On April 14, 1912, just before the Titanic sank, eight musicians, got together in the first-class lounge and played a popular hymn — “Nearer, my God, to Thee”. They didn’t board the lifeboats, and as the ship went under, they moved to “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide/ The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide”. The hymn helped look death in the eye. Written in 1847 by Scottish poet and hymnologist Henry Francis Lyte, as he lay dying from tuberculosis, the evening hymn was played in the moments before the catastrophe. It also became extremely popular in the trenches of World War 1. Edith Cavell, a British nurse, would sing it the night before she was shot by a German squad for helping British soldiers escape from an occupied Belgium.
The somber tune, which came to India via the British, along with the Beating Retreat ceremony, has been played as the concluding piece on January 29 every year at Vijay Chowk, since 1950. Just before dusk falls, the flag is lowered, as the combined bands of the Indian armed forces, the Central Armed Police Forces and Delhi Police come together along with the audience to stand to “Abide with me”. This year, Vande Mataram will replace it, in an effort to “Indianise” the ceremony.
A reason why the hymn stayed in India so long was that it was propagated by Mahatma Gandhi. The father of the nation first heard it played by the Mysore Palace Band, and could not forget its tenderness and serenity. At Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, it remains a part of the ashram bhajanavali, alongside bhajans like “Vaishnav jan toh”, the ramdhun by Tulsidas, “Raghupati Raghav raja ram”, and “Lead kindly light”. “Abide with me” is sung in church choirs and educational institutions.
There is Usha Uthup’s version of the hymn in a Bengali film titled, Madly Bengali, sung in her whiskey-tinged voice alongside a single guitar and soft drums. A hymn is not just religious text, it’s also a song, and it will find its place. To banish it in an effort to “Indianise” is misplaced, foolish and hurtful.
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