Manoj Khan, the veteran of Delhi’s street magician hub, Anand Parvat, doesn’t have a robe. Which is a problem because we want the money shot — him in faux-velvet regalia against the squalor of the rehabilitation camp for Delhi’s street performers. But Khan, 77, has a lesson for us instead. “Kapdo se koi madari nahi hota, beta! (Clothes don’t make a street magician, son).” He yanks a dupatta from the clothesline outside his house. A swish, and, lo, a pagdi appears. “Is this ‘magician’ enough for you?” he asks, placing the pagdi on his head.
For decades, Khan, without the pagdi and the robe, has walked the streets of Delhi with his only talisman, the damru. When kids and adults throng to him, like most street magicians for centuries before him, he delivers a small preamble to the performance:
Hindu kehte Bajrang Bali, Musalman kahen Hazrat Ali/ Hota hai jo duniya mein, yeh usi ka khulasa/ Nasihat ka nasihat, tamasha ka tamasha, /Yeh jadoo nahi, kala hai (Hindus praise Bajrang Bali, Muslims praise Hazrat Ali, / What this world is all about, this show will tell, / Wise counsel has its place, delight has its place, / this is not magic, it is an art).
“It is an art, not a cheap trick. It involves years of practice,” Khan emphasises, as fellow street magicians form a huddle around him. “Which is why, we were really hurt when that Jadugar Mandrake incident happened last week. It was a jolt for the entire community,” he says, referring to the Kolkata magician’s Harry Houdini-style underwater escape stunt earlier this month.
On June 16, magician and illusionist Chanchal Lahiri, who called himself ‘Mandrake’, drowned in Kolkata’s Hooghly river while attempting to perform legendary American stuntman Harry Houdini’s escape act. The act required Lahiri — who was blindfolded, and had his hands and legs tied with ropes — to escape from a six-ft-tall cage that was submerged under water. After nearly 10 minutes, when Lahiri did not resurface, spectators informed the police and divers were rushed to the spot. Mandrake’s body was fished out of the river from the Ramkrishnapur Ghat the next day.
“You might wonder what can propel people to take such extreme steps without proper precautions. But we can understand how one can be pushed to an edge,” Khan says. Behind him, his daughter-in-law prepares dinner in the open for the family of eight. A drain gurgles between the charcoal stove and her.
“We are all passport-holders, but look at the way we are living now,” says Ishamuddin, 48, Khan’s son, a magician of considerable repute himself. “For the past week, I have been messaging my magician friends in Bengal to understand what went wrong. Why did he do this without taking everything into consideration. But what’s the use now?” he asks.
In 1876, the British Empire implemented the Dramatic Performances Act to monitor public performances used as forms of protest by Indians against the colonial rule. Since then, the Act has not entirely been abolished and modified versions of it are still active in different states. The result — public performances, especially by the disfranchised groups like madaris — almost always run into trouble. Some states such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Delhi have now repealed the archaic law, but whether a public performance is deemed objectionable, and, hence, qualifies for a licence or not, is left to the discretion of the local police. There is also the 1959 Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act, which makes busking difficult for most street magicians.
According to Mohammad Tarique, of the NGO Koshish, the implementation of these acts is dependent entirely on the local police. “They bring in their prejudices and vested interests and you can very well imagine how these madaris are treated,” he says. “Public places are closed down for us and we face harassment from police on a daily basis,” says Ishamuddin, who has six children, all of whom have been trained in this ancient art. “But I have ensured that they are all educated. None of us want our children to suffer the indignity of being in a profession that the government doesn’t recognise,” he says.
The Anand Parvat slum has 150 families of street magicians. Ishamuddin insists that more than showmanship or sensationalism, it’s their sense of brotherhood that has kept together the community of Indian magicians in these difficult times. Indeed, in his well-researched book on Indian magicians, Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India (2018, Picador India), author John Zubrzycki observes that the pantheon of Indian magicians — jadoowallahs, tamashawallahs, madaris, qalandars, sanperas, katputliwallahs, behurupiyas, the list goes on — valued their association with the barah pal, the brotherhood of 12, an ancient collective of strolling players that includes jugglers, snake charmers, animal handlers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, storytellers, impersonators and acrobats.
“Regardless of their backgrounds, members of this peripatetic brotherhood can share a cooking hearth… whenever their wanderings bring them together. Economic changes are breaking down what were once strong bonds between these communities. But their arts of legerdemain live on as an integral part of the social, cultural and religious fabric of India…,” writes Zubrzycki. Khan concurs. “Yeh humari pushtaini kala hai (This is our ancestral heritage). We are bound by our art. You can see how we are living now. But the only consolation is that we have each other,” he says.
Close to 1,600 km from the muddy lanes of Delhi’s Anand Parvat, sitting in his office in his plush south Kolkata house, PC Sorcar Junior shares Ishamuddin’s dismay. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, a beaming Sorcar Jr, dressed in lurid neon green and orange regalia, beckoned you from hoardings at ever perceivable corner of the city. There was something comforting about the regularity of Sorcar’s evening shows at the iconic Mahajati Sadan in central Kolkata, much like a grandma’s tale of faraway lands of magic and splendour. Those days are a thing of the past now.
“The most challenging thing now is the availability of halls or big auditoriums for a longer period of time. These days, so many other shows, seminars, performances and political meetings are taking place that the owners of halls do not rent us their auditorium at a stretch. Today, it’s not possible to have my shows running for months. The seating capacity in auditoriums has changed, too, and, with them, the number of people who come to see these shows,” laments the 72-year-old magician, whose popularity extends to the far east, especially in Japan, where he has travelled nearly 50 times for shows.
There was a time when magicians from West Bengal dominated the stages across the world. PC Sorcar Senior, a Padma Shri recipient, is known as the father of modern Indian magic — the man whose acts included sawing a woman in half, aerial suspension illusions that comprised his iconic Indrajal shows. After his death — on stage in Japan during a show — his baton was passed to his son Sorcar Junior, who carried forward the family tradition. In fact, Sorcar Junior still believes that with proper guidance and with a little bit of push from the government, the dying fortunes of magic in India can be revived. “India has always been a romantic, magical country. Our magic tricks have been replicated in the West. So we cannot say magic as an art is dying. It’s just undergoing a transformation,” he says.
Forty-seven-year-old Partha Roy, who lives in a room on the terrace of a three-storeyed house in central Kolkata, began learning magic tricks when he was 17, lured by the glamour of shows such as Sorcar’s. “When I was 20, I did my first show. During the ’90s, magic shows were at their peak in West Bengal. I remember doing 30 shows every month and earning Rs 700 to 800 for each show. It was a decent pay at the time,” says Roy. But since then, life as a middle-rung, not-well-known-enough magician has been a tough act. “Today, there are DVDs and videos on YouTube teaching magic. People either go to watch people like PC Sorcar or learn magic tricks from videos. The demand to get magicians like us is less. We do not earn enough to invest in promotions either,” says Roy, who conducts shows in clubs, birthday parties and festivals, earning about Rs 3,000 for every one-hour show. On an average, about 4-5 shows come his way every month. Roy, who moonlights as a vegetable vendor to make ends meet, says that it’s the brotherhood nurtured by magic clubs that keeps him going. “Discussions on magic are held, and, sometimes, there is a magic competition. These help us improve our tricks and performances,” says Roy, a member of the Howrah Magic Circle.
The declining fortunes of both stage and street magicians, however, is connected by one obvious, and crucial, factor — the audience. “Has magic lost its sheen for the Indian audience? That will be a difficult question to answer. From the 1990s, with the advent of cable television, then the internet, the Indian audience became more worldly-wise. They now have flashy magic shows of international magicians at their fingertips. They also have many other distractions. The idea of an old-fashioned magic show or a madari’s performance is probably not enticing for them anymore. Today, on a summer afternoon, a madari’s damru will not draw children out of their homes. They are too busy with their mobile phones,” says Ishamuddin.
But there are other ways to entice the audience. Jadugar Rajkumar, master of the rope trick and levitation act and team leader at the Delhi School of Magic (which has produced around 1,000 students since its launch in 1995), started his career roughly around the same time as Ishamuddin. But his career took a different path. “I was fascinated by madaris who would come to my locality. I would bribe them to show me how to perform tricks,” says Rajkumar. His first show, stitched together from tricks he learnt from various madaris, fetched him Rs 50 in 1989. One of the tricks went on to become his signature: gobbling down strips of paper and then pulling out a roll of paper from his mouth. But Rajkumar would realise how shortlived the glory days of magic would be at a show organised by a prominent political leader in Delhi’s Ashok Vihar in 1989. “The show was a hit and I was hopeful that I will get a good amount for it. But after the show, the leader called me and handed me a Rs 50 note. I was in tears. It didn’t even cover my transport cost. From that day, I knew that people undermine this art. You have to constantly prove yourself in this game,” says Rajkumar, who now runs an enterprise along with a team of magicians out of a west Delhi mall, under the banner of Raj’s Magic Planet. They only take on corporates as clients apart from catering to Delhi’s big fat weddings. “We take charge of the entertainment at these events. These keep us busy through the year,” he says. An entire team is dedicated to call up clients and ask for feedback. “It’s true that the public is no longer as interested in magic, which is why we need to improvise. We need to digitise magic,” he says.
On cue, one of his many assistants appears. Mohan Kumar, 23, is a “student of computers” and has been a disciple of Rajkumar for the past few years. He holds out his smartphone in his palm. An orange ball is bobbing around the screen. A few swift hand gestures and the ball disappears from the screen and apparates into his hand. “The new generation is exposed to world-class stuff. They won’t be moved by the same old great Indian rope tricks,” says Rajkumar.
The rope trick, however, is a must in his performances in other countries. “There is a great demand of old-fashioned tricks in foreign countries. There, they want us to live up to the image of mystical India. So, if you ask me, I will tell you that if magic has any future in India, it has to update itself but also has to recognise its roots,” says Rajkumar.
Mumbai-based magician, Ian Fernandes, 29, agrees. “Many people come from abroad to watch our traditional shows. Famous American magicians, Penn and Teller came down to Delhi in 2012 and showcased traditional Indian magic. That kind of magic is not promoted,” says Fernandes. The government, he feels, needs to recognise the fact that, done right, this can be a lucrative business proposition for them. “The Indian style of doing it is completely different from anywhere else and that’s what makes it unique,” he says.
With inputs by Shanaya D’Sa. This article appeared in print with the headline: The Vanishing