Beating Retreat Marching in tune with changing times

Col Satish Singh Lalotra
“The loyalty to the country comes ahead of all other loyalties”—-Lal Bhadur Shastri.

Pushing the envelope further to set course on path to self-discovery and aligning the country’s very being with its ethos, the Central Government has recently taken a momentous decision to replace the favourite hymn ‘Abide with me” from this year’s ‘Beating retreat” ceremony on the Republic day . Well India is not alone in continuously evolving its decades old tradition of the Beating retreat ceremony. UK’s Beating retreat ceremony in 2001 included the theme music from ‘Star war’ film, similarly in 2006 UK had included tunes from ‘The Gladiator” in its ceremony too. The iconic hymn penned by “Henry Francis Lyte” in 1861 and set to tune by William Henry Mark was said to be a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi and was being continuously played since 1950 marking the last event of the republic day parade at Vijay chowk. Replacing ‘Abide with me” will be the soulful ‘Aye mere Watan ke logon” the patriotic rendition by Kavi Pradeep and composed by famous C.Ramachandran . Sung for the first time by Lata Mangeshkar in 1963 at National stadium, Delhi for fund raising activity for the war widows in the backdrop of Sino-Indian 1962 border war this soulful song welled up Nehru for the entire country to watch.
A decision was taken to include only Indian song by the present dispensation as part of the ‘Azadi ka Amrit mahotsav” celebrations and rightly so. Beating retreat signifies a military tradition dating back to centuries when troops stopped fighting, sheathed their weapons and withdrew from the battlefield eventually returning to their camps at the sound of the retreat bugle. The retreat was also sounded to recall patrolling units to their barracks that were away from the battlefield for long time. In a press note issued on Sunday the 23rd of January 2022, the government sources stated that the change is part of an ongoing exercise to shed a colonial past and mindset and adapt a stance more in league with the present times. All this comes barely a day after the eternal flame at “Amar Jawan Joyti” was shifted to the ‘National war memorial”. As mentioned earlier, the hymn ‘Abide with me” was written by Lyte in 1820 after visiting a friend who in his last moments continually uttered ‘Abide with me” a request to ease his pain. But he kept this piece with him until his own death in 1847.
Paradoxically the first time the hymn was actually sung was at Lyte’s own funeral in ‘Nice’ years after it was written. The hymn which is popular across the Christian denominations was also played at the wedding of Queen Elizabeth -II. It was played by the musicians as the great Titanic went down the Atlantic Ocean too. This song also became popular during the WW-1. Edith Cavell a British nurse would go on to sing it at night before she was shot dead by a German squad for helping the British soldiers escape from occupied Belgium . It is still being sung during various military services in Australia and New Zealand. The hymn ‘Abide with me” was also a roaring hit with Mahatma Gandhi who heard this piece for the first time at Mysore palace being played by the Mysore palace band and couldn’t forget its tenderness and serenity. At his Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad, the Ashram Bhajnavali had this probably the only cross religious hymnal anywhere along with famous Bhajans like ‘Vaishnav Jan toh, Ram dhuns by Tulsi Das etc. So much for the history of this iconic colonial hymn.
Cut to the present times, the decision of the Modi dispensation to jettison the above hymn in favour of ‘Aye mere Watan ke logon” though being cried foul by the opposition parties and Modi detractors alike is like a whiff of fresh air in an otherwise stale atmosphere and a right step with the changing times . In fact the ball was set rolling in 2015 when several Indian classical instruments like the Tabla, Sitar and the Santoor made their debut entry. In 2016 a focus on popular music and less on traditional western and Indian martial tunes was the mainstay of the ceremony. Similarly in 2018, 25 of the 26 tunes used in the ceremony were Indian. A version of AR Rahman’s ‘Bharat humko Jaan se pyarra hai ,Ma tujhe salam etc were experimented with during the same period. The only English composition being ‘Abide with me” in this entire time period. As if this was not enough , in 2019 ‘Shankhanaad” a tune composed by Tanuja Nafade a professional from Nagpur made it to the list of tunes to be played. The icing on the cake being that the martial tune composed for the Indian army is based on a poem written by Brigadier Vivek Sohal . It was a meld of the ragas Bilaskhani Todi ,Bhairavi and Kirvani .
With a country populated by 1.3 billion plus population and a democratic dispensation to boot, there are bound to be discordant notes emanating from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Kutch to Kohima regarding such a momentous decision having a bearing on the national psyche on a republic day. Blunting the verbal diarrohea on the social media platforms regarding the cons of this issue, the pros have been on an upswing. Beginning with a very fine argument that the lyrics of this colonial hymn are understood by a limited few, the masses have been on an overdrive that the new Indian song ‘Aye mere Watan ke logon” highlights the aspect of unity in diversity of the Indian soldiers who are a microcosm of this big sub-continent of ours. The celebrated song has a universal appeal which touches the very cockles of an Indian’s heart irrespective of his/her political moorings. It has to be understood in the right perspective that wherever the projection of India’s might come into play whether in the form of a national day or a national carrier etc all endeavours should be directed to encapsulate its very ethos.
A case in point is that of usage of code VT (Victorian territory) on all Indian aircrafts flying around domestically or even abroad. A linkage going past to 1927 when international radiotelegraph convention of Washington was signed and the above code allotted to India. Despite a passage of more than 94 long years Indian aviation industry has not been able to shake off its colonial past. With neighbouring Pakistan having “PK” as its ICAO (International civil aviation organization) code ,it only goes to prove that India still has to cover a lot of ground to register its very being.
We may dare say that the country should take a cue from the armed forces for whom ‘Naam ,namak and Nishan” is the sine quo non for its very existence. National day like the one celebrated on 26th January every year is projection of India’s might &right in all its splendour being watched live the world over with rapt attention. A perfect platform to instill a sense of belonging and pride in everything it stood for thousands of years and even today. Is replacing the colonial song ‘Abide with me” during the Beating retreat ceremony with a more indigenized song not keeping in times with the fast changing social and political mileu of our country?
India ,which has a budding young population as compared to other countries is eager to strike out on its own terms that require an equally compelling set of benchmarks on which it can measure up its own performance. Since statehood or nationhood is a concept resting on the shoulders of its citizenry it is but natural for the mandarins of power to keep tweaking away the rules of governance with the changing times. Replacing of a colonial song with a more Indian one during the Beating retreat ceremony though symbolic in nature will be a big leap forward in restoring the faith of millions of Indians in their very being.
(The writer is a retired army officer)