It is 9 am and 40-year-old Subrata Kumar Mukherjee is sipping tea in the living room of his two-bedroom apartment in South Kolkata. This is the time of the day when Mukherjee, a lawyer, usually meets his clients. Just then, the phone rings.
“I can assure you that there is no such thing. The best way to settle this is to appoint a consultant and bring both parties to the table for discussion,” he tells the person at the other end.
Hanging up, Mukherjee says his client was requesting him to use magic to resolve a dispute between a married couple. “Magic is an art. There is no spell involved. There is science behind a lot of these tricks. But some people think magic has the power to solve problems,” he says.
Besides being an advocate at the Calcutta High Court, Mukherjee has been a professional magician for nearly 25 years. And this is not the first time he is faced with such a request. On one occasion, a person had asked him to cure his paralysed son. “I advised him to meet a doctor,” he says, stressing that magicians possess no special powers.
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 his hands and legs tied with ropes — to escape from a six-foot-tall cage that was submerged underwater. After nearly 10 minutes, when Lahiri did not resurface, spectators informed police and divers were rushed to the spot. Mandrake’s body was fished out of the river from Ramkrishnapur Ghat the next day.
Says Mukherjee, “Some acts can be deadly. It requires practice and precision to pull these off. One miscalculation can take your life.”
Mukherjee says he has known Lahiri for several years. “There are magicians and then there are illusionists like P C Sorcar Jr. Mandrake (Lahiri) was a successful illusionist. But he should not have chosen the Hooghly to perform the escape act. The river is unpredictable and one should have considered the tide timings,” he says, adding that it was Lahiri’s ‘overconfidence’ that led to the unfortunate event.
“He should have used nets or cables as a safety measure. Divers should have been put on standby,” he rues.
Magicians, he says, need a lot of practice before performing for an audience. “For illusionists, it is even tougher since their tricks are risky. There are escape acts, sword acts, sawing a woman etc. A high level of concentration is required for these acts. Also having the right team helps,” he says.
Around 10 am, while leaving for court, Mukherjee says he is more of a magician and less of an advocate. On most days, he stays away from courts to perform magic shows. “I go to courts only when my presence is required for hearings. Rest of the time, my juniors attend to the clients,” he says, adding, “My life is all about robes — whether it’s the lawyer’s robes or the magician’s.” From 11 am to 5 pm, Mukherjee is at the court, attending hearings and meeting clients.
At 7 pm, he is now back in his living room, which is filled with furniture and old electronic goods. In one corner of the room, a pile of newspapers is stacked against the wall. Next to it stands a showcase with the trophies and medals that he has won as a magician. He then disappears inside one of the bedrooms, which has been converted into a storeroom for his instruments and props.
Mukherjee’s wife Arpita says she too developed an interest in magic after her marriage to Mukherjee in 2006. “I now accompany him to magic shows across the country,” she says.
Just then, Mukherjee emerges from the room in a completely different avatar. Gone is the black robe, and he now stands in a fiery red magician’s robe, sporting a hat. He says he spends his evenings and nights practising tricks and perfecting them. He then performs a few tricks — moving a pair of glasses without touching it and pulling out handkerchieves from a container.
“This living room is small and not an ideal place to perform illusions, which require bigger instruments. Here, I only practice magic tricks that are to be performed in birthday parties and small shows,” says the magician, adding that he practices his illusion tricks at his ancestral house in Maheshtala, about 10 km from his home. “Most of my bigger instruments and props are stored there,” he says.
Mukherjee says his first brush with magic was when he was six. “Those days, magicians would visit local schools to entertain students. It was during one of those shows that I decided I would be a magician. Initially, my father, who was a doctor, taught me science magic. At the age of 15, I became a professional magician. As I was a minor, the licence was made in my father’s name. After I turned 18, I got my own licence,” he says.
In 2004, Mukherjee, then a 25-year-old, was persuaded by his prospective father-in-law to find other ways of earning a living. “That’s how I studied law. The life of a magician is uncertain and the income generated by conducting shows is hardly enough. It takes years to become popular. It’s only after you have made a name for yourself that you begin to get called for shows,” he says.
It was the plight of fellow magicians and the “lack of recognition from the government” that drove Mukherjee to form the Magic Artists’ Forum in June 2018. The organisation currently has around 150 members. “The condition of the industry is poor. There is hardly any interest either from common people or the administration. We want to revive this profession. Once we have 500 members, we will approach the state education department, asking if there can be a course on magic for school students. We will also appeal to the government to recognise magicians by giving them certificates. The administration should consider magicians as artists and for offer benefits that come along with the recognition,” he says.
It’s 10 pm, time for dinner. Mukherjee’s seven-year-old son Sarabjit jumps up from his chair and asks, “Can I perform a trick? Do you know how to vanish a rosogolla from a plate? Simple, putting it in your mouth.”