It’s 1969. A five-year-old boy rushes home, clutching a lemon and a powder sachet. Unable to contain his anticipation, he bores a small hole in the lemon, pours the powder into it and sits back, waiting for what the snake charmer who sold him the powder promised would happen.

“Of course, the lemon didn’t walk," Gopinath Muthukad, now 44, laughs. “I was disappointed. But it was the day I decided to become a magician."

Another lemon turned out to be a blessing in disguise for little Muthukad. He had been drawn to the snake charmer by his trick of making a lemon roll from one end of a table to another with a mere wave of his hand. Muthukad requested the charmer to teach him the trick, which he promptly agreed to do for 25. Muthukad learnt the trick, but had no money to pay the magician. The five-year-old stole the money from his father, who soon came to know of it. The necessary admonitions over, Kavananchery Nair decided to do something about his son’s love for magic.

The second start

Quite adept at stirring his son’s imagination with stories of legendary magicians from Kerala, Muthukad’s farmer father requested R.K. Malayath, a local magician, to teach his son the fundamentals of magic.

Muthukad performed for the first time with his teacher in a show that was anything but a success. Malayath led the spirited 10-year-old towards V.N. Namboothiri, the legendary Kerala magician whom Muthukad calls the “master of all Kerala magicians at the time". Namboothiri was considered an incomparable teacher because of his brilliance and mastery of a magic that shunned props and other extraneous embellishments such as elaborate robes.

Sleight of hand: Magician Gopinath Muthukad casting a spell; and (below) in a show. Pradeep Gaur/Mint

On 23 June, 37 years after he began, Muthukad became only the second Indian magician after P.C. Sorcar Jr. (1996) to win the Merlin award, bestowed on him by the International Magicians Society. Muthukad is now in the august company of illusionists such as David Copperfield, Penn and Teller and Siegfried and Roy. The son of illiterate farmers from Kavalamukkatta has come a long way.

Now here, now not

But if his father had had his way, Muthukad would have been a lawyer. After his graduation, says Muthukad, “my father had me sent to Bangalore to study for a law degree. But I had my mind set on magic and I decided to discontinue after a year and returned home." His father’s doubts about the prospects of magic as a career made him oppose his son’s decision, but Muthukad remained firm. He soon began assembling his own troupe to travel across Kerala; a few setbacks and hiccups later, started building a reputation.

He has not forgotten the snake charmer, though. Muthukad takes pains to tell everyone that magic is an art that shares a deep connect with science; that it is all a blend of chemistry, physics, mathematics and psychology. “All my art is a sleight of hand. It is all skill. I am just an actor," he says. “It is the duty of the magician to entertain; not fool. We magicians are not into the business of selling superstitions."

Beyond the stage

Muthukad has injected this philosophy into the curriculum at his Magic Academy in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, the first magic academy in Asia and the only one in the world to be affiliated to a university—Kerala University in this case. Started in 1996, the academy has five teacher-magicians teaching 20 students each year.

The academy also houses a Magic Academy Research Centre that researches and preserves ancient tricks such as the Great Indian Rope Trick, the Green Mango Magic, and Cups and Balls. It also comes up with new tricks and designs for his magic shows.

Muthukad acknowledges the important role that technology and media can play in promoting magic. “Namboothiri passed away in 1983. His magic was enough to fulfil the needs of his time," says Muthukad. “But I can’t possibly attract audiences if I follow his austere form of magic." He says the uniqueness of magic lies in its ability to embrace and employ different art forms within a single show, from dance to cinema. His admiration for Copperfield stems from this aspect of his magic shows, which Muthukad likens to cinema, and Copperfield’s body movements to poetry.

Muthukad does not shy away from acknowledging his debt to the unparalleled skill of street magicians. “I cannot imagine performing between three walls the magic that they are able to perform in daylight," he says. Muthukad is referring to the advantage he enjoys over street magicians, since he can determine the amount of light that falls on him during his performances, in addition to the obvious advantage of perspective.

In an attempt to support street magicians, his academy organized Mazma, a festival of street magicians in 2005, which culminated in an award of 25,000 for the best street magician.

More than just magic

Muthukad’s endeavour to take magic to the people while addressing social ills and superstitions is best illustrated in this example. Muthukad stands beside a statue of Gandhi and after having the chief guest inspect it for authenticity, declares the statue will walk towards the audience. Soon enough, the statue springs to life and begins addressing the people on issues ailing the country as it walks towards them.

Thirty-seven years of illusion, dangerous stunts, precise predictions and tiring schedules haven’t dimmed Muthukad’s enthusiasm. Only the tools and scale of his ambition have changed. The lemon has ballooned into that celestial wanderer, the moon. “My greatest magic trick will be achieved when I make a full moon vanish, and it will happen soon," he says. “Everyone, everywhere, would see it disappear."