Illusions and Images of Magic India and Indian Magic
Stripped to the waist and wearing only a thin white cotton cloth, i lay calmly on the points of over a thousand sharp, rusty nails. As the cinder block was placed on my stomach i inhaled sharply, then held my breath. With each succeeding blow of the sledge hammer, i tensed my stomach and kept my eyes closed to avoid flying particles. Finally on the third strike, it shattered. For a moment, before i got up to display my scarred back to the audience, i wondered if this was really Indian Magic....
I perform Indian magic, and am directly involved in creating, interpreting and recreating images of India and Indian magic in the world today. For studying the subject of magic, being on the inside has definite advantages because magicians use subtle methods to deceive people. While it is useful to read non-magicians' descriptions of tricks they have seen, these people are so often taken in by the effect that they miss many subtleties of the presentation that are important for an overall understanding of what occurs in the magical acts. It is also helpful to have an understanding of what method was being used, what the magician was really doing, not just what he appeared to be doing. This understanding makes it possible to see connections between effects that appear totally different but are based on the same method. While this paper is not going to reveal the methods of any magic tricks, it will use magic tricks to reveal methods of political, social and historical tricks. In that spirit, most descriptions of magical acts will be from the standpoint of a spectator. In magician's terms, I will concentrate on the effect, not the method.
The focus of this paper is the type of magic primarily performed on streets or stages for the purpose of entertainment. It may mimic practices, words and costumes of other types of magic including medical, occult or black magic, but it remains a separate field. To consider Indian magic as it relates to sorcery, philosophy and other fields, is beyond the scope of this paper. There are also a host of distinct but related practices including: self-mutilation, hypnosis, animal taming, breath control, fire eating, juggling and sword swallowing, which sometimes overlap magic in the same show but are more often performed separately by different types of people. Though they are distinct, these practices are usually lumped together by Western writers. These feats represent either the mystical and amazing or the essentially backward and superstitious nature of India, depending on the point of view of the authors. They are considered with either strong skepticism, "...a large proportion of the Indian feats are doubtless the result of fraud and trickery..." or sincere belief, "There are some things in this great, mysterious India upon which it is best, for the safety of the human soul, to let the curtain fall."
After a brief introduction to basic terms and texts, this paper will first examine the roles of magicians and uses of magic in constructing the image of India as a land of magic, and colonial magic. Then it will ask the more specific question of what exactly are Indian tricks and consider the answers given by different sources. There will be a brief discussion of Ishmuddin's Hindu Rope Trick. The last part of the paper will explore images of Indian magic through the construction, appropriation, mimicry and utilization of the image, or character of the Indian magician. There are terms in English, Hindi, Marathi and Sanskrit which are used in various ways in the texts I consider. In English, Magic is a term that has been put to so much use, it is hard to tell what exactly it means anymore. "We reach for it frequently, to describe wildly different things:...Buried under its immense load, the word magic has lost its clarity and vigor." In each of the academic disciplines of anthropology, psychology and cultural studies, the word magic has its own particular definitions. It is sometimes considered to be a form of religion, a faulty or primitive type of reasoning, or a symbolic ritual activity. If we want to combine all the academic usages for a catch-all definition of magic, we might be left with something like O'Keefe's ponderous one which he arrives at after completing a summary of ideas about magic from Freud, Weber, Durkheim, Mauss, Marx and others. For the sake of this paper, I have adopted a versatile and open-ended working definition: those acts called magic and performed for the express purposes of entertainment.
Two common words for magic used in many modern North Indian languages are 'jadutona' and 'jadu'. The distinction here is between what in English might roughly be termed ritual or ceremonial magic on the one hand, and stage or parlour magic on the other, or the differences in connotation between the English words 'magick' and 'magic'. Casting the evil eye, using a love charm or exorcising ghosts are examples of magick, or jadutona . When someone vanishes a coin, cuts off a man's tongue or pulls a string from his stomach, he is performing jadu. However, tricks of the trades do flow back and forth between mysticism and magic. Magicians often claim to perform their feats by the power of various gods, yogic and tantric practices and street magicians sell charmed amulets after their shows to ward off snakebite, increase virility or ward off ‘nazar,’ ‘drishti,’ or the evil eye. On the other hand, self-proclaimed Indian yogis, religious figures and god-men pull watches out of their hair, produce sacred ash from empty hands and teach levitation courses. Although the dividing line between the two realms may appear theoretically fuzzy, in practice, individual Indians usually know when they are participating in jadu or jadutona, and the two practices differ in form as well. Jadu is generally performed publicly while jadutona is usually performed in private, personal consultations or small intimate groups.
Along with the term magic, it is important to consider the word juggling. Though in modern parlance, it has a connotation quite different from magic, it is often used interchangeably with the term magic in many of the 19th and early 20th century English-language texts I consider. It is used not simply to refer to throwing, catching and manipulating objects like balls or clubs. It also refers to acts including causing a mango tree to grow from a seed in a few minutes, making a boy vanish, or making a rope stand on end, acts that we might simply call magic today. Sanskrit terms for juggler like 'sancat', 'pratiharakah', 'shambaree' and 'aindrajaalika' have shades of meaning that range from deceptive to illusive to magical. The word maya, which has a wide semantic realm encompassing philosophy, religion and politics, is also partially glossed as 'Jugglery...an illusion of magic'. One useful way to understand the relationship between magic and juggling was related to me by a local juggling historian, "Magic and juggling refer to the same thing, only in magic you are trying to hide your skill while in juggling you try to display it." Though this robs the term magic of its relations with religion, philosophy, and sorcery, it helpfully illustrates the close lexical and conceptual connection between the two words as used in works cited throughout the paper. In most modern Indian languages, there is no distinct word for juggling as opposed to magic. Ball juggling, for example, is often referred simply as some variant of ball magic, ball playing, or is described literally as the throwing and catching of balls. Although it will not be discussed in this paper, the juggling club has Indian origins.
The Sanskrit words Indrajala and Mayajala are also terms for magic. They make their initial appearance as primarily philosophical concepts in the Vedas and even there they have magical connotations. The second part of both these compound words is jalam, which is a net, a snare, magic, illusion, or deception. Indrajala is the net of the king of the gods, Indra, which he uses to deceive, entrap and defeat his opponents but this net can also be use by humans. Maya basically means an illusion of magic and also deceit, fraud, trick, device, artifice and jugglery, although it has a wide range of meanings in many other contexts. Mayajala is the net of magic or illusion used to delude or entertain people. “Mayajal” and “Indrajal” are also the names of two large modern Indian stage magic shows starring K. Lal and P.C. Sorcar, Jr. respectively. In this paper, I have gathered together a wide variety of texts. These are Indian, American and British publications from within the magic community itself and some are not marketed to or even meant for the general public. Magicians have been writing books for hundreds of years and it is informative to see how Indian magic is dealt with in their various magic books, catalogs and promotional materials. Though these writings are rarely read outside the magic community, they are important since they affect the presentation style and performance of Indian magic that the general public does see. Along with the textual materials, I have had the opportunity to conduct interviews with performers and historians who have been extremely helpful and generous to me with their time, knowledge and experience. This has allowed me to utilize some of the large amount of magical lore available only through the oral tradition. The original source materials considered in this paper can be broadly divided into categories of: descriptions of performances, explanations of tricks, magic histories, catalogs and magazines, diaries and memoirs, travel writing, publicity materials and advertisements. Some of the material is intended for an audience of magicians and some for a lay person. Many of the texts were written in English or are available in translation but wherever possible, I have also made use of Marathi, Hindi and Sanskrit originals. Although travelers, kings, playwrights, military men and missionaries have been writing about Indian magic for hundreds of years, it is a field relatively ignored by academics. Two recent books on the subject that have been helpful to me are Net of Magic and The End of Magic. The first book is written in an evocative magical style combining fiction, fieldwork notes and textual research and the main focus is Indian street magicians. The second book considers mysticism, spells and healing magic and introduces the idea of a magical state of mind as the operative principle of magic. This paper considers Indian magic in a different way from previous works. The focus is on the idea of Indian magic as it is played out in various scenarios and historical situations, and I consider many types of texts that have not been previously considered by scholars. I mention street magic but largely concentrate on stage magic.
This paper draws on a wide range of sources from many different time periods, languages, places, and ways of thinking. It may at first seem to be an odd juxtaposition of academic articles, Sanskrit texts, magic instruction manuals, pamphlets, playbills, reviews, and books, written by professors, magicians, skeptics, yogis, occultists, travelers and spiritual seekers. It also considers visual images, oral histories, interviews and even the internet, read as useful, legitimate texts. What these have in common is that they are all related to the general topic of Indian magic and must be examined for a thorough study. Upon close, comparative and critical reading, these texts point to common tropes and themes about India, the West and their complex multi-faceted interrelations. The story of Indian magic is linked with such diverse and important social situations as racism in America, British colonialism, Indian nationalism, and the current world-wide New Age movement. Since magic does not easily yield to analysis by standard academic theories by studying it, we may be forced to question familiar tropes.
India- Land of Magic
In the 1800's, the use of magical terms to describe India was quite common in Europe. India was considered part of the ‘Mysterious East,’ or Orient, which one writer referred to as ‘Mahatma Land.’ This area encompassed much more than just the modern nation of India and included Egypt, China, Burma and Japan. It was not a specific cartographic space but rather a general cultural area considered to be primitive, superstitious and magical. The idea that magic represented India was so acceptable that an 1898 novel that was not even about magic was entitled Jadoo simply because it was set in India, the land of magic. Indian and Oriental magic were topics often discussed and written about in English-language publications, "No topic of the marvelous has excited more general interest...than Hindu jugglery." By the 1900's the idea of India as a magic land was such a firmly established and often-quoted one, that people even began opposing it in print.
There is a widespread belief in this country that the East is the 'Home of Mystery'....I have only one purpose in this paper, namely, to find out why the East has been supposed by the West-quite erroneously I submit- to be the 'Home of Mystery.'
Viewing India as a land of mystery and magic appealed to many different people for various reasons. For British writers, Indian magic represented something essentially foreign and was described in a way that fit in to the greater colonial project. It represented the darkness, ignorance, savagery and wildness that provided a rationalization for colonial rule. It was an important marker of colonial difference. India was essentially backward and needed the colonial state to usher it in to the modern age of capital, individualism and freedom. On its own it was static and unchanging and needed external impetus to transform and improve the lives of its people. Magic and superstition symbolized the stagnant and primitive nature of the Indian people which the colonial government was trying to overcome. The notion of magic and superstition as a barrier to India's progress into the modern world was later taken up by native writers and continues to be an important topic in contemporary Indian publications.
Another interpretation of Indian magic common among spiritualists, theosophists, psychical researchers and other seekers from the nineteenth century to the present day is to see it as an alternative to the totalizing universal claims of Western modernity. Things can be done in India that can not be explained by the West. These include levitation, suspension of life force, hypnosis and teleportation. Such magical acts challenge the grand universal claims of modern Western science and point to different ways of knowing and interpreting the world. Similar ideas are still current and popular within the New Age movement today and it is related to Indian magic in many ways.
Claims of paranormal occurrences and activities that take place in India are also popular with Indians who see them as validating their own cultural achievements by setting them outside the judgement and rubric of Western models that always find India lacking. Many Indians of all education and class levels, firmly assert and believe that in India the mystical sciences were well developed thousands of years ago. At that time, people were able to fly in the air, communicate over long distances by mental telepathy and cause instant death by properly conducted ritual curses. This belief is not limited to ancient times. Sai Baba's magical powers have many believers in India and even more people believe in the magical powers of yogis who live in the Himalayas and are rarely seen.
In opposition to this, there is also an active Indian skeptic's movement that vigorously opposes such magical claims. B. Premanand, an Indian who calls himself ‘the anti-guru,’ and is editor of the Indian Skeptic journal, travels around exposing the tricks of yogis and gurus by showing that they are based on scientific principles. He does shows wherein he first demonstrates apparent miracles then shows the methods by which they are accomplished. He has even taken the self-proclaimed South Indian god-man Sathya Sai Baba to court for materializing gold for his devotees, but the Andhra Pradesh high court judge dismissed the case, mentioning, "An article or ornament materialized from air in a split second by the use of spiritual powers or otherwise cannot be said to be made, manufactured, prepared or processed within the meaning of section 11 of the Gold Control Act.”. Not only does Sai Baba materialize sacred ash, gold rings and watches, and other things for his followers, he also claims to have resurrected a person from the dead and to have immediate telepathic knowledge about intimate details of his devotees’ lives. These magical acts are taken as proof of divinity by his followers and are hotly debated by magicians, skeptics and rationalists in India and abroad. The acts themselves are a main point of contention and are often considered separately from his teachings. When a particular act seems to have been well documented and observed, skeptical investigators immediately make comparisons with magic:
Is there a natural explanation -- including the suggestion made by some that Sai Baba produces these effects in the same way a stage magician does -- or do we have good evidence of genuine paranormal powers from these accounts?
Transcendental Meditation, a world-wide movement founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, even seems to teach people to defy basic physical laws of Western science. For a large fee, devotees who are spiritually ready can attend intensive retreats and learn to levitate. This is accomplished through meditation, breath control and other advanced yogic practices. Though levitation is a common trick of stage magicians all over the world and street magicians in India, is also has strong historical and contemporary connections with yogic practices. Unlike magicians, people who learn these levitation meditation techniques do not demonstrate them publicly for entertainment. It is an act usually performed either privately or in small groups of initiates and looks like someone seated in the lotus position hopping up and down, to a skeptical uninitiated observer.
The TM movement and the Maharishi have another noteworthy connection with magic. The late Canadian stage magician Doug Henning, creator and star of three Broadway shows and yearly television specials, quit professional magic on the advice of the Maharishi. Stage illusions had not satisfied his desire to learn real magic, "I have always believed in real magic, that there is more to life than the senses can perceive. Now I feel that my life-long quest has been fulfilled because I have been studying the secrets of the yogis and the mechanics of the unfoldment of creation with Maharishi." After giving up stage magic, he was heavily involved in the TM movement and was "working to create Maharishi Veda Land world class theme park, a magical theme park which will bring enlightenment, knowledge and entertainment to everyone." Less than a year before he died, he was in Chicago to buy some magic props for his own personal use. In an ironic twist on an old story, the magic of India and the Vedas had mystified a first-rate professional Western stage magician. Indian magic is either a complete sham and hoax or it is totally and amazingly real. These are two diametrically opposed strains of thought and interpretations of Indian magic and the main source of the disagreement between them relate to the universality of the modern Western notions of science. Does Indian magic violate the principles of Western science or can it be totally explained by them? For many magicians and skeptics, the language of science is deployed to debunk and to explain the claims of Indian magic.
To start with, it is a sheer waste of time to argue on these matters [Eastern mysteries] with anyone who has not clearly defined his or her own position with regard to that which we speak of as 'Science', and which we might avoid ambiguity by calling 'knowledge.'
As so much is heard of Indian magic, and the powers of the Oriental performer, it is as well to examine, somewhat critically, their performances, and see how far we are entitled to assume that there is anything in them suggesting the supernormal, or calling for explanations that necessitate the operation of laws "other than those known to Western science."
Though some Indian religious movements challenge the universalizing claims of modern Western science, they often employ similar claims and language. The religious claims are also universal and are also based on the language of science, only it is a different science. For instance, ‘Swarodaya’ is called the “science of breath” by Swami Rama, and the TM movement also lays claim to the language of science.
The Veda exists as the primordial vibrations at the subtlest level of creation, which form the blueprint of everything in the physical world. Maharishi has revitalized and reinterpreted the ancient tradition of the Veda, reviving Vedic study from a fragmented approach to a holistic science, Maharishi's Vedic Science.
These groups set up institutes like the Swami Rama’s Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, PA or TM’s Maharishi University in Fairfield, IA. Writers on both sides of the debate portray the magic of India in the language of science, only each has a different kind of science. The issue of Indian magic has deep connections with debates about the universality of science.
Westerners and Indians have tried to promote the image of India as a land of magic for a variety of reasons. While one goal of colonial thought and writing was to portray India and the East as the land of magic and mystery in contrast to England and the West as the home of rationality and science, there was also a contradictory strain of thought, writing and action that has rarely been considered by academics. This was the project of showing that Westerners were superior magicians and that Western magic was superior to Eastern magic. It was a modern project linked closely with the ideas of nation, colonialism and most importantly, science. This project relied on a new presentation of magic, one that had renounced any connection to the mystical or spiritual and repeated adamantly that it was based only on scientific principles. The colonial right to rule was based not in a force of arms but in the production of a doctrine of the naturalness of colonial rule which relied on Darwinism, medical, social and even religious theories. If the colonists were indeed superior in all areas they also had to be superior in the realm of magic. But the magic of the colonists was not wild, irrational or mystical, it was a magic based firmly on science.
An early example of the political deployment of magic by a colonial nation-state comes from colonial Africa and France. The tribal magicians, the Marabouts, were stirring up the native Algerian population in the 1850's and war seemed imminent. The Marabouts were giving people charms that made them impervious to bullets and inciting them to battle. When other tactics failed, the French finally hit upon the novel solution of sending over a magician to show the natives the superiority of French magic. Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the celebrated watch-maker turned conjurer often called the father of modern magic, was selected. He sailed from France in 1856 and performed a number of shows at the Bab-azon Theater in Algiers. His most important performance was on the night of October 28 when he performed for the leaders and magicians of the desert tribes who had been gathered especially for this show of French magical power.
Interpreters were stationed throughout the audience to translate the conjurer's words. He produced cannonballs from an empty hat-visual evidence of France's limitless armaments. Flowers from the same head-piece suggested his magic controlled nature. The invisible passage of silver coins from his hands to the interior of a closed, suspended crystal chest implied that the strongest fort could be penetrated by French ingenuity.
The show that evening also included an effect where he asked for the strongest man from among the crowd, then demonstrated that he could magically deprive him of his physical power and cause him to run off stage screaming in pain. The conclusion of the show was to vanish a young Moor, a thinly-veiled threat. At another demonstration Robert-Houdin met with a number of native magicians and used a gun and a bullet. He let them fully examine gun and bullet, then loaded the gun and allowed them to fire at him. He caught the bullet in his teeth. He then reloaded the gun and asked the native magicians to summon ghosts or spirits. When they had done so he asked them to point in the direction of the spirits. He fired in the direction they had pointed and immediately there appeared a bloodstain on a wall where the spirits had been. At every turn, the French magic had defeated the magical and physical powers of the natives. Houdin's carefully orchestrated show proved the superiority of the French in the magical realm that was once thought to be the forte of native sorcerers.
I began with the story of Robert-Houdin as it is the most well-known example of Westerners demonstrating that their magic is superior to the magic of the natives of colonized countries. Now I will discuss examples of this phenomenon from India. American and European magicians have traveled to India from the 1800's up to the present day. Many of them went out of their way to show their superiority to the Indian magicians and this feeling is expressed in the written accounts. Samri Baldwin, an Ohio native who dressed in the garb of an Indian and performed as 'The White Mahatma' in the late 1800's relates a story from his travels in India. The following account takes place after one of the "highest class of Fakeers" had shown his "most marvelous work"
I instructed the interpreter to say to the Fakeers in the grandiloquent manner of the East, that I was much disappointed with so paltry a performance. That I personally was the King and Emperor of all magicians, and knowing, as he did, that he was to appear before a Bellatee (or English)professional he should have provided, if he was able, far more wonderful tricks. That in showing us such rubbish he had insulted the gentleman who had employed him and the guests as well, and that I intended by my magical powers to punish him for his impudence.
I informed him that I should simply wave my hand a half a dozen times and cause fire to spring from the air and consume him and his companions unless he at once showed us something more marvelous. He informed me with a sneer that he had already shown me the best work to be seen in the East, and that he was not in the least afraid of what I could do to him. That as a worker of magic he thoroughly understood all the processes, and I was simply trying to frighten him without being able to carry out my threats and rather
curtly hinted that I was talking too much.
I immediately stepped to within four or five feet of him and commenced waving my hands in the air. Then suddenly clapping them together I commanded that he an his assistants be struck with lightning. Suddenly, to his inexplicable horror, the kummerband and breechclout, which are pretty well all the clothes these
fellow wear, burst into a blaze, and he and his assistants were enveloped in flames. They immediately rushed for the gate of the "compound," as the inclosure or yard
surrounding the building is called, frantically tearing their clothing off as they went, and by the time they reached the street they were nude as when they came into the world. There they stood, half dazed, more frightened than hurt, staring at each other, rubbing their arms and bodies where they had been uncomfortably hot, and
wondering how it had all happened. The English guests and spectators of the affair were screaming with laughter. My host, who had lived in India the greater part of his life, and was thoroughly acquainted with all of their remarkable illusions, declared that my experiment was for more wonderful than anything he had ever seen....
...In the case above mentioned the clothing of the Hindoos was replaced for a few rupees and the present of another five or ten rupees thoroughly healed their wounded feelings and sent them away delighted to spread all over the country a report of my great power.
In this passage we can see a number of tropes that were common in discussions of Indian magic and of the East in general; a grandiloquent manner of talking, summary dismissal of native achievements, a callous treatment of the ill-clothed natives that is a cause of much hilarity, and the ease with which Indians can be bought off for a few rupees. But the most important theme is the superiority of Western magic that is based firmly on science, as in the next few paragraphs the author gives a description of the scientific principles he used to accomplish the effect. The British man who has spent time in India is the most reliable source of information, because the native surely could not be trusted, and this magic is more amazing than any the gentleman has ever seen. Another account of this type shows an American magician first assembling the native magicians together to see their wonders, then going among them to show his superiority.
...Gwynne sent out a call for all 'Jadoowallas' to attend the conclave. After four days of contacting the principal magicians in the area, the crowd of mystics began to gather. The magicians and snake charmers assembled on the ground in different groups, each with his bag of tricks laid out in front of him. Over 100 of the native conjurors started entertaining each other and Gwynne beheld tricks never before witnessed by a white man. Gwynne made his way among the groups, noting first the Karim Bux, a 70 year old performer of repute doing the famous Indian Rupee trick. Specks of dust were being gathered from the ground and being converted into real, hard rupees. Jack borrowed some of the dust and rubbed it between his hands. When he unclasped his hands, instead of the expected coin, all were surprised to see in its place a 'gold-mohur'. When Jack reached another huddled group doing the celebrated Indian Dove illusion, he performed the exact moves of the native mystic from whom he had taken the basket. Jack lifted the cover an out popped his chicken, Elmer...
Jack later astounded the entire assemblage with his suspension of a bowl of rice. He walked about the entire assemblage with the bowl of rice mysteriously floating in front of him, offering 4,100.00 to any mystic in the group who could explain the trick. Jack was not forced for forfeit the reward, because no one could explain the mystery. There are many similar accounts of European or American conjurors beating the Indians at their own games of magic and deception and it became a popular trope. Western magicians presented India as the land of magic but once they had made a visit and learned the mysteries, they also had to show their own superiority. Indian magicians have been mystifying people for hundreds of years and are competition to Western magicians. As will be seen later, though many Western magicians adopted the clothes of Indians they were still careful to selectively denigrate Indian magic. Many books and articles were "written to uphold the reputation of the Western conjuror against the spurious ascendancy held by his Eastern confrere." or to show "to what extent fraud is practised by these fakirs and yogis in the production of these marvels."
The Rope Trick
Debates about the marvelous or fraudulent nature of Indian magic have been most heated, public and long-lived in relation to the Rope Trick, and it has a long textual history. This ancient and famous trick is first mentioned in the Jataka tales and in the 8th century by Sankara. An early account of the trick from a non-Indian source is provided by the Middle Eastern traveler Abu-Abdullah Mohammed, better known as Ibn Batuta. He witnessed the trick in the Chinese imperial court in Hangchau and gave a description in his travel memoirs written in 1355. Since then, there have been literally hundreds of accounts of the trick published in numerous sources. The Illustrated History of Magic begins with a description of the rope trick and many books on Indian magic devote an entire chapter to it. Magic periodicals routinely run articles on it, and there is at least one book entirely devoted to "A critical study of the evidence regarding The Indian Rope Trick." Many important Western magicians have featured it in their stage shows but the original effect that is the subject of so much debate, takes place outdoors. Producing effects outdoors on the bare ground and fully surrounded by people is often much harder than a similar demonstration done on a stage equipped with curtains, wings, flies, lights, trap doors and mirrors. Before going much further with this discussion, a description of the full form The Rope Trick follows.
An Indian magician is standing outside on the bare ground and fully surrounded by a crowd of people. He takes a rope from a basket and throws it up into the air. After a few tries the rope begins to ascend and finally rises to a great height. The magician's assistant, a small boy, climbs up the rope and vanishes at the top. After several attempts to call him back, the magician becomes enraged and climbs the rope holding a sword in his teeth. A loud scuffling is heard high in the sky at the top of the rope and blood-stained dismembered parts of the boy's body fall to the ground. The magician then descends with the bloody sword tucked in his belt. He places the pieces of the boy together and after a few magic passes and incantations the child is mysteriously restored and stands up. This story of reaching for heaven, death and rebirth, parent killing child, etc. has many levels of symbolic, mythic, psychological and philosophical meanings. However, the most fierce debates about this illusion were all at the level of whether or not such a feat had ever actually occurred as narrated. Although descriptions of this same basic effect are found in many parts of the world, it is generally attributed to India and called either "The Indian Rope Trick" or "The Hindu Rope Trick". As eye-witness reports of the trick were published, skeptics and magicians would publish their own articles explaining it in a variety of ways. An early and oft-repeated explanation was that by means of mass hypnosis; the magician was able to make the entire crowd believe they were seeing the rope trick when nothing actually occurred. Other explanations include the use of drugs to induce hallucinations in the audience, complex gimmicks involving wires and thread, specially constructed rope, and in the case of the documentary evidence, trick photography. In 1934, the Occult Committee of London's Magic Circle held a special session to make a final pronouncement about the Rope Trick. The committee considered testimony from many sources including British army officers, medical men, and Viceroys of India, both active and retired. After sorting through the evidence they declared that the trick was impossible, had never been done as described, and could not be done. This only added to the heated debate. Newspapers and travelling Western magicians in India advertised large sums of money to anyone who would come forward and perform the trick under test conditions. The fact that these prizes were never claimed was seen by some as proof that the trick could not be done, while others contended that those who has such amazing powers would not deign to utilize their abilities for mere entertainment and money, and besides they did not read the papers where these advertisements appeared anyway. Recently the trick was performed in front of thousands of people and even recorded by television cameras. It was performed as part of ‘Vismayam,’ an International Magic Convention organized by the Shankar family in Udupi in 1997. The performer, a Muslim street magician or ‘Madari,’ named Ishamuddin, was outside and fully surrounded. He made a previously examined rope rise out of a basket, then his son climbed up the rope and back down, and the rope descended back into the basket. The reaction of the world magic community this time was markedly different from the violent skepticism expressed when previous reports of the rope trick had appeared. Ed Morris, a Past International President of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM) wrote in The Linking Ring,
Ishamuddin was unable to earn more than a hand-to-mouth existence with magic, with no money to send his four children to school...
For six years he researched, studied, planned, obsessed if you will, as to how this myth of ancient magic might be accomplished...
For Ishamuddin, it was his dream come true. He now has the capital required to educate his children...His initiative and ingenuity certainly deserve nothing less....
In that spirit, I hope the magicians of the world do not rush forward with explanations of how this impressive magic effect could be accomplished or try to duplicate it. Let us in the magic fraternity enjoy, with the public, that feeling of childlike enchantment, wonder and mystery which we, as performers, hope we can give to our own audiences through our own shows. Let us allow Ishamuddin his "day in the sun" so that he may fully enjoy the benefits of and receive credit for his hard work and inspired creation. And let us talk about with delight and with pride about the "Ishamuddin Hindu Rope Trick." Finally the rope trick is not seen through the colonial lens as an ignorant delusion that must be attacked, or as an oriental challenge to the modern universalizing claims of Western science. Magicians do not feel threatened that someone has a better trick. It is an archetypal Indian trick with all its layers of meaning, utilizing simple props and a physical performance, fraught with danger and impossibility. Now it can also be seen for what it is; an amazing magic trick that can cause wonder and delight. For a forthcoming documentary on the Discovery channel, Penn and Teller had Ishamuddin perform the rope trick on the bank of the Jamuna river at sunset with the Taj Mahal in the background.
So far in this paper, I have considered Indian magic in a rather abstract, general way. It is also natural to ask other than the Rope Trick, what exactly are Indian magic tricks? Through all the older American and European literature, certain tricks emerge as standard, archetypal, representative examples of Indian magic. Here are a few lists from which we can see common effects that non-Indian writers considered Indian. Prof. Hoffman's 1901 article "Indian Conjuring Explained," describes in order: Diving Duck, Jumping Rabbit, Lotah, Basket Trick, Mango Trick and Rope Trick. Carrington's 1909 book Hindu Magic, mentions: the Mango Tree Trick, Basket Trick, Dry and Coloured Sands Tricks, Diving Trick, Jumping Rabbit, snake and bird Production, string from stomach, bowl of water, Snake Charming, Voluntary Internment and The Rope Trick. Branson's circa 1922 book Indian Conjuring, lists: Cups and Balls, Bamboo-Sticks, Ring on the Stick, Glass Box, Bunder Boat, Bowl of Rice, Colored Sands, A Rope Trick, Swastika, Egg Bag, Dancing Duck, Mango Tree Trick, Basket Trick, The Indian Rope Trick, Snakes and Crocodiles . By the early part of the 20th century, not only were lists of Indian tricks becoming standardized but so was the way of writing about Indian magic. It was mystical, noisy, confusing and included playing a "tom-tom" and "bean" , "semi-articulate incantations and tom-tom playing and other mummeries," and "Sundry incantations...and much beating of tom-toms". Indian magic had become a standardized category in Western writing with specific tricks and tropes. Now I consider more contemporary definitions of Indian tricks. Many modern tricks with South Asian names are not necessarily invented in or even related to South Asia in any way. Looking at a few examples of these gives an idea of how the world magic community, especially American magic companies, utilize images of Indian magic or magic India. At least two American magic companies actually use images of Indian magicians as their corporate logos. Often, ordinary tricks are made to seem more amazing and exotic by the use of Indian appellations. This helps the tricks sell better and also gives images of the Orient to the magicians purchasing the tricks, and through them to the audiences watching the effects. The following representative list of magic tricks with Oriental names is from Tannen's, a large magic shop in New York, and is taken from their 1969 catalog No.7: Indian Cups and Balls, Indian Rope Trick, Aladdin's Vase, Burmese Bangle, Brahmin Rice Bowl, Swami Snake Ultrasilk, Miniature rope of India, Snows of Kimalatong, Vishnu Rope Miracle, Bengal Net Illusion, Oriental (Brama) Rice Bowls, Buddha Tubes, Raja's Jewel, Hindu Table, From Bombay to London, Miraculous Hindu Feats (book). With few exceptions, the descriptions of these tricks do not mention anything further about India, though the Alladin's Vase is described as, "A bit of true oriental magic from the Far East. A piece of rope and a Chinese vase..." and the Swami Snake Ultrasilk is described as "Shades of old Hindustan". This particular item is a large cloth square that simultaneously illustrates many common images of Indian magic. It is painted in bright colors on silk with the image of a man wearing a turban and dhoti playing a been while a large snake comes circling out of a basket. Some of the tricks in this list are of probable Indian origin, like the Indian Cups and Balls, some are based on Indian images like the Rope Trick, while others like the Buddha Tubes, Hindu Table or Raja's Jewel have very little relation to India at all other than the names, stories, or images attached to them. Some tricks with Indian names actually have traceable Indian origins.
Now I will trace the histories of a few specific tricks that are still popular today to demonstrate the complex cross-cultural syntheses of concepts, names and ideas related to images of Indian magic that take place within the world magic community. The ‘Temple of Benares’ is a well-known illusion to most magic enthusiasts. A small box shaped and painted to look like a Hindu temple is pierced through with numerous swords. The swords are removed and a girl steps out of the box unharmed. This particular illusion was invented by Jack Gwynne and is a modified form of the Doll House illusion. Jack Gwynne was an American variety entertainer who toured in India entertaining allied troops during World War II but he invented and named this illusion before that visit. The Indian name gave it more appeal by linking it with the land of mystery and it is so popular that plans to build it are still available today. The Temple of Benares is also presented as authentic Indian magic in the shows of contemporary Indian stage magicians. If we consider this trick and its actual effect more closely, it becomes apparent that both the temple of Benares and the Doll House are actually versions of the last portion of an old Indian effect, the Basket Trick. In this trick, a child is put into a basket then swords are thrust through the basket. The swords are removed and the performer himself climbs in the basket to demonstrate that it is empty. At the conclusion of the trick the child either climbs out of the basket or reappears from behind the crowd unharmed and comes forward to collect the money. Another popular magical effect with an Indian name, a long history and probable Indian origins is the East Indian (or simply Indian) Needle Trick. In this effect, the performer first swallows a number of needles, then a length of thread. Finally the needles are pulled out of the mouth strung individually on the thread. The mouth can be examined closely before and after the demonstration so it is a most perplexing mystery. This effect was popularized in America by Harry Houdini and was one of his favorite tricks. It continues on in the repertoire of many famous contemporary magicians including Penn and Teller. Teller refers to it at the ‘East Indian Needle Mystery.’ In the early eighteen hundreds there were many Indian performers in England. Khai Khan Khruse was one such magician and he introduced an early version of this trick to English audiences.
His next fete is that of putting a few small Beads into his mouth, together with a Horse-Hair, and upon which, without any assistance from his hands, he strings the Beads with his tongue, at the same time balancing a Sword on his forehead, and likewise keeping four large rings revolving in quick motion on his fore fingers and toes . Khruse was also an adept sword swallower, so the substitution of needles for beads probably did not inconvenience him excessively. This trick illustrates a number of the characteristics common to many popular Indian effects- it is a physical effect involving a strong element of the bizarre and dangerous, the props are simple, but as a time-honored trick of some of the world's greatest showmen it has always thrilled audiences. Often its Indian origins are an important part of the presentation, Houdini claimed he learned it from an Indian magician who was working at the 1893 Chicago Colombian Exposition. The Tarbell Course on Magic recommends the following patter when presenting this effect:
One of the puzzling features of Oriental magic is the famous needle mystery. Because of the difficulty handling needles and the conditions under which the experiment is performed, it truly deserves its place amongst the so-called East Indian miracles.
It would be useful to know it the stress of the words “so-called” is meant to be on the words “East Indian” or on the word “miracles.” In the patter for a more modern, but less logical version of the same trick, where razor blades are substituted for needles, the book recommends saying, "Someone asked Ching Ling Foo, the famous Chinese magician what he would have for lunch and he said 'Needles.'... 'Needles? Steel needles?, the inquisitor asked.." With a different version of the trick, we have another mysterious and Oriental part of the world, China.
Having considered Western definitions of Indian tricks, I want to turn to Indian definitions of Indian tricks. These come from a clever and provocative series of magic publications edited by Sam Dalal of Calcutta in the 1970's. These publications are so important to the magic community that they were recently reprinted together in one cover. The material is a self-conscious blend of Western and Indian magic. It includes contributions from many influential Western thinkers including Phil Goldstein, The Amazing Randi, Martin Gardner and Chicago's own Ed Marlo. Mr. Dalal did the layout himself and contributed tricks, reviews, and thoughts on performing to every issue. There were also contributions from Indian magicians like S.D. Mukherjee, K.C. Batra, G.P. Appadurai and E.B. Surty. In the introduction that Mr. Dalal wrote for the 1997 Swami Mantra book, he reflects on his desire to link Eastern and Western magic and comments on the nature of the fascination with Indian magic.
Around that time, I had managed to make some sort of audience impact performing a hybrid form of magic that appears as the Yoga Maya series in Swami. It is a wacky blend of Indian mystic feats and Robert Orben type patter...
Having read vague descriptions of some of these feats in magic publications, I believed an authentic step by step description of them was a contribution that would justify producing Swami. My concept was a bridge, to provide typically Indian Jadoo (magic) for the Sahebs (foreign audience), and Pardesi (foreign) magic for the Desi (Indian) readers. I didn't realize then that most of these Indian effects had an audience impact more for their shock value than any entertainment or mystery value.
Mr. Dalal has his own list of Indian tricks, published in the "Yoga-Maya" and "Jadoo" sections of Swami and Mantra magazines. The tricks are mostly physical feats and many are quite dangerous. They are the type of effects that are often performed as fakir or yoga demonstrations, yet he says, "A good part of the impact lies in the fact that YOU, an "ordinary" human being whom they all know (or are magicians exempted?) and not a street fakir, a yogi or a circus or carnival performer is performing these feats." His list of Indian tricks is: Glass Eating, Razor Blades for Breakfast, The Acid-Test[drinking acid], Cooked Rice, Steaming Tea, Magic Amulets, Ball of Paper Catches on Fire, Lighting a Candle by the Touch of a Wand, Water to Milk, Talking Skulls, Dancing Dolls, Crawling Spiders, Diving Duck, The Magic Wands, Pulse Stopping, The Sensational Tongue Cutting Mystery, The Indian Basket Trick, Fire Eating Techniques, More Fire Stunts, A $2.00 Levitation, The Brahmo Thread Mystery [Thread from Stomach], Pins and Needles, Needle from Eye to Eye, Indian Cups and Balls, Bed of Nails, Yogic Nail Thru Nose, Dracula's Ladder, Biting Through a Nail, and finally Blind Leap and Scarface [both done with broken glass].
Before moving on, I want to examine the publications themselves in some detail to consider the images, writing style and choice of effects. The first issue begins with a masthead drawing of a bearded turbaned Indian man reclining against a round cushion smoking a hooka and the title 'Swami' is written in the smoke. The subtitle, A Monthly Magazine of Exotic Mysteries is written below that image. The next year the layout has changed but still incorporates an exotic Indian magic image. This time it is a drawing of a turbaned head with a beard and earring. When the publication changes to Mantra, the masthead images are first a prominent Buddha along with a mixture of Indian and miscellaneous symbols, later magical seals with the words 'Mentalism, Comedy and Sleight of Hand, Mystery' and finally simply a hand holding the title.
The first issue contains an opening editorial stating the purpose of the publication and differentiating it from existing magic publications. It presents the idea that Swami is from a different background as an important advantage. It also sees the publication as a bridge or link between the worlds of Eastern and Western magic, and engages in some playful self-exoticizing.
I know of at least five other magazines that give you exactly this... but they are the products of two countries alone - two countries out of the dozens that still use the English language to communicate. The SWAMI is an ENGLISH magazine edited and run by people whose "mother tongue" is NOT English. And believe me, there is a world of mystery waiting to be explored and communicated. Some excellent ideas from this country never see the light of day, because their originators are not even aware of the existence of you world - no more that you are aware of theirs. The SWAMI hopes to bridge this gap by helping the two communicate.
To our readers here, we bring you the best of western magical innovations at a price which has not yet been possible....
And to our Readers across the seas we bring the Oriental Mysteries ...the Oriental Mind... trends in "MAGICAL ENTERTAINMENT" that sprout from ENTIRELY DIFFERENT CULTURES AND MYTHOLOGY... effects that are different IN THEIR VERY CONCEPT. If the confluence of the two streams should give fresh vigour to BOTH, we would have considered this venture amply justified. Mr. Dalal uses the fact that Swami is published in a land where people think differently as a strong selling point and market differentiator for his publication. The title ‘Swami,’ and the masthead images are carefully chosen to remind readers of this otherness and create an exotic image. Old tropes of Oriental exceptionalism or essential difference are here deployed from the other side by an Indian, for novel marketing purposes. He mentions mythology, mysteries and the Oriental mind though none of the Indian effects in the publications ever mention the Indian mind or mythology . The magic, myths and mystery of India are consciously utilized tools for marketing his publication. In the hands of a clever Indian, notions that are generally negative, disempowering and produced from outside the culture are turned around in a tongue-in-cheek manner for fun and profit. They are self-consciously employed to empower him with money and fame, his publication with a readership, and Indian magic with an elevated place in the world magic community.
Indian Magicians Now I will consider how the character of the Indian magician has been played by many people at different times in history for a variety of reasons. Samri Baldwin, the Ohio native mentioned earlier, dressed in Indian clothes and performed as The White Mahatma all over the world in the late 1800's. He claimed the title The White Mahatma because,
In his Oriental entertainments Professor Baldwin added to the conjuration of the Indian Ojha Brahmins bewildering articles of his own, and, although India and the East are the very birthplace of occult mysteries, yet Professor Baldwin's entertainment was so marvellous in its wierd fascination that Fakeers and Phongyi, Brahmins and Ascetics, Laamas and Gooroos, in their amazement christened Professor Baldwin "The mighty monarch of the Mahatmas." His outfit included a turban, white cotton shirt and pants, a shawl wrapped around the shoulder and even a tilak painted on his forehead. He refers to the clothes as the dress of a Brahmin Mahatma and it actually resembles the clothes worn by Marathi Brahmins at that time. He adopted this style of dress and presentation only after he had taken a trip to India and pronounced himself far superior to the Indian magicians, as discussed previously. After returning from his travels, the fact that he knew special Indian tricks was an important selling point of his shows. His book also was advertised as "Teaching and Explaining the Performances of the Most Celebrated Oriental Mystery Makers and Magicians in all Parts of the World."
Samri Baldwin was one among many Western magicians who performed as Indians or Easterners. William Robinson had a long successful career performing as Chung Ling Soo after the Chinese conjuror Chung Ling Foo had made a name for himself world-wide. Robinson grew his hair long and tied it in a braid, wore Chinese clothes and sometimes even gave interviews in a Chinese-sounding gibberish that his wife translated for eager reporters. Kar-Mi traveled with his show entitled “Selma” where he was “Performing The Most Startling Mystery of All India.” Kar-mi performed wearing gold earrings, a large turban and colorful flowing silk robes. Harry Thurston always wore Western suits so he simply hired an Indian assistant, Bella Hassan, to add the mystery of India to his show. Thurston toured in India in 1906-7 performing in Benares, Lucknow, Delhi and Agra. Thurston's "Wonder Show of the Universe” was the premier show in America from the turn of the century to 1935 and included stage versions of the Indian Basket and Rope Tricks. Thurston was aware of the useful publicity connections with India could generate. In later years, after repeated plastic surgeries, he claimed he had learned yogic secrets of longevity in India that kept him looking young. His brother Howard Thurston presented a tent show entitled "Thurston's Mysteries of India" around the Midwest in 1931. Many other Western magicians performed all over the world in exotic costumes wearing turbans, feathers and long flowing silk robes including Alexander, Nicola and Carter. Some performers preferred to simply take an Indian name. The "Fakir of Ava" was a stage name used by the early nineteenth century English entertainer William Marshall who then passed the name on to Isiah Hughes in the mid-1800's. Even magician's assistants sometimes took Indian names. Yamadeva was the name taken by Kellar's Hungarian assistant whose real name was Louis Guter.
It might be thought that in the information age, or due to the efforts of post-colonial scholars, the magical image of India has been erased, yet this phenomenon continues even today. The New York magician Alan Eisenson took a trip to India more than 25 years ago and was inspired by the magic of India, "people in America have lost touch with magic whereas people in India have not, you can't turn a corner without coming upon a magic experience...even seeing bodies burn on the Ganges is a magical experience." Eisenson, whose stage name is Just Alan, won the 1997 Society of American Magicians stage competition with his Sands of India routine. This eight minute routine incorporates slides from India and a voice-over narration telling a story about travelling through India. Alan has a long beard and performs wearing Indian clothes- a turban, white cotton shirt, drawstring pants, and a shawl over one shoulder. There are many advantages to be gained by presenting magic in Indian style. It is different, exotic, and related to a land that many people still consider magical. Samri Baldwin as The White Mahatma was just an early example of a type of performing that is still popular with audiences and magicians today.
Samri Baldwin was not the only White Mahatma who performed in America. The White Mahatma Lew Dick toured with “Professor Maharajah and his Yogis and Gooroos of India.” Their act was called "Secrets of Mahatma" and played across America from the turn of the century until the 1920's. “Secrets of Mahatma” included dancing harem girls, magic, hypnosis, escapes and telepathy demonstrations. Prince Jovedah de Rajah the famous East Indian psychic, and Princess Olga, who toured on the Keith vaudeville circuit in the early 1900's, are another example from a little-known chapter in the story of Indian magic. Prince Jovedah de Rajah had dark skin, "wore a blue turban and spoke with a convincing foreign accent" while reading people's minds and gazing into a crystal ball. Audiences loved the Indian magic and Prince Jovedah de Rajah, as the scion of Indian royalty, was accepted into American polite society. He stayed in the finest hotels and entertained at exclusive parties. This was particularly unusual since not only were Professor Maharajah and Prince Jovedah along with Prince Ali Sadhoo, Shaikh M. Ismail and Rajah Tiller not members of Indian royalty, they were not East Indian at all, they were all black.
Professor Maharajah's real name was Wilmont A. Barclay and he was originally from Jamaica. He toured Europe with an act featuring escapes before coming to the states. At that time in America, black entertainers were not allowed to play in the finer vaudeville houses. This severely limited Barclay's career possibilities but by donning a turban and taking up an Indian name and presentation style, he was able to perform all across the country on the major vaudeville circuits. The same American audiences who would object to seeing him as a black man performing magic on stage came flocking to see ‘Secrets of Mahatma.’ By the early part of this century the mystical image of an Indian magician was so firmly established in America that non-Indians could play the role to benefit themselves in many ways. Jovedah De Rajah, whose real name was Arthur Dowling, played the character of an Indian prince even when he was not on stage. By doing this, he was allowed to stay in the best hotels, eat at fine restaurants and visit exclusive beaches and other areas where blacks were not permitted at that time. He was even married to a white woman, which was illegal for a black man. When black magicians saw the advantages of playing the character of an Indian magician, many others adopted the dress and style, some even made up stories about their Indian origins.
Marcellie (pronounced Mar Cel Lee) billed himself as "the Magician That is Somewhat Different." He claimed in press releases that he was born in Madras, India, and that his father was a master of occult sciences. As an adult, he claimed, he traveled to England where he worked as a mentalist and demonstrator of occult feats. He gave his full name as Ruboka Sedi Marcellie, and his wife was called Princess Almasjid Marcellie. He and his wife claimed they came to the United States from England, and settled down in Cambridge. Marcellus R. Clark was actually a native of Massachusetts and had been interested in conjuring for many years. He got the idea of performing as an Indian after seeing Professor Maharajah's show around 1912. He had a long and varied career and was the first black man to perform at a magic convention, in 1952 at the International Brotherhood of Magicians 25th anniversary in Philadelphia. From the 1950's up to the 90's, Clarence Hunter, another black magician, performed as "Chandu the Magician, the Hottest Man in America". His act included original and dangerous stunts with fire like putting out a lit blowtorch on his tongue.
Aside from the name and story of origin, the most important feature that identified all these magicians as Indians, was a turban. It was worn in some form by all magicians playing the Indian magician character. A turban was easy to make and for audiences, it was a recognizable representation of the image of the mysterious and magical land of India. Along with a turban, long flowing robes, usually of silk and brightly colored, were often worn, though sometimes the turban alone was worn with a suit or tuxedo. These clothes symbolized the foreignness of the Orient because they were completely different from the stiff, dark suits that were and continue to be the uniform of most Western magicians. One reason that blacks were able to play the part of Indian magicians so successfully in America from the turn of the century may be that aside from some agricultural workers and laborers, actual South Asian Indians were not to be found in any great number in America until the second wave of immigration in the 1960's. Since people had never seen an actual Asian Indian but had an image of India as a land of magic, the character of an Indian magician was ripe for utilization by clever conjurers of any race.
While Europeans and Americans were taking up Indian names, donning turbans and long flowing robes and making trips to India to present Indian-style magic, some Indian magicians were buying foreign magic apparatus, wearing suits and tuxedos and presenting European-style magic in India. These were not the street jadugars or fakirs whose traditional caste occupation was magic. Magic had moved into a new realm and was now being practiced by a small group of upper-class Anglicized Indians. These attempts at playing the European were met with great disdain from the British,
Latterly some Indian conjurors have attempted to give in India performances on European lines. They have purchased the necessary apparatus from London and have as much idea of using it as a crocodile has of arranging flowers on a dinner table. Our Indian Jadoo-wallah usually gets himself into a very tight fitting third or fourth hand evening dress on these occasions, to show, I presume, how European he is. The audience is more concerned with the possibility of its bursting and their having the leave the theater for decency's sake than they are of the feats he is attempting to imitate.
His patter is excruciating and, to hide his want of skill in sleight-of-hand, he moves his hands an arms in grotesque curves, with his body so bent that it is almost impossible to see what he is trying to do. I have never yet seen any Indian give an English performance that would be tolerated on the sands at Slushton-on- Sea the seat of my ancestral home. While writing the above I have in mind one of these Indians, an impossible person, who, as Court performer to several of the Ruling Indian Princes, makes the astonishing total of Rs1200, of L80 a month.
Indians could never play the British better than the British themselves. But the author has failed to consider one important fact here. The magicians who performed for the British often played the character of the wandering street fakir or jadugar which was something they knew the British would pay good money to see. Indians performing magic in the Western style were performing for other Indians and were not interested in what the British thought of their shows. The particular unnamed magician Major Branson has in mind as he writes is clearly in tune with his Indian audiences and offering shows that they enjoy so much they are willing to pay him handsomely. The excruciating patter and grotesque movements may not be due to a lack of skill but may likely be a conscious and clever mockery of British magicians and the British in general, that the Indian audiences find very amusing. The discussion above rounds out a list of the three basic Indian magician characters that magicians play. Each has its own costume, history and repertoire of tricks: the fakir/jadugar, the western style magician and the Indian maharaja of magic. The fakir is the small dark bearded man wearing simple clothes(a dhoti of loincloth) and squatting on the ground, the Western style magician could be an Indian, but he wears Western suits, and performs with Western apparatus on a proscenium stage, or in a drawing room, and the Maharajah of magic is a princely figure decked in rich colorful silks with a retinue of assistants carrying out his orders. We have seen earlier how Western magicians white and black, played the latter character, now I want to consider how Indian magicians play it.
The first Indian to make this character familiar and popular all over the world was Protul Chandra Sorcar, better known as P.C. Sorcar. Born in the first decade of the twentieth century to an upper-class Calcutta family, Sorcar completed a B.Sc. in Mathematics at Calcutta University before becoming a professional magician. The themes of science and hybridity are important parts of both his character and shows, "My Indrajal is India's magic neolith mosaiked with scientific artifact." He portrays a modern Indian magician who easily combines aspects of Indian and Western culture. "He attends the daily worship of his tutelary deity and the weekly Rotary Club with the zeal and fervour that the situation demands." Sorcar played the basic character of a Maharaja which was exactly the opposite of the poor, uneducated, simple, dirty image of the street jaduwallah. The Maharajah of magic is wealthy, performs in luxurious costumes, with many assistants, on stages with lavish sets and apparatus. Most of Sorcar’s illusions were of Western origin, though sometimes presented with Eastern sets and trimmings. He was a clever and energetic publicist, and realized that the character of the Indian Maharaja of Magic had enormous audience appeal. Sorcar successfully toured with a large stage show all around the world and died while on his sixth tour of Japan, in 1971. His son, P.C. Sorcar Jr., continued the tour and is still performing today playing the same character.
Sorcar's show was an eclectic combination of colourful costumes, cultures and characters. The title of the show is “Indrajal, The Magic of India” and Sorcar Sr. had his own etymology for it. The show included illusions presented in a variety of styles. The "famous Chinese house illusion in a typical Chinese setting," and, "The famous Egyptian Magic in Egyptian Stage Setting." The only Indian effects in the show were the comic Water of India, an inexhaustible lota bowl continuously full of water, and the gruesome tongue cutting demonstration. These two effects are taken directly from the repertoire of street jadugars but otherwise Sorcar avoids typical Indian effects. The Water of India was sometimes presented as a running gag between effects. Other times, he would talk about the various parts of India and his assistants, dressed in corresponding regional costumes, would bring out small cups that he would fill with water from the magic lota. Sorcar played the tongue cutting to the hilt. With assistants dressed as nurses he called a committee of doctors on stage to witness up close. His victim stuck out his tongue and Sorcar snipped off the tip and showed the bloody part to all present and they verified it as a piece of tongue. Finally he restored the man's tongue. When presenting this feat, he distinguished it from the rest of the show saying, "Please do not confuse this with the rest of the show, that was Western; this is Eastern. That was mechanical; this is psychological." Sorcar knowingly utilized the available binaries of Western/technical, Eastern/spiritual to great advantage in presenting this effect. He also played on images of the strange and barbaric acts practiced in India like sati, hook swinging and yogic self-torture, which were extremely fascinating to Westerners. With all these cultural stereotypes cleverly deployed, audiences were more ready to believe that Sorcar really had cut off a man's tongue. These stereotypes and others were utilized to great effect by Sorcar in a clever publicity stunt from his first London tour.
Performing on BBC-TV's "Panorama" on April 9, 1956, the night before his opening at the Duke of York's Theater, Sorcar ran a power-driven circular saw through the prone body of his "hypnotized" seventeen-year-old assistant, Dipty Dey. To prove the cut was not an optical illusion, he thrust a wide metal cleaver down through the incision. Then he pulled away the blade, rubbed the girl's hands, and told her to wake up. She remained stiff and motionless. As the program was running overtime, host Richard Dimbleby broke in to say good night. This show sent the country into a panic. Many British people were convinced they had just seen an Indian man murder an innocent girl live on television. Thousands of people phoned in jamming the switchboards, and the next day newspapers ran front-page stories about the incident. Curiosity prompted by the publicity filled the theater. Sorcar's show was a hit in England, garnering good reviews and generating huge box office revenue. He had managed to deploy a number of common stereotypes about Indians to great personal benefit. Besides those relating to the brutish, barbaric nature of Indians, he had utilized notions about Indians' relaxed sense of time while he carefully timed everything. The ending of the show was not planned in advance with the television studio, who probably would not have allowed such a publicity stunt. He had pretended to be unaware of how quickly time was passing during his presentation and 'accidentally' allowed the show to finish before reviving the girl. Sorcar, like many successful magicians from all over the world before him, found novel ways to deploy images of India, Indians and Indian magic for his own personal benefit.
The Indian magician is a fluid character that has a traceable history and has been played by many people from various countries at different times in history for a variety of reasons and it continues to be popular today. It is not a fixed image or character but rather is constantly in flux, being transformed by the various performers who take up that role. By playing the character of the Indian magician, different people have been able to elevate their social status, gain publicity and even earn large sums of money while entertaining people all over the world. The image of the Indian magician is linked with images of Indian magic, which are intimately linked with magical images of India. These images also have a history and have been created by many people at many times for different reasons. Though Indian magic as a performance art has received little attention from the academic community, it has relations to important social situations in many different geographic and temporal locations including American racism, British colonialism, Indian nationalism, the world-wide New Age movement and ideas of universal science and modernity. This paper was only able to consider a small portion of the vast realm of Indian magic and a more thorough study of the subject will reveal many original insights.
...With no gimmick to protect me, the nails were digging into my back and the pain was getting unbearable. Dressed as a humble street fakir, I had just completed a demonstration that had Indian origins, was dangerous, physical, mystifying and entertaining. I finally realized that I was indeed doing Indian Magic and carefully stood up.
Note: In this paper I have avoided the use of the term ‘sic’, all quotations are written exactly as they appear in the original sources to preserve the colourful period language of conjourors who often utilize older spellings of words, British spellings, and sometimes words and usages entirely of their own creation. For the same reason, no attempt has been made to forcibly standardize the spelling of Indian terms so jadoo, jadu, or guru, gooroo, etc. will both appear frequently. Diacritical marks have not been utilized and transliterations directly from Indian languages have been made in a way that attempts to facilitate easy reading and pronunciation. Unattributed translations are my own.
Magic and Magicians in the 19th Century:
How thrilled were we all when we went to see our first magic show? The grand entrance by the Magician followed by his astounding tricks in which he takes canaries out of a cloth piece, the dollars from a kids ears or the objects he takes out from his seemingly empty hat. A small peek into the famous magician’s in the 19th Century that made this possible. The subject of Magic and Magicians is an extremely wide subject and difficult to contain in this article. Nonetheless magic and skilled magicians can be traced in the ancient Manuscripts written by Emperor Jepang where he described himself witnessing the tricks performed by Indian Jugglers and upon not being to understand the wonders created by them, termed them as supernatural powers.
A scholar describes a magic item he had seen on the western coast of India. Twelve or fourteen persons, of whom nine belonged to the troupe, formed a circle, in the center of which stood a basket. A juggler having lain himself in the basket, was covered up. The form of the juggler dwindled more and more and finally when the cover was removed the basket was found empty. The basket was again covered and the juggler reappeared in his former place. The traveler states that he could not explain this occurrence, the more unable to do so as there was no depression in the ground beneath the basket, the juggler was unprepared as the trick was performed in front of his host's residence. He further adds that he had often seen experiments by European magicians, but had never been so mystified.
For people not conversant with the art of Magic, it seems that the performer possesses extraordinary powers. But then, more the education towards science, more are the tricks that a magician could conjure. The progress in science, at its highest in Europe, has enabled the magician to practice his art to a greater extent than among less civilized nations. But it is a known fact that a person sees more wonders in a foreign land than in his own.
But Magic. Where did it originate? Magic was given much preference in its place of origin, amongst the Medes and Persians. Their Magic-men had the word Megh from which is derived the Greek word ‘Magus’, and hence the word Magic.
Many magicians appeared after this scene with some of the prominent ones being Paracelsus, Agrippa von Nettesheim, Faust, Mesmer, Dr. Eisenheart, Cagliostro, Dr. Graham, Philadelphus Philadelphia, Count Alexander Cagliostro, Prof. Epstein Professor Antonio Blitz , Pinetti, Compte, Grise, Dobler, Bosco, Anderson, Phillipe, Robert Houdin, Maskelyne and Cooke, Dr. LynnProfessor Louis HaselmayerMr. Alfred Stodare, Wiljalba Frikell and others.
One of the earliest representatives in the 19th Century was Bartholomew Bosco who was born in Turin. He made the trip of the campaign in Russia with the French armies, whence he was taken prisoner and went to Siberia, where he attracted attention by his astonishing tricks in magic. He was discharged in 1814, and taking leave of a military life, traveled for eighteen years through Europe and the East, practicing his art successfully. His apparatus was very simple indeed consisting only of tin cups and pasteboard boxes, some of which still exist. He was the first magician who made his experiments with simple apparatus, and declared them to be natural experiments.
Bosco died March 6, 1863, in Gruna near Dresden.
His son followed in the footsteps of his father, but had the misfortune while performing in Weimar, to shatter his hand by the explosion of a pistol. The magicians traveling now under the name of Bosco have adopted the name purely for advertising purposes.
2) Prof. Liebholz
Prof. Liebholz was not a prominent hand performer, but who nevertheless excelled in performances of the extraordinary nicety and accuracy. He started a new direction in modern magic; the general use of apparatus or mechanical instruments of all kinds. He worked out many new ideas, and had the apparatus made by different mechanics. Innumerable tricks of Modern Magic, -the Indian basket, Hindu Box Trick, the Speaking Head, the Sphinx and many others, were first introduced by him. In the use of his ideas he had a great influence on the science of mechanics and its profession.
In Hamburg he ordered a wood turner Oscar Lischke, many pieces of apparatus, boxes, nine pins, plates, cases, etc., which were then also supplied to the Professors colleagues. Thus many tradesmen came to know about the tricks used in making these magic shows and a new amateur magician industry was formed in Hamburg, which flourished profoundly
The great magician Hermann had a long and lasting fame like Bosco. Compars Hermann, generally known as Carl Hermann, died at 70 years of age, July 8th, 1887, in Carlsbad.
He was amongst the most noted of modern conjurers. Without using much mechanical or optical apparatus, he produced many wonderful effects by a sharp observation of the absence of mind of the human auditor, assisted by a hand as firm as steel and capable of the most deft movement. Hermann was the son of a traveling conjurer and was probably born in Poland, January 23, 1816.
At an early age he went to Paris where he perfected himself in the French tongue. In 1848 he began his professional tours and traveled throughout the world reaping both fame and fortune.
Hermann reigned supreme for years in Austria and Germany in the domain of higher magic, and there was scarcely a European court where he was not a welcome guest. He took pride in showing his friends the invitations of potentates, written with their own hands, bidding him welcome in the most flattering terms. Everywhere he received costly presents. From the city of New York he received many souvenirs, among them an acknowledgment of his charity performance, a gold medal as large as the top of a silk hat. He was a passionate collector, but did not keep his collections together. He was restless, would sell his collections and again begin the collection of new curios. He lost a fortune several times--once in the panic of 1873; but came again to the top, and died a millionaire. He was noted for his charities, and for his free, honest, and frank life. He was well informed, and liked to talk on different subjects. His sharp eye had also a very good-natured expression.
4) Prof. St. Roman
Prof. St. Roman, whose real name is said to be Stroman, performed in theatres built especially for the purpose of magic, as well as in halls, and was considered a very dexterous performer.
He has performed at many courts and possesses many marks of honor in the form of gifts. He resided in Vienna, owning several houses there, and traveled through all countries with some novelty. His greatest effect is the "duck hunt," and this has never been imitated with the same elegance and accuracy with which he produced it
Agoston traveled with a theatre through Germany under the title "Chevalier Agoston." In the 60's he had a ship turned into a magic drawing room, and traveled in this floating palace, up and down the Rhine, stopping at all the cities along this river and giving performances. Later he visited all the larger cities of Germany and Switzerland. He is noted for the interest of his ghost shows, which he produces with elegant settings. Mrs. Agoston afterwards appeared as a magician in Oriental costume, and had surprising success.
6) Charles Arbre
Charles Arbre, whose real name is Carl Baum, is the foremost among them. He was born in Olmutz (Maehren). He is one of the few conjurers who have received an extra fine education, being not only a clever gentleman, but also a conjurer par excellence. He is also the inventor of many wonderful pieces of apparatus, which have found the greatest applause wherever shown.
7) Prof. Becker
Prof. Becker, born in Berlin, traveled for many years with an elegantly arranged theatre and was met everywhere with great success.
Knowing the Russian language, he has traveled principally in that country, and in Poland, as well as in countries where he has had less competition. He is for Russia what Hermann was for Germany and Austria, the most prominent and famous artist of modern times.
Bellachini, whose real name was Bellach, was born in Poland, and was an officer in the Prussian service. In 1846 he took up magic and succeeded in making for himself both name and fortune. He performed mostly in Germany, beyond the limits of which country he seldom passed, winning there the title of "Court Artist."
He himself tells that at a performance before the Prussian court he used the magic inkstand to the astonishment of all the court and Emperor William I. He handed his majesty a pen and asked that he convince himself that he could write in any desired color, and the Emperor asked, "but what shall I write?" The performer quickly requested him to write "Bellachini, Court Artist," and the Emperor laughingly did so. The next day he received his diploma as "Court Artist."
Many jokes are told of him, quite a number of which are true. Very often on the first night of his performances he would appear in a traveling suit, as if he had just arrived, and would take off his overcoat and gloves and begin with the words: "Unprepared as I am." Sometimes when showing a trick with a handkerchief he would turn to the audience with the words: "Does any one happen to have a clean handkerchief?" And of course all would laugh. Bellachini seldom performed tricks requiring dexterity, for he could scarcely make a dollar disappear. But he was supplied with all modern apparatus, which he worked by electricity and mechanism, and he also did a side business in magical apparatus, which he sold to amateurs as a "particular favor, at cost prices only."
Yet, notwithstanding his successes, he left but very little when he died, in 1880, of a stroke of apoplexy, which attacked him during one of his performances
9) Prof. Hartwig Seeman
Prof. Hartwig Seeman also traveled in the 19th Century with a magic theater. Seeman came from Stralsund, and later gained quite a name and experience in India, he being the first of modern conjurers to visit that far away country.
He returned to Germany with apparatus all of solid silver, and was considered the richest magician of his time. He appeared in his act literally covered with diamonds, and the suit that he wore on the stage was valued at 50,000 marks at that time.
Later he traveled in Sweden and Norway, came in the beginning of 1880 to the United States and died in Texas in 1884.
10) Prof. Stengel
Prof. Stengel, who was formerly a traveling Tyrolese singer, has also achieved some celebrity in magic. Honored by many of the court princes, he has also received the title of Court Artist. His home is in Wiesbaden, and in the summer time he makes trips to the watering places along the Rhine.
11) Dr. Hofzinser
The most celebrated card performer of the world is undoubtedly Dr. Hofzinser, of Vienna. He was a government employee, and as he could not appear publicly as a conjurer, he established a theatre in Vienna under the name of Madam Hofzinser. He was an educated gentleman, having received his diploma as a doctor, and his manipulation of cards has never been excelled.
12) Ben Ali Bey
We should not forget to name Ben Ali Bey, the inventor of Black Art. His original name was Autzinger, and he was born in Bavaria. For seven years he was an actor in one of the Berlin theatres and as he could hardly support his family on his small salary, he looked around for something else, and seized upon the original idea of Oriental Magic. His invention was first shown in Berlin, in Castan's Panopticum where it received very little notice. Shortly afterwards the attention of Arbre was called to it, who visited the performances several times. He saw a chance of improving it and engaged Ben Ali Bey to go with him. The first part of their performances was parlor magic. In the second part Ben Ali Bey introduced Black Art and in this representation he made his reputation. The success was so great that it was imitated immediately by the entire profession all over the world, but none of them succeeded in producing it any length of time, as they were all very poor imitators of the original. To his honor it must be said that no person has yet been able to introduce Black Art as well as he has done.
Other conjurers include great magicians like Prof. Carmelli, Prof. Antonio Eleonora Orlowa, Miss Anna Eva Fay, Madame Cora and many more.
Conclusively, many more things can be said about the Magicians and their magic. Conjuring of magic trick requires art over techniques, which the predecessors of today’s magicians have evolved successfully and their trend is currently being seen in today’s magic also.