Wizard in Oz

From the dingy bylanes of Kathputli Colony in Delhi, madaari Rahman Shah prepares to take the traditional magic to the Festival of India in Australia.

Published:September 8, 2016 12:56 am
art-and-culture-main Rahman Shah (in blue) rehearsing before his visit to Australia for ‘Confluence’. (Source: Express Photo/ Amit Mehra)

His home in west Delhi’s Kathputli Colony stands where their tent used to be; sewn by the entire family and holding them all under its billowing colours. This is where magician Rahman Shah’s grandfather and father had passed down to him the secret legacy of the nomads of Rajasthan who used to roam villages, alleys and neighbourhoods creating illusions that seemed more real than the world around. Shah is now a custodian of their bag of tricks. “I have kept the bag full and will never let our magic die,” says Shah, 40, as he gets ready a repertoire to present at “Confluence”, the Festival of India in Australia. The festival is being organised by the governments of India and Australia till November. Shah, the subject of a 2014 documentary called Tomorrow

We Disappear, by Jimmy Goldblum and Adam M Weber, has represented the country in Burkina Faso, Tanzania and UAE as well as worked with eminent magicians from India and abroad. Excerpts from an interview:

What kind of tricks will appeal to a foreign audience in Australia?

The Basket Trick, in which I bring out snakes, bottles of cold drinks, a variety of fruit as well as songs from a basket. Cups and Balls is another one, with three balls and two cups. I send one ball to America, another to London and the third to Germany and I call them back, making them appear one by one in front of the audience. Then there is one trick in which people tie me with thick ropes. They wind the rope around my throat, waist and stomach, make big and tight knots, two or three on each side, the front and the back — and I get out, free in seconds. These are traditional tricks that have been performed for 2000 years in India. My father used to perform it and my grandfather and his father and grandfather before him.

Which is the most difficult trick?

The goli trick. I swallow one small ball of iron, which then seems to multiply inside me. I begin to produce iron balls from my mouth, one after one, and each bigger than the last. This trick needs a lot of practice and, even after that, you can spoil it just by coughing. That’s the difference between a stage magician and a street magician. A stage magician has the audience 10 feet away and there are three walls and theatre lighting to help him. People like me have the audience standing all around, almost touching us, and we have only our bag to pull out tricks from — yet you won’t notice how we do it even in broad daylight.

Why is jamoora an important part of a magic trick?

A bag and a jamoora are to a magician what horns are to an animal; without them he is nothing. The bag carries his tricks, while the jamoora is a small boy who helps him. Indian magic has a long tradition of the jamoora, with whom the magician engages in sawal-jawab (question-answer), which is an important part of the presentation to keep the audience entertained. In a typical sawal-jawab, the jamoora gives cheeky answers. For instance, when I ask my jamoora, ‘You say you’re 45 years old? Where are your beard and moustache?’ He replies, ‘I ate jalebi and fell asleep and the dog licked them off.’ The conversation has an earthy and local flavour and can include references to songs, films, history, absolutely anything.

Do you perform all the tricks that your forefathers used to?

There are some which I know about but have not mastered yet. There’s one in which food, such as omelette, is cooked on the head of the jamoora. This is called the Chinaota trick. There is also the Khadau, which my dadaji’s generation used to know. We are a nomadic community that would travel with donkeys carrying our things. The older magicians did not have slippers so they cut pieces of bark off the trunk of a tree. There was a gum that they pasted on the pieces and it stuck to their feet for an entire day. The trick lies in how to apply the gum. It is found on keekar trees but there is only one way to get it to stick. No other way, no matter how much gum you use. My grandfather told me the right way to do it.

How important is Kathputli Colony in the evolution of Indian magic?

Kathputli Colony is home to all manner of street performers. There are jugglers, acrobats, fire-eaters, kabootarbaaz, puppeteers and magicians of all sorts. Of course, pickpockets also live here. Over time, the art forms have begun to come together in a homogeneous whole. Accompanying me to Australia is a puppeteer called Akshay Bhatt and a puppet he’s made with his hands. My jamoora Varun Bhatt, who is his nephew.

Where does a madaari regularly perform in Delhi?

I go to the marketplaces of Tilak Nagar, Uttam Nagar, Loha Mandi and Sadar Bazar among others. But here, a problem arises. Due to crowds that gather, the police come down heavily on us,the hawkers don’t like us and pickpockets target the audience. We are street performers and, when there are no performances, we have nothing to bring home. I do corporate shows and birthday parties but we are so poor that it breaks my heart when my son, Junaid, comes home and tells me that his teacher has said he is so bright that he should be in a better school. I can’t afford good education for him. When I was younger, street magicians would perform near the Red Fort, the Race Course and even the Parliament and people would give us money. Now, I hope some organisation comes forward to help preserve our legacy or, one day, due to poverty, our centuries-old magic will die.