The Army Training Command celebrated its 23rd Raising Day on 1 October 2013. This ‘specified’ command (as opposed to ‘geographical’ commands) of the Indian Army was raised at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh over two decades back, but has its home in Shimla since the early nineties. While the celebrations were spread over a couple of days, the main function was on the afternoon of 30 September 2013. Being an ex GOCin-Cof the Command, I too was invited. Accompanied by my wife, we left for the salubrious environs of Shimla from Panchkula in the morning and reached the Officers Mess of the Training Command around noon.
The celebrations were arranged on the spacious lawns of the Officers Mess, which is housed in a classic building of Shimla named ‘Knockdrin’. It vies with many other well known buildings of this historic city, which during the Raj was the summer capital of India and now is the capital of Himachal Pradesh. A word about the building would be in order here before we proceed further.
‘Knockdrin’, originally named ‘Will Hall’ was constructed by General Butler of the old British Indian Army in 1862. The mansion was acquired, enlarged and its name was changed to the present one in 1868 by Captain Leaving. It was later purchased by Colonel H R Burne, Military Secretary of the Government of India (GOI) for Rs. 23,000,and thereafter by the Maharaja of Faridkot for a sum of Rs. 50,000. In 1906, ‘Knockdrin’ became the official residence of the Foreign Secretarys of GOI. Its famous occupants during the Raj included Sir Mortimer Durand, Sir Louis Dane, Sir Harcourt Butler, Sir Henry McMahon, Sir Percy Cox, Sir Hamilton Grant, Sir Henry Dobbs and Sir A. V. Fanshaw.
After Independence, when the Headquarters of the Indian Army’s Western Command was moved to Shimla, ‘Knockdrin’ became the official residence of successive Chiefs of Staff of Headquarters Western Command. Its last occupant was the late Lt Gen R S Dyal (the hero of Haji Pir). When Headquarters Western Command moved from Shimla to Chandimandir in the Plains in 1985 and Headquarters PH&HP Area moved to Shimla, it became the latter’s Officers’ Mess. Headquarters Training Command, on its move to Shimla in 1993, also retained it as its Officers’ Mess.
Since it was somewhat small for a Command Mess, it was extensively enlarged and structurally modified in 1997-98, when I was heading the Command. Later, in the tradition of the Indian Army, practically all Army Commanders have added and improved this lovely building. ‘Knockdrin’ is now truly an appropriate building for a Command Officers Mess.
The 23rd Raising Day celebrations
When we arrived at the lush green lawns of ‘Knockdrin’, the overwhelming impression was the colours that greeted us. The flowers were in full bloom; the Indian Army Symphony Band at one corner at the far end was at its resplendent best, with the bandsmen in their colourful ceremonials and shining instruments; and an army Jazz Band, ready with their instruments and smart dresses was seated at the other far corner on a high stage. The setting was even more dazzling as the backdrops of the two bands were decorated with a variety of colourful flowers.
It was the gentry filling the lawn, however, that was the cynosure of all eyes. The ladies in their colourful silk sarees were complemented by the smart blue/black/Gabardine Patrols (winter mess dress) of all officers of the Command. In a formation like a command, officers from varied arms and services are posted; this was evident from the different regimental accoutrements that the uniforms displayed, as each regiment and corps has its own colours, facings, buttons and so on. The Training Command is lucky as it also has an officer each from the Navy and the Air Force. Both were there in their ceremonial mess dresses and added to the wonderful display that greeted us. Our kudos to the Army Commander, Lt Gen Sanjeev Madhok, under whose keen eye and directions, the officers and wives, as well as the staff of the Mess, had worked so hard for this memorable setting.
There were also civil dignitaries, both from the state government and the local administration and for us the icing on the cake was many friends from days gone by when we had occupied the Command House, located next door, known as the ‘Retreat’- a historic, imposing and noble building that is over 110 years old. The ‘Retreat’ continues to be connected to ‘Knockdrin’ by a wicket gate, thus easily accessible to the Army Commander.
The grand musical concert
We then took our seats, drinks in our hands, to listen to the grand musical concert. As is customary, the first tune, to welcome everyone, was ‘Swagatam’, composed by Pt. Ravi Shankar, with Major Mahendar Das, Inspector of Army Band Western Command conducting it. The next tune was a lovely waltz, ‘Somewhere My Love’ (Lara’s Theme), composed by Maurice Jarre in 1965 for the well-known film ‘Doctor Zhivago’. The rendering set the stage for a lovely afternoon of quality music.
It was the third tune, Bandish – a Raag composed by Major Mahendra Das – a soul-stirring composition indeed, that brought down the first few drops of rain. The Gods seemed to be happy and many appreciative murmurs of ‘a good omen’ could be heard, above the scintillating tune. Another tune of Hindi Old Remix followed, but it was soon evident that the Gods were winning as the intensity of the rain had increased. The contingency, having been anticipated in true army style, dozens of colourful umbrellas suddenly appeared as if from nowhere. The Training Command outdid it by producing umbrellas of all shapes, sizes and colours. An aerial photograph would have captured a sea of colourful umbrellas, held delicately balanced with the free hand (the other continued to hold firmly to the precious drink, which of course could not be allowed to even spill)!
As the intensity of the rain increased, the two bands had to wind up, because no one wanted the precious instruments to be damaged. One young bandsman was then called up for a final piece, titled Mac and Mac, which was a solo rendering on Xylophone; it was played beautifully and was much appreciated. All the former army commanders of the Training Command were again called up, this time to present gifts to the two bands.
There were a number of cavalry officers I was chatting with. Their Mess dresses are always more colourful than those of others, as they sport chained armour on their epaulets, cross belts and spurs on their half-Wellington boots. In the days of the Raj, Shimla used to be the happy hunting ground of the dashing cavalry officers of yore, as all the British ladies, young, middle aged and mostly grass widows used to congregate in Shimla during the summer months, to escape the oppressive heat of the plains. This was known as the ‘Season’. The British officers would come up when they could get leave, but it was the cavalry officers who ruled the roost during the ‘Season’.
As the lunch hour approached, the officers too headed for the Mess, where another music session, albeit an informal one, was in progress. Mrs. Niharika Naidu, wife of Lt Gen Milan Naidu, a former Army Commander of the Training Command had been persuaded to sing a few melodies. She is well known in the military for her singing prowess and she had very gracefully accepted, despite the absence of any accompanying musical instruments. (can del) This memorable day ended with a sumptuous lunch, laid extremely well, decorated with highly polished Mess silver and fresh flowers. As one looked out of the window, one could see that the rain had stopped and many officers, guests and their spouses were savouring the lovely outdoors, having their lunch on round tables, thoughtfully laid out on the Mess lawns.
So ended yet another Raising Day of the Army Training Command and what a memorable day it was for us all!