Abide With Me must continue
For five decades, the 1847 composition has been Beating Retreat’s heartbeat. It is deeply soothing and healing in its quiet impact. Without the song, the ceremony will lose something at its heart
Pride. Pathos. Prayer.
But above all, pride.
Pride is the overwhelming emotion in the magical arena below Raisina Hill on the twilit evening of pure gold when the ceremony of Beating Retreat is conducted three days after India’s Republic Day.
Pride in the surpassing self-discipline and flair of our armed forces, pride in their valour in war and their grace in peace, pride in their being as fast as lightning and as still as the dome over the crest of the Hill.
The bravehearts on horse-back and camel-back or just standing in statuesque magnificence that evening, are gallant soldiers, not artists trained in opera. But so amazing is their training and their understanding of the sanctity of the ceremony that they can match and outpace any choreography whether in movement, or in being immovable. They are maestros, no less, of sound and silence, of rapture and reverie. The many tinted glow of our President’s residence as a backdrop and of our Parliament House alongside contributes, doubtless, to the magic. But the reality of the moment lies somewhere beyond the training and technique. It lies not in the form but in the spirit of the evening, which invokes the pathos of life’s battles. They know that only that can speed which knows to be still, only that can sound which can be silent. Only one who knows the limits of human strength, who knows there is a power above human power, can take pride in such strength, in such power as is one’s own.
No one helps without the help of the helpless.
Beating Retreat is about the furling of action at end-of-day when the buglers signal quiescence, reflection, prayer. And this means, to the massed personnel and to their awed spectators, a reflection on that strength which underlies strengths, the might that actuates behind might, the force that is subtler and greater than any human force can be. It also means, necessarily, a reflection on the complete unpredictability of the next moment, the next fraction of the next second.
Those on parade on this day express their pride and confidence in themselves, in their unit or regiment and in their country and also their awareness of a force above human force. And they do this through the amazing drill they present and through the music they create along with it. At the heart of that music has been, I believe, for as long as the ceremony has been in existence, the score of one of the most amazing hymns the world has known – Abide With Me.
That the 1847 composition by the Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte draws its opening words from the Bible (Luke 24:29) ‘Abide with us, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent’ is a point in detail. The work has emerged from the depths of human loss, of deprivation, of grief. Lyte is said to have written it after visiting a dying friend who, as Lyte sat by his side, said ‘Abide with me’. The tuning of the hymn by William Henry Monk is as inspired as the text.
But plangent as the song is, it is also deeply soothing, healing in its quiet impact. It has been for some 50 years and more now, Beating Retreat’s heartbeat. A friend of mine, whose faith was – and is – a very quiet and personal matter, told me many years ago “Have you noticed how, when the last note of the hymn subsides, the bells from the Church of the Redemption nearby, peal in pure pathos? “ Pathos has no religion. It has only pathos.
Did I, then or later, think of this musical passage as being religious? I only thought of it as being sublime. It was a deeply moving moment when we thought of those who have laid down their lives for our nation and of their kin. Also, of those who have suffered deprivation, loss in the larger and unceasing battles of life.
Lord, with me abide/ When other helpers fail and comforts flee/ Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
Even without the words being vocalised, the tune played on January 29 stirs with this powerful prayer.
Two years ago, there were reports to the effect that the hymn was going to be taken out of the sequence in that year’s Beating Retreat. People across the country said it should stay. It was not taken out. This year, say reports, it is being taken out again. Is it harming something? Is it offending someone?
Pride, pathos and prayer have gone together in Beating Retreat. The soldier, no matter what his religion, who places his life on death’s palm with faith and allegiance, needs to know that a higher power abides with him. And now, with women joining the forces in increasing numbers, that it abides with her.
Nanak, the great Guru, has a song: sumaran kar le mere mana ( recall , awhile, o mind of mine !). It has a great line: Deha nain bina, raina chand bina, mandir dipa bina/ jaise pandit veda bihina, taise prani harinam bina (as the human form would be if deprived of sight, the night robbed of its moon, the temple of its glowing lamp, a learned man without knowledge of the Veda, so is the human being without the name of Hari in his heart).
Without Abide With Me, Beating Retreat will lose something at its heart.
A hymn to healing, a prayer made with pride in the ethos of our country it embodies the ethos of that ceremony. To remove it from that musical offering is to cause hurt.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor.
The views expressed are personal