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19 Aug 2018 2:57
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  •   Home > News > International

    How India's magic tricks shocked and enchanted the West

    In 1956, an Indian magician's apparent trick-gone-wrong caused the BBC to cut transmission. It was just one event in a long history of Indian magic enchanting the West.

    Picture some of the mainstays of traditional magic shows: snake charmers, levitation, rope tricks, jugglers, live burial, beds of nails and firewalking.

    Did you know they all have their origin in India?

    John Zubrzycki, who worked as a diplomat in India, has researched how the country's ancient traditions spread across the world, capturing imaginations and defining magic as we know it today.

    The first time he saw a magic trick in India — a common illusion known as the Hindu basket trick — was outside a busy railway station more than four decades ago.

    "What you see is a magician with a round basket, into which his assistant — usually a young boy or a young girl — climbs," he recalls.

    "Then he takes this great big sword or knife and starts plunging it into the basket.

    "There are different versions of it, of course, but the version I saw ended with the boy being lifted out of the basket with the knife through his neck.

    "I was maybe a metre or two away and as far as I could tell there was no trickery involved."

    The Hindu basket trick was one of the first illusions that Western magicians took up, around the 1850s.

    Decades later, one trick forever changed the face of magic in the West.

    The performance that sent a switchboard into 'meltdown'

    In the 1950s, Indian magician Protul Chandra Sarkar, who went by the stage name of PC Sorcar, was a rising star.

    "He called himself the world's greatest magician, and he started calling himself that even before he'd even left India, much to the chagrin of his fellow Western conjurers," Zubrzycki says.

    A great self-publicist, PC Sorcar decided to use a 1956 appearance on the BBC's popular Panorama program to lift his profile.

    "Television is in its infancy, but this is going live to air. He has his assistant on a table and this giant buzzsaw that slices her in two. Then he tries to revive her, has no luck," Zubrzycki says.

    "At that point the presenter steps in and says, 'sorry, the program is going over-time, we have to cut the transmission now'.

    "And that is when the switchboard went into meltdown.

    "People thought that what they'd seen was a person being murdered live on stage.

    "That was the turning point in his career. The rest of his season in London was a sell-out and he never looked back."

    Western magic was never the same again.

    An ancient tradition

    Zubrzycki says magic in India goes as far back as 3500 BC, to the Harappan Civilisation, where people used talismans, amulets and charms.

    "There is evidence of Indian fortune tellers in the Roman Empire," he says.

    "There's Indian alchemists who were going to China to peddle longevity drugs, and drugs that would increase somebody's sexual prowess."

    He says magic is "a very transnational thing", and it was easily able to enchant people across the seas.

    "It easily crosses international boundaries [and] cultural boundaries because it doesn't rely on language as such, it relies on performance," Zubrzycki says.

    Indian magicians were first brought to England in 1813 after an English ship's captain approached a group of jugglers in Madraes.

    "[He] offered them a passage to England and the promise of great pecuniary rewards if they accompanied him.

    "It was against their caste to cross the Black Sea, as it was termed then, because they would lose their caste purity if they did that, but they decided to go anyway.

    "This first group of jugglers — there were three of them — performed at Pall Mall. They were a sensation.

    "The sorts of things that they could do — sword swallowing, juggling balls, throwing stones over their shoulders, balancing acts, as well as extraordinary sleight of hand tricks —just captured the public's imagination."

    Imitators soon followed. Many Westerners pretended be Indian magicians — the most famous among them was Harry Houdini.

    "Houdini started off dressed as a Hindu fakir, which is an oxymoronic term in the first place, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893," Zubrzycki says.

    It wasn't long before Houdini stopped wearing traditional Indian costumes onstage, and moved to chains and straitjackets instead. But he was still inspired by Indian magic.

    "Some of the tricks that he performed — one of which was swallowing a bunch of needles and some thread and then extricating them from his mouth all threaded together — was an Indian trick that he picked up, probably from a conjurer who was at this exhibition that he performed at."

    A dying art

    Zubrzycki, whose book is called Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic, says there are still differences between magic in India and the West.

    Indian magic has a strong link to religion, specifically Hinduism, where people worship Indra, the god of magic.

    "That is pretty much the main distinction," Zubrzycki says.

    "In the West the conjurer will not make any pretences to the fact that what he or she is doing is anything other than magic based on scientific or rational grounds.

    "In India, even your lowly street conjurer will always play with those boundaries between secular and religious magic, and use that to enhance his own powers, if you like, or his own hold over his audience."

    But asked how magic is faring in modern day India, Mr Zubrzycki concedes "street magic is faring not very well".

    "There's something called the Bombay Beggary Act, but it applies to Delhi, which bans begging … but it applies to street performers and it applies to magicians," he says.

    "So, if you want to do a magic show on a street in India you've got to bribe the police, and if you don't bribe the police they will beat you up or they will drag you and lock you up for a night.

    "It's getting tough."

    He says the economic imperatives for performers aren't there anymore.

    "Kids don't want to follow their fathers and stay in the magic trade … they want to learn English, they want to learn about how computers work and all that sort of stuff.

    "It is a dying art, unfortunately."

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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