Chat Magician Ishamuddin Khan speaks to ZEENAB ANEEZ about bringing a legend to life and why he feels the need for an Indian Street Perfomers Trust

In 1995 one man, Ishamuddin Khan, captivated the world by performing for the first time, an illusion that had till then been the stuff of legends; without the use of his hands, he conjured a coiled rope out of a basket and into the air.

The audience watched enthralled, as the rope stood erect, 20 feet high and didn’t collapse even as the magician aided his assistant to climb it. The boy then climbed down the rope after which it collapsed. The stunt was called The Great Indian Rope trick.

In 1997, Ishamuddin performed the trick in front of a crowd of 30,000 including experts and media. The performance went ‘viral’ giving him recognition in the international magician’s community.

The trick has, since, been a reason for him to travel the world, including Europe and Japan. “Ironically I haven’t received a single invitation from a concerned ministry or private organisation here in India,” says Ishamuddin, who has started Indian Street Performers Trust in an attempt to help the community practise their craft, their source of livelihood. “The Trust will form a source of support for these artistes,” says Ishamuddin.

“Modern day magicians who use extensive props and tools to perform will never understand the intensity of the magic we perform,” says Ishamuddin, pointing out that to these new entrants, magic is simply an alternate profession.

“While they can afford to market themselves and perform shows, they use street magicians like us to attract foreign tourists.”

When Ishamuddin asked for payment for performing on the reality show ‘India Magic Star’, he was refused and told that he should be happy simply with the publicity the show gave him.

A part of the Madari community, Ishamuddin refers to himself as a traditional Indian magician.

“I come from a tribe of magicians; there must be about 20,000 families in all of India and all of us originally did magic,” he says, speaking of a childhood spent learning the tricks of the trade.

“There was no school where we went to study the craft; the male members of the tribe would join their fathers when they were children and practise till they were ready to perform. It was a different school of learning altogether,” he recalls.

“In India, there is a mindset that classical is better than folk but that’s not true. Besides magic is not like Raag Bhairavi where you need a certain knowledge to enjoy it. It is very attractive and enjoyable,” says Ishamuddin.

When myth creates reality

The Indian Rope trick gained popularity in the late 1800s when a reporter for the Chicago Tribune published an article in which he claimed to have witnessed the trick. The report was fabricated and the paper went on to retract their claim but the rumours had spread and the act became another intriguing symbol of Indian mysticism. In 1934 the Magic Circle in London offered anyone who could do it successfully, a prize of 500 guineas.

Decades later when Professor Lee Siegel visited Ishamuddin’s home while doing research for a book, he told a young Ishamuddin about the prize money. “I asked him what ‘500 guineas’ would be in today’s currency and was amazed at the value and told myself I would learn up the trick, “ he explains. While other magicians had performed it on stage, it was Ishamuddin who first presented his version of it outdoors and Peter Lamont, the author of The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick even commented that it was the most convincing version of the trick he had seen.