Music

The abiding spirit

Visual splendour: The Indian Navy Band performing during the Beating Retreat ceremony at Vijay Chowk

Visual splendour: The Indian Navy Band performing during the Beating Retreat ceremony at Vijay Chowk   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

Both “Abide with Me” and “Vande Matram” are inspiring melodies that can coexist in the “Beating Retreat”

At any point in time when cultural symbols, architecture, language, songs, poetry, painting are taken into the political territory their context shifts and they become part of intriguing tools in games of power. The recent news of the government replacing the melody ‘Abide with Me’ with ‘Vande Matram’ at the upcoming Beating Retreat Ceremony at the Vijay Chowk is not about right or wrong but a fascinating play of power with cultural-political emotional quotient. The discourse is much more than a hymn which was favourite of Mahatma Gandhi, or a Christian one. That implication and explanation is too restricted. The hymn has bearings in its words that encapsulate the essence of the Constitution.

There can be three ways to see the role of the melodies. First, the context in which the songs were written and the reason they were or are part of the Beating Retreat musical bonanza. Second, the physical geographical setting the melodies are played. And thirdly, the manner they represent the spirit of the people embedded in the Constitution.

The context

The hymn ‘Abide with me’ written by Henry Francis Lyte was recalled by him when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In one of his writings, Lyte made a courageous statement that he would not want his life to rust. TB a contagious disease not only would have limited Lyte’s movement but by recalling his song he garnered the courage to celebrate his human life in the limited space and time left. ‘Abide with Me’ is thus an ultimate statement of courage, of universal humanism and encapsulates the intention of the Constitution.

Says constitutional historian Madhav Khosla, “Courage- Yes! It is the spirit of the Constitution. Who would have imagined that after centuries of colonial rule that the book defining the spirit of free India would declare, dare and uphold the inclusion of all its citizens as equal, freedom of expression and dialogue between those who govern and those who are governed? That through the Constitution India we as citizens would assert ourselves as the largest, inclusive and diverse democracy in the world!”

The inclusion of Vande Mataram in the Retreat also calls for the context of the song. It was written in 1869 by Bankimchandra Chatterji. There was no political India the way we understand it today. There were either Princely states or British ruled provinces. So the motivation was for an ocean of people fighting for their spirit and ‘the earth’ on which they lived whichever part of the then India. 1869 was the year of the bubonic plague in Mumbai and the famine in Bundelkhand. Some of the inspirational words in the song for the then-struggling people were ‘I bow to thee Mother (earth) richly waters, fruiting… It ends with ‘The Mother giver of boons, giver of bliss.’

The spirit of the geographical context of the song is similar to what is visually represented in the Bharat Mata Mandir (Mother India Temple) built-in 1936 in Varanasi. Instead of a statue of a God or a Goddess, the central iconography in the temple is the physical geographical map of the undivided Indian subcontinent. Evocative, it seeks to inspire millions of people who aligned themselves to the earth of the Indian subcontinent in an equal manner.

Sacred geometric setting

The final ritual in the festival for the Constitution of India is a poignant, poetic audio-visual phenomenon. It is held in a sacred geometric setting of buildings of governance. It lays responsibility on those who govern to honour of the Constitution of India and its citizens.

‘Beating Retreat’ takes place at the Vijay Chowk (a square). It is juxtaposed with the circular Parliament meant to guard the constitution. The arm forces owe their loyalty to their supreme commander (President of India) on top of the Raisina Hill and the constitution. The square where the ritual in the form of the melodies takes place represents a Yantra or a mandala. The square in the Indian thought as a shape of equidistant provides a symbol of an anchor and stability required for a country.

The circular parliament represents the infinity of the spirit of an ongoing democratic civilisation. The roads leading out from the square represent the progress and movement of the country. Interestingly, there was already a reclaiming of the symbolic physical geography by free India when the ‘King’s Way’ came to be called the Rajpath (ruler’s road) and which intersected with the ‘Queen’s Way’ now known as Janpath (people’s road). Thus, they represent the dialogue between the two stakeholders: the government and the citizens.

The towers of the Secretariat represent churning of thought in governance while guarding the Constitution. The melodies and movement of the bands coming down from the Raisina Hill, creating different geometric formations, retreating at sunset only to end at the end in silence – after which all the buildings surrounding the Vijay Chowk Mandala are lighted as if to affirm the lighted spirit of the Constitution.

The hymn ‘Abide with Me’ is choreographed as the last hymn before the bugle call to lower the National Flag. It is hauntingly played in chimes by tubular bells against the setting sun. It is played as an echo between the secretariat towers and the buildings across. The spirit of the Constitution captured in the silent words: ‘Through Cloud and Sunshine, O abide with me….I fear no foe…where grave, thy victory… I still triumph, if you abide with me!”

The word abide acts as a solemn promise by those who govern and the governed that they abide by the Constitution of India in terms of roles and duties. The forthcoming induction of the Vande Mataram, when enacted in the Mandala of the Vijay Chowk will seek to affirm only the land. Both the citizens and the land are important and the two melodies can and should coexist.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 2:10:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/the-abiding-spirit-beating-retreat-ceremony/article30634300.ece

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