Military music: India

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A backgrounder

As in 2021

January 28, 2022: The Times of India

Arguments have been made that 'Abide With Me' was Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn, and dropping it is part of the government’s systematic efforts to downplay the importance of Gandhi. Others say that moving to Indian compositions can only be good, given that India has a rich music legacy that owes little to the British.

As with almost any argument, there is much to be said on both sides. That the Indian armed forces borrow heavily from British army traditions is a given – from mess rules to ceremonial parades. Equally, there’s a lot that’s purely Indian – and a lot that’s a fine fusion of two different cultures and traditions.

Why is music so important to the armed forces?

A retired senior army officer (who asked not to be named, saying “old generals should fade away”) says: “Drill is an important activity in the armed forces. It develops team effort, comradeship and discipline. Band music helps.”

Writing in The Washington Post about America’s military bands, reporter Walter Pincus says the purpose of military bands is to “provide music throughout the entire spectrum of operations, to instill in our forces the will to fight and win, foster the support of our citizens, and promote America's interests at home and abroad."

India’s military bands are no different. They play at ceremonial occasions, for drills and for visiting dignitaries. The Indian Navy’s Jazz Band, for instance, is said to have impressed former US President Bill Clinton during his trip to India in 2000. The band plays on other less formal occasions too.

The other reason martial music is important is because it inspires soldiers as they go into battle. This has a long history; Indian mythology talks of various stirring tunes played before battles, and the Rig Veda, it is said, includes hymns that glorify the sound of the battle drum. In fact, as KV Shakuntala says in a paper presented in 1957 at a Music Seminar held by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, “the war drum must have been looked upon with great veneration and regard by the Hindus, because its capture meant defeat.”

The noise of horns, drums, conches, and bells as armies went into battle is described in the Mahabharata as well as in the Ramayana. Tamil epics also mention battle music and the various musical instruments that could be seen upon a battlefield.

Little of the early martial music has survived; while instruments like the conch, bells and some drums are still played, their use is more ceremonial than martial. When most people think of martial music today, it’s usually British regimental music.

When did Indian martial music come into being?

Formal music training in the Indian armed forces is a relatively new discipline, dating back to 1950. That’s extremely young for a force that has regiments that began in the 1750s, which is when the Madras Regiment was formed. While the British were more than happy to have Indian foot soldiers and even band members, the more important and specialised areas were restricted to the British. Military music was one of those things that was seen as exclusively British.

Till 1947, when the British left India for good, band masters and instructors were British, who had their own training institutions; Indians were not accepted there, of course. “A few Indian band masters who existed at that time gained their appointments on the basis of experience and natural talent in this discipline without having undergone any formal training for their profession,” says the Army Education Corps (AEC) in its website.

It was up to independent India’s first commander-in-chief, General (later Field Marshal) KM Cariappa, to push for the creation of a school of military music. In 1950, the Military Music Wing was created as a part of the AEC Training College and Centre in Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh. The retired army officer says: “All our band personnel are trained in Pachmarhi. Composing music is a gift and an art that the school encourages them to develop.”

Does India have enough ‘Indian’ compositions?

The music that independent India’s military bands played was a mix of British classics (The British Grenadiers, Trafalgar, Gibraltar) and tunes composed by officers. Over the years, the military bands began to play an eclectic mix of the standard marching songs, as well as jazz, Bollywood and Indian compositions.

The army officer we spoke with has several compositions to his credit, including Roshni, the Officers Training Academy song, and Purab ki Rakshak, the Assam Rifles’ march. Anyone who has watched the Republic Day parade or the Beating Retreat ceremony will have come across tunes composed by senior officers.

Do they receive special training for this? Not always, says the officer. “I did not get any special training. But we all learn our folk songs. I am from the Kumaon Regiment and I can sing many of the Kumaoni folk songs. I do not know how to compose music. I am only instrumental in getting my team to compose tunes and lyrics.”

Most Indian compositions, he says, are a fusion of Indian music, Western music, folk songs and even Bollywood hits. The 2019 Beating Retreat ceremony, for instance, even included snippets of Carnatic music into a marching tune. “Our marching songs are Indian music based,” says the officer. “Our composers (whatever be their rank) are very good.”

If martial music is anyway about fusion, why drop ‘Abide With Me’?

One hundred years before India gained independence from the British, a Scottish Anglican pastor, Henry Francis Lyte, wrote a hymn that was soon considered the quintessential Victorian hymn. Set to the tune “Eventide” composed by William Henry Monk (some say that he composed the music for the hymn in 10 minutes), 'Abide With Me' became a staple at all solemn church occasions.

It is said to be Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn, and has featured in every Beating Retreat ceremony since 1950. It has sentimental value, sure. It’s also seen as a sombre way of ending the Republic Day celebrations, as it is about fortitude in the face of death: “Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me,” ends the hymn.

The government and armed forces had announced that the hymn would be dropped in 2020, but changed their stance in the face of public outcry. This time around, there was no formal announcement; the music list for the Beating Retreat ceremony was announced, with Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon replacing 'Abide With Me'.

There has been no compelling official explanation given, other than the plan to Indianise the music lists. Given that the music was already almost entirely Indian, this doesn’t seem like a very strong argument. On the other side, there are public figures who have asked: “To rewrite new India, is it important to let go of precious traditions?”

There may never be an answer to such a question. Meanwhile, as singers across the country sing 'Abide With Me' to mark their unhappiness at the hymn being dropped from Beating Retreat, a retired army officer posted a clip of the former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Ramdas, and his wife, singing Gandhi’s favourite hymn.

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