John Zubrzycki’s new book looks at magic in India

The diplomat and author’s new book tracks Hindoo fakirs and rope tricks, and why Madras was once popular with magicians

Updated - September 22, 2018 01:22 pm IST

Published - September 21, 2018 02:46 pm IST

“The idea of magic in this digitised CGI world can seem passé,” John Zubrzycki tells me, “But the truth is that even the biggest sceptics can be wonderstruck by a magic show because people like being taken out of their comfort zone. They enjoy being tricked.” In his latest book, Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns , Zubrzycki gives us a magical history of India, introducing us to a diverse cast of characters who are largely unremembered today. From Ramo Samee (a corruption of Ramaswamy) who became a household name in early 1800s England for his juggling and sword-swallowing skills, to Ganapati Chakraborty, who began as a stuntman in The Great Bengal Circus, and whose famous ‘Illusion box trick’ outdid Houdini’s. Zubrzycki rolls them out one after another, as if on a magic carpet.

By all accounts, ancient India was a fun place for jadoo — miracle contests between Sufis and Yogis; Buddhists and Jains battling it out with spell incantations; warrior god Indra, the first great magician, casting his indrajal here and there. The earliest representations go back to Harappan seals showing shamans or ascetics in horned headgear. But pick any important Indian text from the Vedas to the Jataka Tales and you will trip over some evidence of magical rites. No wonder VS Naipaul complained in India: A Wounded Civilization , “It seems to always be there in India: magic, the past, the death of the intellect.”

Rituals and rope tricks

Luckily, Zubrzycki is a more effusive traveller, for whom magic is an irresistible topic. As a journalist whose previous books include The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback and The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy , he was interested in the extraordinary characters he stumbled upon during research, the encounters between magicians of the East and West, and the huge influence that Indian enchantment has had on the rest of the world. He explores how magic in India has always been a blurring of boundaries between mythology, ritual, religion and performance, covering the gambit from snake charmers, rope dancers, astrologers and contortionists, and underpinned by the concept of maya , the very world as illusion.

So why are there not more accounts of this rich history? He says that historians have traditionally turned up their noses at popular culture. There were also practical limitations. Many of the magicians were from marginalised communities, and illiterate, so there are few first hand accounts. We have Emperor Jahangir’s gorgeous description of being enchanted by a troupe of Bengali jugglers for several days and nights, which he writes about in his memoirs. And we have several accounts from foreign travellers — Megasthenes, who was ambassador at the court of Chandragupta Maurya, Marco Polo, and Ibn Battuta, who nearly had a heart attack at the Chinese Amir, Qurtay’s court, when the magician’s assistant climbed up a rope only to be dismembered and put back together again (a trick Battuta had already seen in India).

We cannot know how much hocus pocus these third parties added to the mix (Marco Polo was certainly a heavy embellisher) but what is significant is that they give us a sense of how magic moved along trade routes — ancient Rome, Tang Dynasty China, the Baghdad Caliphate. For Zubrzycki, this is almost more marvellous than the tricks. The fact that a burial chamber in Egypt dating back to 2500 BC has a pictorial representation of two men performing the cups and balls trick, that such cross pollination was going on, is a source of amazement.

Limber Madras

The other interesting fact gleaned from Jadoowallahs is that the centres for magic in India were around Lucknow, Calcutta and Madras. As someone who grew up in Madras, and who remembers a time when magic was more palpable in the streets — snake charmers, hypnotists, the ubiquitous P James magic show, I asked Zubrzycki what made the city such a popular place? He suggested that the South Indian physique and limberness might have had something to do with it. The early tricks were not just ‘sleight of hand’, but also involved physical dexterity, which blew the minds of Victorian audiences. Many of them recruited to cross the kala pani were from South India, and Madras being a port city helped. Later, when India imposed bans on magicians travelling to perform at world exhibitions that were all the rage in the 1900s, and which were not complete without some kind of dismemberment by a Hindoofakir , many flouted the law by escaping from Madras to Ceylon and onwards.

This also leads to the larger question of the book — the vanishing act of magic itself. There are, of course, successful magicians working in India today like PC Sorcar Jr and his daughter Maneka, who sell out shows wherever they go, but anti-beggary laws and fewer public spaces mean that street magic is disappearing. Zubrzycki does not see much hope of that being resurrected, but with Jadoowallahs he reminds us of the importance of enchantment in our lives, and of asking, was that real or not?

Mukund Padmanabhan, Editor, The Hindu, will launch the book at the Taj Club House on September 29, at 6 pm. The event will also have magician Gopal Mentalist performing.

Published by Picador India, Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns is priced at ₹699.

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