At the 71st Beating Retreat ceremony on January 29 at Vijay Chowk, along with puffed-up chests, animated yet crisp drills in precision, martial tunes, colour and rhythm by the combined bands of the Indian armed forces, the Central Armed Police Forces and the Delhi Police, a significant highpoint will be missing. Abide with me, the famed Christian hymn penned by Scottish Anglican, Henry Francis Lyte, which is often sung to English composer William Henry Monk’s evocative tune, Eventide, will not be a part of this year’s ceremony. According to a source in the Ministry of Defence, the hymn, which has been a part of the ceremony since 1950, will be replaced by the Indian national song, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande mataram.
Just before dusk falls on January 29, every year, as soon as the buglers sound the retreat, the standards are cased and tricolour is lowered at the Beating Retreat ceremony to mark the conclusion of the Republic Day celebrations; always along this reflective and sombre hymn. Back in the day, retreat meant a time when the troops stopped the combat and retired from the battlefield. Years later, people still stand still during the sounding of the retreat as a mark of respect.
Flanked by the North and South blocks and the Rashtrapati Bhavan towards the end of Rajpath, in the hush of the moment, there plays a sombre plea to god to always be present in life and through death. A fixture in the age-old ceremony, the hymn is always the last piece to be played by the brass bands before the troops recede up the Raisina Hill. The moment comes after a vigorous opening with a slew of martial tunes. The pinnacle of the ceremony and this hymn are also the tubular bells that ring in the North and the South blocks with an echo effect alongside the piece. The charm of the hymn also lies towards the end as the Rashtrapati Bhavan comes alive with thousands of lights illuminating it. It’s post this sombre moment that Iqbal’s Saare jahan se achha follows in A Lobo’s arrangement as the bands pull out of sight. This year, one is likely to hear and stand alongside Vande mataram in raag Desh.
Abide with me was also one of Gandhi’s favourite hymns, one which he came to hear in his twilight years and which struck a chord with him instantly. In a previous interview on the relationship between the hymn and the Mahatma, Suneet Tandon, who was witness to many a Beating Retreat ceremony during his career as a commentator, had said that the Mahatma came to really like this piece primarily for its words. This was a time when he had a sense of deep anguish about the Partition of the country. “So in that sense, this was an appeal to his creator. He was a deeply religious man. Therefore, he took strength and succor from the words of this hymn. It seems apt, sometimes even more than the bhajans associated with Gandhi, for the last phase of his life,” he’d said.
Gandhi’s relationship with music remains one of the most robust instruments for mass organisation of a nation for its independence. In a public address in 1926 in Ahmedabad, Gandhi had said, “To know music is to transfer it to life. The prevalent discord of today is an indication of our sad plight. There can be no swaraj where there is no harmony, no music.”