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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Explained: Abide With Me, the Christian hymn dropped from the Beating Retreat ceremony

The government has dropped Abide With Me, a hymn that has been a fixture in the Beating Retreat ceremony since 1950. What is the significance of this hymn in India?

Written by Suanshu Khurana , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 26, 2022 2:39:24 pm
Rehearsals of the Beating Retreat ceremony at Vijay Chowk in New Delhi on Wednesday. (Express Photo: Tashi Tobgyal)

A day after the eternal flame at Amar Jawan Jyoti was shifted to the National War Memorial, the government has dropped Abide With Me, the sombre highpoint of the conclusion of the Republic Day celebrations.

Penned in the pre-modern world by Henry Francis Lyte, a Scottish Anglican minister and son of a naval captain, the hymn, which is known for its simplicity and sombre theme, is often sung to English composer William Henry Monk’s evocative tune Eventide, and has been a fixture in the Indian Beating Retreat ceremony since 1950.

It is always the last piece to be played by the brass bands before the troops recede up Raisina Hill to the tune of poet Allama Iqbal’s Saare jahan se achha.

Played at dusk, this is also the last piece before the retreat buglers bring down the Indian flag.

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In 2020, reports had emerged about the hymn being dropped from the Beating Retreat Ceremony and being replaced by poet Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram.

Following criticism, the hymn was played in 2020 and retained in 2021.

At the ceremony, the hymn creates a sombre moment when the tubular bells ring from the North and the South blocks, followed by an echo effect created by musicians posted atop the two buildings.

Abide With Me

Lyte wrote the hymn in 1820 after visiting a friend, who in his last moments continually uttered “abide with me”, a request to ease his pain. But he kept the piece to himself until his own death in 1847. Paradoxically, the first time the hymn was actually sung was at Lyte’s own funeral in Nice years after it was originally written.

The hymn, which is popular across Christian denominations, was also played at the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II. It was played by musicians as the Titanic went down.

The piece also became significant and popular during World War I. Edith Cavell, a British nurse, would go on to sing it the night before she was shot by a German squad for helping British soldiers escape from occupied Belgium. It is still sung during various military services in Australia and New Zealand.

Significance in India

Abide With Me was one of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal favourites. The Father of the Nation first heard the piece played by Mysore Palace Band, and could not forget its tenderness and serenity.

At Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, the ashram bhajanavali — the first and probably the only cross-religion hymnal anywhere — with the bhajans ‘Vaishnav Jan Toh’ and the well-known Ram Dhun by Tulsidas, ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’ in it, Abide With Me, along with Lead Kindly Light, was put together under Gandhi’s watch.

The hymnal is sung regularly in church choirs, and in schools and educational institutions in the country. It has been translated into various Indian languages. There is also an Usha Uthup version of the hymn in a Bangla film titled ‘Madly Bengali’.

In place of the hymn

Abide With Me has been replaced by Kavi Pradeep’s seminal piece Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon, which was written in the wake of the Sino-Indian War, and went on to become a tableau of Indian nationalism.

The song was first sung on January 27, 1963. Composed by C Ramachandra and sung by Lata Mangeshkar, it was first performed at Delhi’s National Stadium in a fundraiser organised by the film industry for Indian war widows. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru welled up as the six-and-a-half-minute song was sung.

Other changes

Quite a few changes have happened in the playlist of the Beating Retreat ceremony in the last few years.

2016 saw a focus on popular music and less on traditional western and Indian martial tunes, the mainstay of the ceremony. 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.

This year, a Kumaoni tune from Uttarakhand, Channa Billauri, has made it to the list. The folk piece, which was first sung by singer Beena Tiwari on radio, is a gentle ditty about a woman asking her father to not marry her in a village named Channa Bilauri because she feels that it’s unusually hot there.

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