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From jazz to Indian classical, how music plays a key part at the Rashtrapati Bhavan

The repertoire of music played on ceremonial occasions at the Rashtrapati Bhavan has a rich history


September 5, 2021 6:30:31 am
Former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam playing the Saraswati veena at Rashtrapati Bhavan

President Bill Clinton was in for a pleasant surprise during the banquet held in his honour at the Rashtrapati Bhavan during his March 2000 visit. He might not have expected to hear jazz at the ceremonial function, but the president’s Naval Jazz Band played it, and played it so well that Clinton, an accomplished saxophonist himself, went to meet the musicians. He is said to have especially appreciated the saxophone player.

Jazz arrived in the Rashtrapati Bhavan two years earlier when president KR Narayanan decided to form the president’s Naval Jazz Band. He had been mesmerised by a recital by a naval band when he had visited Port Blair. Today, this naval band consists of nine versatile instrumentalists. Jazz adds to the rich repertoire of Western music, martial music as well as Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, the sounds of which waft in the air of the grand edifice.

Before Independence, of course, the fare was very limited. It was Field Marshal KM Cariappa who decided to bring about a change. He founded the Military Music Wing in Pachmarhi in 1950 as part of the Army Education Corps (AEC) Training College and Centre. This marked the beginning of elements of Indian music blending with martial music that was played till then.

A large number of compositions like Giriraj, Tiranga Senani, Nidar Yoddha, Jai Bharati, Manohar and many other tunes show the infusion of Indian elements. Indian compositions are presented when the President hosts banquets, at-homes or other formal get-togethers. When the President hosts a banquet in the honour of a head of state, music from the visiting dignitary’s country is also played.

Patronage to Indian maestros marked another change after Independence. Besides martial music and ceremonial music, the Rashtrapati Bhavan has also played a major role in promoting Indian classical music.

With the near terminal decline of maharajas and nawabs, the chief patrons of Indian classical music before Independence, the Indian gharanas had found themselves in dire straits at the turn of the 20th century. The British didn’t want to encourage them and the rajas, nawabs and feudal lords couldn’t. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar marked a new trend when he joined the nationalist movement. He began to infuse new democratic values into the largely feudal world of classic music in the early 20th century. He toured all over India and sang Vande Mataram in nationalist gatherings.

Thus, when the first president of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, invited masters of Indian classical music for recitals at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, it was a continuation of a trend that was part of the freedom struggle. The list of musicians invited in the 1950s is a veritable galaxy of the greatest: Omkarnath Thakur, Ahmedjan Thirakawa, Bismillah Khan, Kishan Maharaj, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan, DV Paluskar and Vinayakrao Patwardhan enriched the ambience of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, performing for Rajen babu and select guests.

The Armed Forces Band at the 2021 Beating Retreat ceremony;

Promotion of classical music at the Rashtrapati Bhavan continued in the later decades. Dr Zakir Hussain, for example, along with a few guests, listened to some rare compositions by Siddheshwari Devi, sitting on the mattresses laid down on the floor in an informal arrangement.

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was himself a keen musician and played the Saraswati veena in his private moments. He gave a new thrust to the dissemination of classical music and arts. His initiative, called Indradhanush, gave a fillip to Indian art and music. Artistes like Hariprasad Chaurasia, Girija Devi, Shivkumar Sharma, Pandit Jasraj, Rajan and Sajan Mishra and Chhannulal Mishra have been among the luminaries who have graced the Rashtrapati Bhavan with their sublime renditions. More recently, in 2018, sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan enthralled President Ram Nath Kovind and the select audience.

Music remains the quintessential element of ceremonies, special occasions and also daily routine at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Beating Retreat ceremony, held after the Republic Day celebrations, is primarily a musical event. The armed forces’ bands present their compositions for about an hour, with soldiers doing slow march, quick march, entry march and other movements to the music.

The musical ensemble presented every year includes Qadam qadam badhaaye ja, composed by Captain Ram Singh Thakuri for Azad Hind Fauj, and later adopted as the Army Song. Abide with me, based on Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn, also features every year. Typically, the ceremony ends with an instrumental rendition of Saare jahan se achcha, with the horse-riders of the President’s Bodyguard retreating up the Raisina Hill towards the Rashtrapati Bhavan into the red glow of the setting sun. Every Indian watching the ceremony is filled with sentiments of patriotism aroused by the power of music.

Former president Dr Rajendra Prasad with the greatest of Indian classical maestros.

This year, Swarnim vijay varsh, a special composition to commemorate 50 years of victory in the 1971 war, was the first tune played by the Military Band before the President of India and other invitees, in the Beating Retreat ceremony on January 29. It touched the heartstrings of everyone watching the ceremony.

When our national flag is hoisted atop the flagstaff on the dome of the Rashtrapati Bhavan every morning and also lowered in the evening, Reveille and Retreat are played, which are musical calls for the beginning and the end of the day for soldiers.

When the President pays homage to martyrs, the poignant tune Last Post is played to mark the solemnity of the occasion. It is followed by the tune Rouse which signals people to get back to their call of duty.

The President’s arrival at any ceremonial function is heralded with a fanfare by trumpeters of the President’s Bodyguard, followed by the tune of our national anthem played by the Military Band.

In 2020, working closely with the Sangeet Natak Akademi, a Rashtrapati Bhavan team developed an eclectic pool of music tracks, vocal and instrumental, from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions. The selection is based on the different seasons of the year, hours of the day, festivals and national days. Music from this selection resonates through the State Corridor of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

(Sunil Trivedi is officer on special duty (Research); with inputs from Ankit Jain, officer on special duty (Communication), with the Rashtrapati Bhavan)

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