The import of Abide With Me for Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi felt very lonely at times, like a soldier on duty. That is why he liked Abide With Me.

 |  4-minute read |   30-01-2020
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The Beating Retreat always came across as a magical event. The bells in the northern tower of the Central Secretariat rang in harmony with the trumpet being played on the ground at a considerable distance. It was a piece of choreography in which music and architecture came together, and the setting sun played its role too.

Controversy avoided

The lone trumpeter's attempt to synchronise with the distant bells in the towers didn't always work with perfection. The late-January wind sometimes blew the notes away, and the effort to maintain the melody had to be sustained with loving care. One didn't have to be a connoisseur of martial music to admire what was accomplished year after year. The Beating Retreat formed the final episode in the Republic Day celebrations, and Abide With Me formed its final, crowning moment.

Changes in the content of the Beating Retreat are not new, but the closing part had never been touched. Over the last few years, many older tunes were replaced by new ones. Once, it was surprising to find a song from the film Kabuliwala (1957) in the playlist. Not all the lines were appropriate for an army band to play, but the words were not important. As for instruments, it seemed okay to introduce some Indian instruments. It made political sense if nothing else.

However, those experiments were quite minor compared to what was reportedly decided for this year. Dropping Abide With Me from the band's line up would be like changing the basic structure of Beating Retreat. That such a thing is possible is by itself disconcerting. Its metaphorical resonance goes well beyond the programme, its significance and its dignity. We seem to have run out of time to contemplate the implications of such a major change. Thank God, the decision was revisited and reversed. The news that Abide With Me is going to stay, at least for now, brings relief. It also carries some solace, in that it proves that public criticism still matters.

Beating Retreat staple

The planned absence of Abide With Me in this year's Beating Retreat had acquired a disturbing significance for one more reason. It was one of Mahatma Gandhi's favourite hymns. Pushing it out of the programme in the 150th year of Gandhi's birth would have been ominously ironical. It would have made little official sense, considering that Gandhi's 150th anniversary celebrations are also official. The decision to drop it could, of course, be justified like so much else. Someone might say that Gandhi was an innovator, so the best way to remember him is by doing something new. Arguments like that, if actually given, would satisfy a lot of people who see in the Beating Retreat nothing more than a display of military and police bands.

That it is, but the heritage value it has gathered cannot be denied. Its format and location are certainly an item of military and civil heritage. The bands bring a complex history to life, sending the audience into a reverie of commemoration. Not everything invoked in it can be put into words, let alone simple words. Like any history, it has layers of personal and collective resonance, and these layers differ for every citizen of our vast and diverse country.

In Gandhi's self image

The hymn takes a soldier's life and wish to a universal plane. The simple request to God to abide with a human being facing darkness has an appeal you can't miss even if you have no experience of life in the army.

Whether you have physically attended the Beating Retreat at Vijay Chowk or watched it on television, the impact of Abide With Me is hard to miss. The use of silence is as evocative as the music. The poetic content of the hymn imparts a compulsive element to the resonance. That, I suppose, must be the reason why the hymn appealed to Gandhi's imagination so powerfully. He was committed to nonviolence, but he saw himself as a soldier. I first became aware of this aspect of his self-perception when I read a memoir by Marjorie Sykes. She had worked as a teacher with both Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Her dedication to the cause of India's freedom was as great as her commitment to educational renewal. She came to India in the 1920s and joined Mahatma Gandhi's movement. Late in her life, she co-authored, with Jahangir Patel, a book called Gandhi: His Gift of the Fight. Reading it, I understood why Gandhi felt so lonely at times, like a soldier on duty. That is why he liked Abide With Me. The following lines resonate a great many episodes of Gandhi's life: "When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, oh, abide with me..."

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Krishna Kumar Krishna Kumar

Author is former director of NCERT.

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