Onmanorama Explains | Why Beating Retreat ceremony is celebrated 3 days after Republic Day

61st Cavalry Regiment of the Indian Army personnel march past during rehearsals for the Beating the Retreat ceremony, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI.

The Beating Retreat ceremony is an annual-musical-military event that brings the Republic Day celebrations in India to a resplendent close. Each year, on the evening of January 29 (the third day after the Republic Day), the grandeur unfolds across the Raisina Hills and the adjoining Vijay Chowk, bordered by the Central Secretariat's illuminated North and South buildings, as well as the Rashtrapati Bhavan (President's Palace) towards the end of Rajpath in New Delhi.

The Genesis of Beating Retreat
Harking back to the 17th century, the Beating Retreat is an age-old military tradition. Originally, it signalled the recall of nearby patrolling units or fighting troops to their encampments after concluding their battles at sunset.

Adopted by England's military events, during the reign of King James II, the ceremony was known as 'Watch Setting,' marked by drum beats, flag-lowering, and a single gunshot from the evening cannon.
Today, the ceremony is observed by the Armed Forces across several nations, including the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India.

India’s adoption of the ceremony
In India, the ceremony began in 1955, during the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip after India’s independence. Conceived by Major GA Roberts and commissioned by then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the ceremony has since evolved into an iconic fixture enthralled with various musical instruments, tunes, and formations.

Sikh Regiment of the India Army personnel during rehearsals for the Beating the Retreat ceremony, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI.

Who all are participating
The ceremony is a vibrant showcase featuring bands – consisting of primarily pipers and drummers – from the Indian Army, Navy, Air Force, Delhi Police, and the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF), with the latter two joining in 2016.

Order of the Retreat
Presided over by the President of India, the supreme commander of the Armed Forces, the two-hour ceremony commences at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

An impressive cavalcade led by the President's Bodyguard (PBG) ushers in the President, who is received by dignitaries including the Prime Minister and the Union Defence Minister. Following the salute by PBG to the President, the National Anthem - Jana Gana Mana - will be played by the bands as the tricolour is unfurled.

The evening then features a symphony of military, patriotic and cultural music, alongside meticulous formations by the participating officials. Both Western and Indian music have secured positions in the tunes played by the coordinated marches of the military bands. Since 2016, the retreat also includes marching bands from CAPF and the Delhi Police, plus performances by the Army Symphony Orchestra and Traditional Ensemble, the latter using a mix of traditional European and Indian instruments.

Sikh Regiment of the India Army personnel march past during rehearsals for the Beating the Retreat ceremony, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI.

While pipes and drums steal the show, a notable absence is of instruments which require the musician to sit down while playing, in keeping with the marching essence of the event. A solo performance, named the Drummer's Call, will also be delivered, mostly by the Army's pipe bands. A highlight is the bugle call that brings all the flags slowly down.

The bandmaster then marches to the President to request permission to take the bands away and informs him/ her that the closing ceremony is now complete. The dispersal of bands culminates with the popular tune of 'Sare Jahan se Accha' and a dramatic lighting of the Parliament’s edifices. The President then departs the venue, escorted by the horse-mounted PBG, after receiving the final salute. In recent years, the finale was also shown up by fireworks displays and light shows.

Recent specials
The retreat in 2022 saw an awe-inspiring drone display, with a thousand made-in-India drones lit up the sky, in different formations. It was first-of-its-kind and was organised by a startup called Botlab Dynamics and supported by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, accompanied by a patriotic narration.

But the 2023 celebration was forced to omit a 3,500 drone show and the 3D anamorphic projection set up by the defence ministry due to rain. Nonetheless, the creative spirit continues with a focus on Indian classical music interpretations.

Sikh Regiment of the India Army personnel during rehearsals for the Beating the Retreat ceremony, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI.

Musical repertoire of the Retreat
In recent years, there has been a major shift towards Indian compositions, although some Western tunes remain integral. It was since 2016, popular cinema music started place in the list, in which a version of A R Rahman’s ‘Bharat Humko Jaan Se Pyaara Hai’, ‘Ma Tujhe Salaam’, and ‘Dil Diya Hai Jaan Bhi Denge’ were experimented with.

1. Abide With Me - The Scottish hymn ‘Abide With Me’, written by an Anglican cleric Henry Francis Lyte is a constant presence in the Retreat ceremony. It was given music by William Henry Monk and is one of Mahatma Gandhi's favourite hymns. In the 2022 Retreat, the hymn was dropped after being accused of its colonial legacy and was replaced with ‘Ae Mere Wattan Ke Logo’.

2. Sare Jahan se Accha - After the bandmaster informs the completion of the closing ceremony, the bands will retreat playing this popular Indian martial tune.

3. Colonel Bogey March - This British march was composed in 1914 by Lieutenant FJ Ricketts.

4. Qadam Qadam Badhaye Ja - Written by Vanshidhar Shukla and composed by Ram Singh Thakuri in 1942, ‘Qadam Qadam Badhaye Ja’ was the regimental quick march of the Indian National Army. The song was banned by the British in India after World War II as seditious. The ban was lifted in August 1947 and the song has since become a patriotic anthem in India.

The event also includes tunes like 'Agniveer', 'Almora’, ‘Kedar Nath, ‘Sangam Dur’, ‘Queen of Satpura’, ‘Bhagirathi’, Almora’, ‘Shankhnaad’, ‘Sher-e-Jawan’, ‘Bhupal’, ‘Agranee Bharat’, ‘Young India’, ‘Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja’, ‘Drummers Call’, Bhagirathi’, ‘Aprajey Arjun’, ‘Charkha’, ‘Vayu Shakti’, ‘Swadeshi’, ‘Ekla Cholo Re’, ‘Hum Taiyyar Hai’, ‘Jai Bharati’, and ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’.

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