A magical evening

International Music and Arts Society presented “The Magic of India” by John Zubrzycki, wherein he also introduced his latest book, Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India.

Tracing the history of Indian magic, John reminded us of its early origins: the Atharva Veda contains mantras and incantations assuring results as various as curing snakebite, ensnaring a lover, or warding off an enemy’s evil spells.

Indian fortune-tellers were welcomed in ancient Rome and conjuring manuals were translated into Arabic as early as the Abbasid Caliphate.

Hindus have always credited yogis with paranormal control over matter and energy, earned through severe penance, so that supra-normal skills such as parakaya pravesha, divination, levitation, illusion etc. were part of the social fabric, magic catalogued as one of the 64 arts. With the concept of maya so ingrained in Indian thinking, it is no surprise that illusion and reality readily blur, with godmen, astrologers, black magic, bhootha kola, shamans et al still in demand.

Tamasha has a long Indian tradition: court jesters and up-market performance artists entertained royalty, while the lowly were beguiled at festivals and religious gatherings by humbler jugglers, acrobats, snake charmers, dancing animals, and birds picking out fortune-telling cards.

Indian magic’s symbiotic relationship with its western counterpart thrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with imperialists looking for the exotic, while the native magician – like other Indians, brainwashed into regarding the white ruler to be superior in all respects - believed he had a lot to learn from western magic. As with most professions and guilds, normally the father imparted his skills only to his sons who followed in the business, but for a few silver coins, foreigners often succeeded in buying the jadoowallah’s tricks. Ironically, as secrecy was vital to their success, the selling of jadoowallah secrets usually impoverished their families, in a community that was already low on the social ladder.

To envelop themselves in eastern mystique, western magicians would brown their faces, don flowing robes and turbans and take on exotic names, usually prefixed by “fakir”. Surely, Alfred Sylvester as the Fakir of Oolu, was laughing up his sleeve at the con he was perpetuating!

The talk revealed fascinating details: Charles Dickens is famous for dramatic readings of his books, but few know that as Rhia Rhama Rhoos he also entertained as a “conjuror”, that delightful 19th century word being a sideways nod to magicians. Earl’s Court, the venue for the 1895 Empire of India Exhibition, was large enough for the Indian tamasha, with not only various performers and freak attractions such as a six-legged holy cow, but also elephants, camels and bullock carts. Motilal Nehru, in his little-known role as impresario, sent a similar contingent of Indian entertainers to the 1900 Paris exhibition.

John’s book does not reveal the secrets he has uncovered, and admits he is still ignorant of the modus operandi of many tricks he has witnessed. He is, however, convinced that all magicians – from escapologists to mentalists to godmen – use just tricks, that they do not flout laws of nature, no matter what their claims.

His talk included his book, The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback, a remarkable story of Mukarram Jah who turned his back on his Hyderabad monarchy and a paternal lineage that goes back 34 generations to the First Caliph of Islam, and on his mother’s side to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

Mukarram Jah managed partially to salvage his inheritance, Hyderabad’s wealth that was rumoured to be more than all the princely states put together. His ancestral assets that were not claimed by Indian government annexures, were lost to his Australian farm and divorce settlements.

While researching the Nizam, John came across a character who had sold a fabulous diamond to Mukarram Jah’s grandfather, Mahaboob Ali Pasha, who used the 185.75 carat stone as a paperweight [at 105.6 carats, the Kohinoor is a comparative bauble]. The Jacob diamond, spectacular for its cut, clarity and colour, is in Government of India coffers. An Armenian Jew born in Turkey, Alexander Jacob was typical of the many foreigners who ventured into India, trying to con their way to a fortune. John tells his fascinating story in The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy. Jacob was the model for Lurgan, in Kipling’s Kim.

John Zubrzycki is the antithesis of the clichéd antipodal male. A quiet contained Aussie, the accent has largely been pared away by global peregrinations. His parents were Polish refugees who settled in Australia and John grew up in Canberra. One of John’s professors at the ANU was the famed A. L. Basham, whose love and knowledge of India fired John’s enthusiasm for a country he first visited as a boy of four. Subsequently, he has been back on several visits, ranging through most of India, armed with Murray’s Handbook for India.

The Murray Travellers series, started in 1836, was written by historians and constantly updated. A precursor to guides like The Lonely Planet, it was more like a gazetteer, with esoteric unfamiliar information such as remote dak bungalows and the mystical unexplored.

John also had postings in India, working variously as Australian diplomat, correspondent and freelance journalist. “I'm primarily interested in people, which is why my book is not just a compendium of tricks. I look at the lives and communities of practitioners. There are still fabulous histories waiting to be told, which is why I also like biography.” John’s take on the likes of David Blaine and Criss Angel is that tricks on television require far more updated skills to cope with technology. The mechanics and mastery of tricks have had to adapt to outwit the prying ubiquitous camera eye. But, as we still need some magic in our lives, we are grateful that it is alive and well in whatever form, and continue to watch, wide-eyed and agape with wonderment.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 9:09:31 AM |

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