The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 10, 2002

Masters of illusion
Dinesh Rathod

P.C. Sorcar can make the Taj Mahal vanish. P.A. Sikander solves complex mathematical problems on a blackboard, blindfolded. K. Lal chops women into pieces and then joins them. Samjunath Lalnath Vadi pulls out live snakes and scorpions from his mouth.

P. C. Sorcar is one of the best-known magicians in the country
P. C. Sorcar is one of the best-known magicians in the country

These are some of the most popular Ďactsí attributed to Indiaís best known magicians of the day. To them, goes the credit of keeping alive the glorious tradition of Chand Pasha and Bhiku Madari who had made foreign travellers of yore view India as a land of mystery and magic.

But beyond these famous names, there are hundreds of little known madaris, illusionists, jadoogars and jugglers making a living out of performing breathtaking feats on the streets. In villages, they are still treated with respect, as artistes. But in urban areas, nobody gives them a second look.

"The traditional magicians from villages are treated as no better than beggars," acknowledges Sorcar. "This is rather unfortunate. Even my father (the legendary P.C. Sorcar Sr.) used to say that they were much more accomplished than he was and much of what he had learnt was from the roadside magicians."


Sikander echoes similar feelings: "Magic might have improved technologically, but the basic art and skills have not changed. They continue to be executed with amazing finesse by street magicians, using minimum resources and absolutely no props. No foreign magician can replicate the same."

Here, it is not just the sleight of hand, bending metallic objects, an occasional card trick, doing the disappearing act in shackles, swallowing razor blades or chewing electric bulbs that have mesmerised the masses. Some acts are just not understood, far less performed, in this day and age.

The great Indian rope trick is one. Here the magician plays on a pungi (the gourd instrument used by snake charmers) while a rope, kept coiled in a basket rises to a height of about 20 feet. A small boy then climbs up the rope and then vanishes!

Many would tend to dismiss this description as a figment of imagination by some confused foreigner. In fact, there are some exaggerated accounts of the boy climbing up the rope and a few minutes later, the dismembered parts of his body dropping to the ground.

As Udipi-based magician, Shankar points out: "I am sure the dismembering was never part of the trick. Maybe, two different tricks were confused as one and embellished by writers for effect. For it would take a criminal act like murder to perform the act while staying true to the tale."

California-based magician Majinga, is however, not as dismissive and concedes that Indian magicians are capable of performing the impossible: "For instance, I havenít been able to understand how Samjunath is able to extract poisonous snakes and scorpions from his gullet."

The 85-year-old illusionist from Gujarat isnít telling. But he deflects attention to another area ó of why the art must change with the times and how some of his students have adapted themselves to the demands of corporate houses, educational institutions, social service groups and of course, magic parties.

"Magic is an art we learn to teach our children," he expounds. "Earlier we never took money from onlookers and accepted their offerings of food and clothes. Now things have changed. My students perform at hotels and weddings, because the money they bring in is necessary for our survival as a clan."

Some indeed have made it big by being engaged for product promotions and appearing in commercials. "It takes a lot of innovation," says Rakesh Kumar, a banker-turned-magician. "I use magic to explain the function of gizmos and sell them. But a trick for a washing machine cannot be used to sell a credit card."

Shankar applies magic in schools to teach the laws of gravity and heat conduction. In Puttur, Karnataka, teachers are taught magic to hold studentsí interest in classes. Even Sanskrit is being taught by introducing students to the magic of the language.

Likewise, there are magicians employed to help patients get over physical and nervous disorders. Simple card tricks can cure hand and finger injuries. At times, the magician becomes a "faith healer" for those suffering from lack of self-esteem, agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and such psychological ailments.

"Magic does not heal broken bones, but it can repair the soul," says Kumar. "It brings a smile to the faces of the old and young alike. It brings people together, helps them regain happiness and triumph over their fears and apprehensions. It can be an important healer."

(Maharaja Features)

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