POST TIME: 26 January, 2020 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 25 January, 2020 09:59:51 PM
Beating retreat and ‘Abide With Me’
The government got flak and a controversy was at its hands, more of its making, which it could have done well without. It has already been on the receiving end for its non-inclusive approach and its hard selling it pro Hindutva agenda
Kumkum Chadha

Beating retreat and ‘Abide With Me’

It is all about a hymn and that too a Christian one. The Government of India, as reports go, is unable to make up its mind on whether to go ahead with it or axe it. After indicating that the hymn Abide With Me will not feature in this year’s Beating Retreat, there is a flip flop over it with Vande Mataram being the new entrant on the ceremony’s play list.

There was a flip flop over the Government’s reported move to drop the hymn this year and substitute it with Vande Mataram. Abide with Me has been traditionally played by the military band towards the  end of Beating Retreat ceremony till it hit a road block with speculation about the government’s move to exclude it from the playlist.

 The Government got flak and a controversy was at its hands, more of its making, which it could have done well without. It has already been on the receiving end for its non-inclusive approach and its hard selling it pro Hindutva agenda. Therefore, dropping Abide with Me which is a Christian hymn, and an integral part of Beating Retreat ceremony was clearly inviting trouble.  

Unlike India’s Independence Day which is confined to the Prime Minister’s speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the country’s Republic Day is a colourful event followed by Beating Retreat two days later : a musical extravaganza which includes performance by the bands of the three forces of the Indian military namely  Army, Air Force and Navy at the Raisina Hills at Vijay Chowk.

The Raisina Hill complex consists of the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the North Block and the South Block, besides Parliament House and other buildings.

Celebrated on January 29 every year, Beating Retreat marks a centuries-old military tradition, when the troops ceased fighting, sheathed their arms and withdrew from the battlefield and returned to the camps at sunset at the sounding of the Retreat.

In India Beating Retreat is a culmination of the Republic Day celebrations. The ‘field musicians’ who play at the Republic Day Parade and Beating Retreat  are drawn from among that ranks of combat soldiers and the tunes that are selected for the events have to be “re-scored” for marching formations.

The President of India is the Chief Guest. His arrival is heralded by a fanfare which is sounded by  trumpeters. Traditionally massed bands march to popular tunes like Kadam Kadam baraye jaa, and Sons of the Brave among others. The Army’s pipe bands give a solo performance known as the Drummer’s Call. However, a regular feature of the pageant is  the last tune: the famous hymn Abide WithMe. This has remained part of the ceremony since 1950 and is believed to be among Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymns.

Except this time, it is embroiled in controversy, shifting focus from  its solemnity to dissention and disagreement. It is, as has been in the recent past, a clear case of  the government versus the people. Yet again.  And this time around it is not about a law or the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act or the Citizens Register or issues that have damaged the secular fabric of the country. This time it is all about a song to put it in the correct perspective.

'Abide With Me', written in the 19th century by Scottish poet Henry Francis Lyte, is played by brass bands of the three forces. At the playing of its last note, the lights at the Raisina Hill  turn on, marking the end of the ceremony. After that the principal conductor of the ceremony seeks permission of the President to close the ceremony. The bands then retreat to "Sare Jahan se Acha".

 But this time around, there were attempts to change the  old order and ending  Beating Retreat ceremony with ‘Vande Mataram’. According to reports, Vande Mataramhas a touch of “swadeshi” or Indianness that Abide with Medoes not. This to say the least is an attempt to Beat the Retreat differently this year.

The national song, ‘Vande Mataram’, originally an invocation to the motherland by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, is patriotic in essence and spirit.  

Since the BJP came to power, it has gradually introduced changes in ceremonies. In 2018, Abide with mewas the  only western tune that was played by the military band. Of the 26 tunes that were played, 25 were  composed by Indians: the only exception being Abide With Me.

In 2019, 18 military bands and 15 pipes and drums bands from regimental centres and battalions took part in the ceremony, and out of the 27 performances, 19 tunes were composed by Indian musicians, including Paharon ki Rani, Kumaoni Geet, Jai Janam Bhumi, Queen of Satpuraand Vijay Bharat.The eight western tunes included Fanfare by Buglers, Sound Barrier, Emblazoned, Twilight and  Drummers Call, along with Abide With Me.

 Interestingly, Indian instruments made a debut during the Narendra Modi government’s first Republic Day celebrations in 2015 with sitar, santoor and tabla being played that year at the Beating Retreat  ceremony: the first in a military ceremony.

However, in the wake of criticism from the military fraternity, classical musicians were removed from the ceremony last year. A retired General had then written a letter criticising the introduction of   sitars and tablas on grounds that they do not qualify  as those to be used by marching formations. There is, it was then said,  a difference between a military parade and a recital.

 That apart, the Republic Day parade in 2019 also saw the first original martial tune in independent India based on classical music, Shankhnaad,  glorifying  the achievements of the Mahar Regiment.

That Abide with me has an enduring and universal appeal is a given. To set the record straight Alfred Lord Tennyson deemed it worthy enough “to rank among the really perfect poems of the English language”. It has also been described as the world’s most moving hymns:

“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

“….Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee; In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me”.

Add to that the fact that its inclusion  has a colonial background and hence the initial decision to keep it out and drop it.

But the government it seems has developed cold feet. It has now said that Vande Matram will be played just before "Abide with Me", which like always, is the concluding tune. An army handout has confirmed that Abide with Me remains on the list putting to rest all speculation. According to reports  Vande Matram will be played just before "Abide with Me", which like always, will be the concluding tune. It must also be stated that even while the controversy raged bands were playing the tune 'Abide With Me' in daily rehearsals just like they have every year in the past.

Difficult to say whether the controversy was much ado about nothing or the government changed its mind given that it can ill afford yet another controversy staring it in its face. Either ways, better sense has prevailed and even if an afterthought the government has acted mature and not pushed the envelope as it has on issues like it has in CAA and citizens Register wherein protests are continuing and show no signs of abating.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: ([email protected])