Kolkata, once India’s leading city for magic, has lost its links with the art. Can it get its mojo back?

A workshop at Magic World in Kolkata.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

On the eastern fringe of Kolkata, the neighbourhood of Beliaghata is a ganglion of shadowy lanes. In the hovels that lattice these narrow alleys, where the most intimate chores of their inhabitants are laid bare and their daily lives spill on to the pavement, the word ‘magicbari,’ or ‘house of magic’, is a household word. This has its origins in a cluster of three-storey middle-class buildings that tower over the squalor.

A board hangs outside the office of Magic World, a registered society of magicians. It bears a sketch of a sorcerer in maharajah attire. Inside, a motley crew of professional magicians and students sit on plastic chairs, waiting to be interviewed.

A portly man with a cheery smile introduces himself as ‘Magician O-Joy’. His real name, Ajoy Das, vanished from use after he retired from the Railway Chief Controller’s office some years ago to become a full-time magician.

O-Joy tried to learn magic as early as 1966 and acquainted himself with a few luminaries in his mid-teens, including the legendary P.C Sorcar (Senior). The Maharajah of Magic, as he was known to the world, Sorcar was a Kolkata-based illusionist who established Indian magic in the West in the 1950s, breaching the race barrier in a predominantly Anglo-Eurocentric profession.

“I used to attend the addas (informal Bengali gatherings) at his house over weekends, where he used to show a new trick or two on request from his admirers.”

“Did you learn any special tricks from him?”

“Not really,” says O-Joy, a little despondently.

“That’s exactly why we started Magic World,” jumps in Abhishek Sarkar, on cue. Younger than O-Joy by at least three decades, Sarkar is a web-savvy entrepreneur blessed with the gift of the gab.

Magic, traditionally, was a skill that was passed on within the family, and anyone outside the charmed circle, like Sarkar and O-Joy, had to teach themselves. Sarkar cobbled together Magic World, a marketplace under which he brought together performers, learners and show-organisers. Today he has 600 apprentice sorcerers learning the tricks of the trade through his regular and online courses.

Image: Getty Images/ iStock

Image: Getty Images/ iStock  

Away from the dull life

The students range from retirees to pre-teens. Anoushka Sirkar, a school-going 13-year-old from Barasat, now frequently performs at school during recess and at friends’ birthday parties. Chitra Das is a schoolteacher from Madhyamgram in her 50s. Twice a week, she makes the uncomfortable trudge to Beliaghata to learn and perform with others like her. Arijit Mukherjee, who lives in Kolkata, is an MBA working in the corporate sector. He learns magic not only for his passion for the art but also to break away from his ekgheye jibon, or dull life, as he says.

Each of them performs a trick for us. O-Joy makes a ₹100 note disappear; Mukherjee identifies correctly a card we pick from a deck; Sirkar rolls a big black die and it falls apart into many little dice. Then, Sarkar does the ‘three-rope trick’.

“This is what society looks like,” he says. “Before elections, we have the rich, the middle-class, and the poor,” he waves three ropes of unequal lengths. “During elections, politicians promise to make the world fair and equal, and we start believing them.” He moves his hands deftly, and just like that, the ropes are all equal in size. “However, this is just an illusion... as soon as elections are over” — another swift move, and the ropes are dissimilar again — “we return to an unequal society.”

A juggler-magician throws a wooden ball, tied to a rope, up in the air, towards the midday sun. The ball disappears from view. The rope dangles, seemingly attached to nothing. The magician’s assistant is ordered up the rope. He climbs, higher and higher, until he too disappears.

The jadugar calls three times but receives no reply. Enraged, he snatches a knife and chases his jamoora, who is probably his own son, up the rope. Suddenly, torso, head and limbs rain down. The audience — which includes the distinguished Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, and Toghon Temür, Emperor of China and Great Khan of the Mongol Empire — gasps.

The magician shimmies down and, gathering the bloodied pieces, throws them all together and kicks them hard. And voila! The boy jumps up whole and unscathed and grinning. “I was amazed and took palpitation of the heart,” writes Ibn Battuta, “just as had happened to me when I saw something similar at the court of India.” (Travels in Asia and Africa1325-54)

This, in its ideal, mythical form, is how the Indian Rope Trick uncoils. A theatrical poster from the early 20th century promoting the stage magician Howard Thurston calls it the “World’s Most Famous Illusion!” The magicians in the Khan’s court were almost certainly from Bengal, and if India’s revered 8th-century Vedic philosopher Adi Shankaracharya’s account is to be believed, then it is Bengali magicians — bajigars and jadugars — who first performed this trick. Of the 28 tricks performed by a troupe of seven Bengali magicians from Shittal village in Jahangir’s court in the 17th century, an account of which is recorded in the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, two taken together might be said to comprise the Indian Rope Trick.

Although evidence of magical rites can be traced all the way back to Harappan culture, as John Zubrzycki notes in Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India, prestidigitation is popularly said to have first appeared in Bengal, So, it is no wonder that Bengal still has an affinity for the minutiae of magic.

Magician Abhishek Sarkar teaches students.

Magician Abhishek Sarkar teaches students.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement.

Subaltern occupation

“But,” says Bhagirath Mishra, “it wasn’t always this glamorous.” A former civil servant, novelist, writer and magician, Misra recently wrote three volumes of historical fiction in Bengali on the evolution of Indian magic. Misra’s interest in magic began at the age of nine, in 1955, when he ran away from his village in Medinipur in West Bengal with a magician and his assistant. Consummate storyteller that he is, he begins to narrate a bitter history of magicians in India.

Conjuring in ancient and pre-colonial India was a subaltern occupation. The upper castes took little interest in it and Brahmin priests and tantric worshippers of Shiva considered the Shudra or lower caste magicians an annoyance. Illusions, especially those of reviving the dead, similar to the one described by Ibn Battuta, would undermine the power of priests and tantrics. They were periodically persecuted when these priests and tantrics convinced a king that they were dabbling in dark arts at the behest of enemy rulers.

The repeated persecution of the Shudras, in general, had pushed them towards Northwest India. Misra’s research convinces him that a branch of these conjurers, who moved away to Sindh and Punjab, later became the Romani people of today.

The arrival of Anglo-European stage magic in India brought in aspects of spectacle and science to magic. Tied to modernity, it raised the profile of magicians in colonial India. Educated upper-caste bhadraloks now thronged to magic shows; and Calcutta, the former capital of India, became a conjuring hothouse.

Calcutta magicians from the 30s to the 60s were legends in India and abroad — people such as Ganapati Chakraborty, Eddie Joseph (a Baghdadi Jew from the city who was the first to conjure over All India Radio in 1933), Roy the Mystique, Sorcar and Raja Bose. They created their own version of stage magic, distinct from its Anglo-Saxon roots, epitomised by Sorcar’s indrajaal or Indra’s net. This new magic dished out opulent Oriental sets and desi illusions.

But in that success, Misra senses a loss. The subaltern sleight of hand, performed alfresco on street corners with limited props and unlimited panache, started to disappear. The Great Indian Rope Trick, which once made the subcontinent synonymous with the exotic, faded into the yellowed pages of Victorian literature. Magic in India gained respectability from the elites but lost its subaltern vibrancy.

Photo: Special arrangement.

Photo: Special arrangement.  

The magician’s assistant

Misra used to perform on stage earlier with his dog, Robot, as trained assistant, which made its way into many Bengali papers. “He was an extremely intelligent dog, an expert at finding and picking things up. He even helped with my gardening.” But Robot’s death, some years ago, is a lingering loss.

Kolkata is now a shadow of its magical past. The essence of magic has changed, says Misra. Instruments have replaced the older penchant for creativity, innovation and the individual skill of the performer. “There are so many shops selling magic instruments, anyone can use them and call themselves a magician.”

Tucked away in an apartment inside a crumbling colonial-era building in the middle of bustling Mullick Bazar, the Funtime Innovations showroom keeps its cards firmly up its sleeve. There are no signboards on the building’s façade, and even Google Maps gets outwitted.

The sign on the apartment door offers a solitary descriptor of the shop within: ‘Mail-order mart for the hobbyist’. Inside the startlingly ordinary apartment, its walls plastered with gaudy old posters advertising levitation and amazement — ‘Kellar’s Latest Wonder (the Golden Butterfly!)’and ‘George – The Supreme Master of Magic!’ — is a shop of wonders that time forgot. Large windows with green shutters look out onto the moss-grown rooftops of McLeod Street. Cold neon light reflects off glass displays with staid envelopes and pastel playing cards. It all looks fairly banal and utterly beguiling.

Sam Dalal, founder-owner of the enterprise that is Kolkata’s largest seller of magic apparatus, is a repository of magic lore. “Magic crystallises dreams and imaginations,” he says sonorously. “The magician caters to your fantasy.”

In the mid-50s Dalal, then an eight-year-old, got some money to buy a chemistry set, but the shopkeeper gave him a conjuring set instead. Enamoured, he saved ₹5 as pocket money to buy an instructional book of magic tricks. By the time he was at engineering school in Kharagpur, he was doing shows all over town when he came home for the holidays. He even performed at the legendary Trincas on Park Street in the 60s, moving from table to table doing conjuring tricks.

Dalal has been catering to the magic fantasy for 50 years. After working at various magic shops from the late 60s on, he went on to found Funtime — then called Electro Fun — in 1975. Kolkata is one of the leading exporters of magic apparatus in the world, and Funtime’s primary markets are Europe, the U.S. and Japan, and the quantities are reportedly enormous. Everyone in the trade knows Sam Dalal, and his shop is the discerning Kolkata conjurer’s first stop.

“They say, ‘Sam, if your item isn’t copied in six months, it’s no good,” he tells us, not without a certain relish.

But business has slackened somewhat of late, hit by the global boom in cheap Chinese products and also by more local factors like GST and transformations in the supply chain. Numbers in this segment are hard to come by, and sometimes seem to be pulled out of a hat. But if claims from other traders are to be believed, India still accounts for 40% of the global export of magic goods, and 70% of that trade is centred in Kolkata.

“Every type of craft is involved in making a magic product, but there’s a crisis of labour these days,” Dalal rues. “Tin-smithing, spinning, metalwork, tailoring, colouring, all of it goes into the making of good magic apparatus — but the older workers are retiring, and their children are beginning to do other things. There’s no lack of demand, but the lack of supply is diminishing sales.”

Students at Abhishek Sarkar’s workshop

Students at Abhishek Sarkar’s workshop   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Tax burden

The new taxation regime is proving cumbersome. In the pre-VAT days, tax on magic goods was only 10%. With VAT, it went up to 14%, then peaked at 28% with the first round of GST. Now, after GST revisions, it is 18%. “The concept is good,” Dalal says of GST, “but the implementation has been atrocious.” There is no provision for ‘magic’ in the export laws, so it is usually classed under ‘sports goods’, or as ‘festive, carnival, or other entertainment articles.’

States like Himachal Pradesh have categorised magic as art and culture so that magic shows are exempt from entertainment tax and magic goods can be charged a lower 12% GST. But in West Bengal — the nerve centre of magic in India — most magic shops have had to invest in an extra tax accountant just to plough through the new law.

Magic tricks and instruments keep metamorphosing, shaped by changing legal and social norms. “There used to be so many gimmicks with cigarettes,” says Dalal. “In the 70s, we had 30 magic products based on smoking. Not any more, obviously.” Tricks with birds are no longer popular, given stricter animal protection laws. The Ever-Filling Glass trick involved a glass into which milk was poured and it would disappear and reappear again. With the fuel price hike, with a litre of petrol now costlier than milk, many magicians use fuel to make a point.

Even Dalal’s employees are addicted to magic. Alam has worked at Funtime Innovations for almost 30 years and often performs at small venues after work as Jadugar Alam. “Magic ekta poka,” says Jadugar Alam. “Magic is a worm. It burrows in and refuses to leave.” Where? In the head? “Bhetoray,” he says, ‘deep inside’, putting his right hand on his heart.

“My own son has no interest in magic,” he says, with a rueful shake of the head. “In fact, he has minus-interest. He would throw these away if he could,” he says, as he mimics throwing away the magic books near him. He picks one up at random (Harry Allen’s Sleight of Lips, a collection of one-liners for the performing magician) and says reverentially, “But for us, these are sacred texts. These are my Gitas.”

In India, magic — its public, spectacular performance — is certainly on the wane, and most so in Bengal. This gradual decline has been bemoaned for some years now. Magic shows are few and far between, and magicians earn less than those in most of the other major places where magic flourishes, such as Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra or Coimbatore.

Magician Alam, who has worked at Sam Dalal’s Funtime Innovations for three decades, offers a demonstration.

Magician Alam, who has worked at Sam Dalal’s Funtime Innovations for three decades, offers a demonstration.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt


The death of the circus, which once paved the path to fame for most magicians, has been another nail in the coffin. Media reports go so far as to suggest that every year at least a few magicians in West Bengal choose to end their lives to escape the poverty.

Sarkar refuses to be so gloomy. He runs a school of magic, and he says that while stage magic has no doubt declined, the demand for shows at school programmes, birthday parties, corporate shindigs, and government melas has only increased. The growing Indian middle-class has adopted magic as part of its entertainment package, and Sarkar claims that Bengal’s magicians are finding audiences across the rural and peri-urban heartlands of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh too. In a strange quirk of fate then, it would seem that the subaltern has come to the rescue of the show.

In other words, the profession is almost certainly in decline, but the practice of magic is far from dying. The internet has made magic more accessible, and there are perhaps more hobbyist magicians than ever before. Because, as Sarkar puts it, “People like not knowing, wanting to know but not to know.”

The delirium of awe and bemusement that magic activates in us can be a powerful drug; much like the feelings we experience when we are lost in a good book — What happens next? How? Why?— with the contradictory desire of never wanting it to end. It fills, fundamentally, our desperate need for narrative — for fabulous beasts to emerge from fantastic headgear, for quartered bodies to turn whole again, and for water to turn into wine.

Magic lets us remake the world, but in a stranger image, with satin robes and purple hats and funnier words. When David Blaine converts a cup of coffee into one brimming with coins, or P.C. Sorcar Jr makes the Taj Mahal disappear, we imagine new realities. This is the closest we get to alchemy.

Sudipto Sanyal is assistant professor, department of English, Techno India University, Kolkata.

Amitangshu Acharya is Leverhulme doctoral candidate, Human Geography, University of Edinburgh.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 2:59:19 PM |

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