"What? Mahatma Gandhi and martial music? Are you crazy? There can be no connection!" -- Yes, I can hear you loud and clear!
Of course, prima facie you'd be justified if you wish to quarrel with me about this headline, because absolute non-violence was the magic weapon with which Mr. Gandhi had fought the British Empire and freed India from colonial rule. But please do read the following article of 1975 vintage, and the postscript which follows, to see the connection!
Evening News, New DelhiDelhiberations
24 January 1975
24 January 1975
"There was a traffic hold-up at the Vijay Chowk yesterday evening," Safdar Singh said. "I was told the Army bands were rehearsing for Beating Retreat."
"It isn't just the Army bands, old man!" Rajpath Roy said. "The Navy, Air Force and BSF bands also participate." [BSF = Border Security Force]
"I never understood why they call it Beating Retreat!" Kutubullah said. "I never imagined the armed forces would want to use the word 'retreat' on such a happy occasion!"
"Oh, it's just a traditional expression handed down to us by the British!" Rajpath Roy said. "You know, in those days at sunset the military bands would play some music while the troops got back into the forts or camps. That's why it's called Beating Retreat!"
"And our bands also play British music all the time, I suppose?" Safdar Singh asked.
"Not at all!" Rajpath Roy said. "There are some fine musicians in our Army who have composed marches based on Indian folk music. There's Harold Joseph master-minding the whole thing."
"Harold Joseph?" I asked. "Isn't he the permanent conductor of the Delhi Symphony Orchestra? What has he got to do with the Army?"
"My dear chap, this isn't Europe or America for a man to be full-time conductor of a full-time orchestra!" Rajpath Roy said. "Harold Joseph is the Director of Music at the Army Headquarters. Have you heard the Odeon LP 'Martial Music of the Indian Army'?"
"No," I said.
"I'll lend it to you," Rajpath Roy said. "Many of the numbers composed by Army chaps like Harold Joseph, L.B. Gurung, Ram Pal and others are based on Indian folk music. Some of them are classic, I can tell you!"
"I say, this is very interesting!" I said. "Do you think they will feature any of these numbers in the Beating Retreat this year?"
"Sure!" Rajpath Roy said. "I was talking to Harold Joseph the other day, and he told me there will be some Kerala and Ladakhi folk melodies for the bands, and some Kumaon and Gorkha folk tunes for the bagpipes and drums."
"But I never thought you could play anything other than Scottish reels on the bagpipes!" Janapathi said. "I was wondering if there was anything really constructive about this whole Beating Retreat business. But I suppose I shouldn't miss the show this year!"
Composing vibrant marches which have a distinct flavor of Indian folk music for our military bands consisting solely of Western instruments is a truly wonderful thing; but ideally this shouldn't mean that the traditional pieces of Western music which are native to these bands are almost completely eliminated -- which is exactly what seems to be happening now.
There was a time, 40 or 50 years ago, when the bagpipes ands drums featured in the spectacular Beating Retreat program used to play some authentic Scottish marches, 'strathspeys' and reels, and the other military bands too would play some famous traditional Western marches, apart from the specially-composed Indian marches. But the Western colors have been fading out progressively, and in the live televised show yesterday evening, I couldn't even hear a faint echo from Scotland!
I had mentioned this aspect in some of my past essays; but the ongoing trend calls for a fresh assessment and commentary altogether. Meanwhile, you can see a full-length video of the program on YouTube -- just look for 'Beating Retreat 2013, New Delhi'.
But whatever else figures or doesn't figure in this memorable annual performance of the massed bands of India's armed forces, the program invariably ends with two numbers which were very close to the merciful heart of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation. One of them is the extremely tranquil hymn Abide With Me, composed by W. H. Monk, and the other one is the patriotic poem Saray Jahan Se Accha, composed by Mohammed Iqbal and arranged as a quick military march by Prof. A. Lobo.
Performed in the twilight of the setting sun on the eve of the last day of Gandhiji's glorious life, these twin numbers never fail to conclude this particular session of martial music with a compelling tone of compassion and love.