Let me ask you a question. First, think of magic, of stage shows, of illusionists and conjurors. Now, the question: Give me some names. Which magicians have you thought of?
David Copperfield? That’s a good one. David Blaine? That’s right, the guy who spends days and nights suspended in mid-air, peeing into a plastic bag and calling it magic. Ok. I will accept that.
But what about some Indian names?
Let me guess. These are the guys you came up with. P.C. Sorcar (father and son), Gogia Pasha (gosh, that dates you), and just possibly, K. Lal.
But here’s the point. The senior Sorcar and Gogia Pasha all died 40 years ago. K. Lal has been performing since the 1960s, as has the junior Sorcar.
Tricks for TRPs: David Blaine graduated from street magic to performing on television.
Can you think of an Indian magician who has emerged in the last three decades?
My point exactly. You can’t.
Magic is currently undergoing a huge, huge, international revival. Copperfield makes millions every year, and is one of the hottest names in global entertainment, especially after he made the Statue of Liberty ‘disappear’ and ‘walked through’ the Great Wall of China. Blaine is a household name in England and the US, thanks to his recent stunts.
Two of the hottest movies of the last couple of years have been about magic: the excellent The Prestige with Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman, and the wonderful The Illusionist with Ed Norton. A new movie on the life of Harry Houdini is about to go on the floors.
TV is full of magic. There are specials by the likes of Copperfield; Blaine had a hit series; and the we-reveal-the-secrets-of-magic kind of programme is a staple of Discovery-type channels. On BBC, there are Derren Brown and Paul McKenna.
But, what about India, land of magic, home of the travelling illusionist? Nothing (unless you count Sai Baba and argue that the conjurors have all become godmen).
It wasn’t always like this. I remember going regularly to Mumbai’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan as a child to see such magicians as the senior Sorcar and K. Lal perform. And along with the performing bandarwalas in the children’s parks, there were always roadside magicians.
I have vivid memories of their tricks. One popular routine consisted of the magician making a small boy get into a bag that he carried around with him. The bag would be shut, a ‘magical’ incantation chanted, and then, when the bag was opened again, the boy would have disappeared.
As this trick was performed on the roadside, there was no possibility of a trapdoor, and the magicians were too poor to afford fancy apparatus. So, I still don’t know how they did it.
The younger Sorcar told me that he thought India had the world’s best street magicians. He once saw a roadside conjuror who first displayed a seed. Then, he flung the seed on to the ground and covered the area with a cloth. Within a few minutes, when he raised the cloth, a full bush appeared to have grown from that seed. Sorcar was astonished. He examined the bush with the magician’s practised eye. To his surprise, it was real—he could actually pull the leaves off the branches.
“Anywhere else in the world,” Sorcar said, “this man would have been hailed as a genius and made millions. In our country, he lives on the footpath.”
It is sad but true. We have no respect for magicians and no interest in seeing them perform. Even the kids of my son’s generation, who are fascinated by Blaine on TV, never get to see an Indian street magician perform in their neighbourhoods. When I was a child, the Cooperage bandstand in Mumbai was full of street performers, police bands and pony rides. Now, kids hardly go there, preferring to go on the Internet or watch TV.
This is a shame. Though someone like Sorcar is always on the road, packing in audiences in small town halls (and he makes a good living too), he never gets to the cities. Rarely will you find a magician performing in Mumbai, New Delhi or Bangalore. Only Kolkata (home to Sorcar and K. Lal) has some interest in stage magic though, even here, the roadside magicians are nearly extinct.
The irony is that India’s magicians are among the world’s best. The senior Sorcar was universally regarded as a global leader in the field, and spent his time going from one foreign country to another. For at least two centuries, Western magicians have been fascinated by the tricks invented by our street magicians, many of which form the basis of today’s Western magic (though not, alas, the famous Indian rope trick. Research suggests that it never existed and the stories concerning it were made up by creative English observers).
Why do we neglect our indigenous magic tradition? I suspect it is because we see it as too downmarket and tacky in an era of globalization and modernity. It is not that we don’t like the idea of magic itself—when Western magicians tour India, their shows, full of expensive razzle-dazzle, draw packed houses. But, Indians would rather see Franz Harari than P.C. Sorcar Jr.
Having seen both perform, I think we have got it wrong. Sorcar may not have Harari’s budget, but he is a much better magician. Over a decade ago, I saw K. Lal perform in Kolkata and he was brilliant—but of course his show seemed low-budget and lacked the pyrotechnics of the Americans.
To become a magician, you need to practise every day for several years. It is a hard and punishing life that leaves you with no time for anything else. And each night, you must try and top your own act to ensure that your audience comes back for more.
My worry is that as our audiences drift away from indigenous magic, young people will regard this as a dead-end career. The street magicians are all dying out (or are already dead) and their children have refused to enter the profession. The same, I fear, will happen to stage magicians.
And so, one more Indian craft will bite the dust. We will lose the tradition, the skill and the knowledge; the secrets will all be forgotten.
And all we will be able to do is buy DVDs of American magicians. That is the so-called magic of globalization.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org