What Abide With Me means to India , writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi
The authorities must not be impervious to the hymn’s aesthetic, spiritual and human appeal
New Delhi, January 29.
Any year in the decade starting with 1950 to the one that has just ended.
The winter sun dips behind Raisina Hill. It seems not to want to go, but cannot linger. And as it goes, it swathes the house of India’s President atop that hill with a halo of golden twilight. The North and South Blocks beside it, similarly, turn bronze. These are lights from the sky. Nature’s illuminings, not tawdry emissions from bulbs and tubes held by wires.
Stately camels from the Bikaner Camel Corps of the Border Security Force line the red sandstone ramparts, standing silhouetted along the slopes rockstill. Full-maned horses from the 61st Cavalry stand motionless with their statuesque Sowars. All in fact is still, all quiet in expectation of a musical experience that goes beyond music to life, to the theatre where life itself stands still — in the complete uncertainty of the next moment, the next fraction of the second. In other words, in the great pulsation of war.
And at that moment, the massed bands of our three armed services begin slowly to play the penultimate number in the evening’s musical sequence.
Abide With Me has to be among the world’s most moving hymns.
Written by the Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte in 1847, it draws its opening words from the Bible, Luke 24:29, “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” Its last but one verse draws from the Bible again, 1 Corinthians 15:55, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”. But that is only an incidental detail. The verse has grown from out of human loss, deprivation, sorrow. Lyte, it is said, wrote it after visiting a dying friend who , as Lyte sat beside him, kept saying “Abide with me…”.
The song wafts on its tune. Indeed, without that tune, the song would have lain on paper. The melody composed by William Henry Monk in 1861 goes by the name of “Eventide”, meaning, quite simply, evening. And if the song has to be among the world’s most moving hymns, that tune has to be among the world’s most heart-wrenching melodies. I wish the words of this column could reproduce its transporting notes. Readers may wish to reach for them through the Internet.
The words and the tune of “Abide With Me” have, for the last half-a-century, become Beating Retreat’s most memorable passage. As the last note of the hymn subsides, the bells from the Church of the Redemption, nearby, peal in pure pathos. To say not one person moves, not one shuffles in his or her seat would be to exaggerate. To say that not one eye is dry, not one throat unconstricted would be to exaggerate. But that is about as near the truth as there can be. The experience is deeply, profoundly moving.
For it brings to mind after our great Republic Day, where our armed forces have been celebrated, the sacrifice of those bravehearts who have laid down their lives for the country and their kin who have endured the loss so bravely.
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, oh, abide with me.
The words are clearly Christian, about God. But they are in their core about that source, whatever one may call it, of strength that is needed by those who feel vulnerable, insecure, bereft. It is about wanting to survive loss, outlast bereavement. And to overcome grief. The words are universal, the tune human.
Who does the verse affront ? What does it offend ? Has anyone been, can anything be, hurt by a song that is about the healing of hurt ? And so I want to disbelieve reports that the ministry of defence plans to take this great hymn out of the sequence of music for Beating Retreat, January 29, 2020. I want the reports to be found to be false. I do not believe the authorities can be so impervious to the song’s aesthetic, spiritual and human appeal, so insensitive too to the feelings of those who love the hymn. Gandhi loved it. The hymn is among the selected few from that genre in his Bhajanavali. Is that a disqualification ?
Beating Retreat has been an eclectic event, bringing military and civilian sensibilities together in a unique ceremony. It has traditionally ended with the soul-stirring Saarey Jahan Se Achha Hindostan Hamara. I believe in that line’s assertion. But today, I must invoke the lines from Abide With Me :
Change and decay in all around I see/O Thou who changest not, abide with me.