July, 1986. A guided missile frigate of the Indian Navy called INS Godavari docked near the Statue of Liberty at New York City. 15 years ago, a United States Navy aircraft carrier had steamed into the Indian ocean – threatening India for its action against Pakistan in the 1971 conflict. Years passed, and the first Indian naval ship to reach the US coastline was finally ready for its own performance.
It wasn’t missiles they fired off, but a rousing rendition of jazzy tunes, conducted by Manjit Singh Neer – the Navy’s most venerated musician. The naval ship was in New York as part of an International Fleet Review to mark the statue of Liberty’s bicentennial year, and few things build international camaraderie as well as music. Musicians from India’s armed forces have since played across the world – making music a viable career prospect within the military.
Music in the Indian Armed forces stems from a long and old tradition, usually dated to the arrival of the British in the 1700s. It’s never been about marching tunes alone – you can catch Mozart, Tchaikovsky, jazz, pop hits, Bollywood songs, Indian classical and even the Pirates of the Caribbean theme being played by various martial bands.
Victor Bhushnam remembers the life of being in one such band. For 35 years, he served as a civilian musician with the Electronic Mechanical Engineers, who fixed battle tanks and built bridges for the Army. Engineers need their music, and Victor was part of a 16-member band that provided it, along with a singer called ‘Crazy David’.
We used to play everywhere – in Madras a lot [at first]. Then we went to Bhutan, part of China… We were very famous. Lot of people, generals, chief of army staffs – we used to play for all of them. They used to call us for their children’s weddings, parties and all that. Madras, Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta.
A colonial legacy
The first military band in the subcontinent is said to have been set up by Prithvi Narayan Shah in the late eighteenth century in unified Nepal – then known as the Gorkha Kingdom. Overhearing a British military band in Varanasi, he returned impressed to his kingdom and had a private military band set up. Soon after, India’s princely states began to follow suit – from the Sikh kingdom to Baroda, Mysore and the Nawabs of Hyderabad. In ‘Brass Baja – Stories from the World of Indian Wedding Bands’ (2005), professor Gregory Booth traced the evolution of brass bands at Indian weddings – finding common links to the military band tradition of the British colonialists.
Over time, having a military band perform at an event came to be seen as a symbol of prestige – and it became a must-have for weddings. Anthropologists Trevor Herbert and Margaret Sarkissian studied the impact of British military band music on their former colonies, estimating the number of musicians employed in private brass bands in India to be between 500,000-800,000. In their article, they say “there is no single cultural or ethnic group from which all bandsmen come; Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Brahmin, Scheduled Caste, Christian, all have their representatives in the band world.” Over time, such bands shed their military vestiges and developed into the colourful, flamboyant entourages you see at weddings today.
The departure of the British left India’s military musicians directionless – until the Army’s first Commander-in-Chief, K.M. Cariappa had a British bandmaster help set up the Indian Military School of Music at the hill station of Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh in 1951.
Since then, Indian military bands have performed across the world, from Russia to Japan. The Indian Naval Band, set up in 1945, has played in Australia, Russia, Cuba, USA, UK, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and China. Groups like the Indian Classical instruments Sinfornietta, Tri-Services Orchestra and Indian Naval Symphonic Orchestra have grown in popularity – and the armed forces have made strides into the music business. The Air Force released their vinyl album a year after the 1971 war – titled ‘Touching the sky with Glory”. The Navy since released their own album, as have the Army and Air Force.
Importance of music
In war or in peacetime, music has been believed to improve morale, entertain troops and civilians and create a sense of ‘Esprit de Corps’ (pride and belonging).
For the armed forces, the year’s most important performance is during the Republic Day celebrations – which begin on January 26. On the fourth day of the festivities, the three branches of the armed forces send their bands to mark the ‘Beating of the Retreat’ ceremony. 2016’s ceremony saw 15 military bands and 18 pipes and drums bands perform.
For Victor, playing music with the army changed his life – what started as a civilian job ended up his lifetime pursuit. Now retired, he looks back to the past wistfully.
Music gave me life, and life is music for me.
He misses the army parties, that dragged on till late after midnight. The balls, weddings and events he played at. More than anything, he misses his job as a drummer.
As the armed forces embrace yoga, meditation and counselling in a bid to improve the morale and emotional stability of its troops, they could help foster the practice of music as a form of therapy.
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