeared as well. Abide With Me, with its lilting melody, picked up by chimes from up on high, has been discarded. The millions of yellow bulbs that would light up the buildings have been replaced by multicoloured, often garish, displays on the walls. The surprise and delight produced by the former has given way to an anti-climactic dull disappointment caused by the latter.

It seems the magic has disappeared. We’re left with the ordinary and the uninspiring. The splendour and spectacle that was once Beating Retreat is no more. All we have left are memories and they will fade with time.

Last Sunday, when pelting rain washed out the Retreat, I felt the gods themselves were weeping. It seemed the appropriate response. It also made me realise the world is changing and I’ve been left behind. That’s why I’m sad. Maybe that’s why I’m bitter.

Finally, as I look ahead, two questions occupy my mind. Occupy is the right word, because I can’t answer them. How long before Sare Jahan Se Achha stops being played? Surely its origins make it suspect? And, then, when will Beating Retreat itself be ended? After all, you can’t deny it’s colonial. It ain’t atmanirbhar (self-reliant).

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story

The views expressed are personal

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