Fascination with India and exoticisation went hand-in-hand in the early 19th-20th century,” says 61-year-old Australian author John Zubrzycki, who was so besotted by the country that he returned time and again. Last year Zubrzycki wrote his third book, The Empire of Enchantment, a solid compendium of Indian magic history, published in India as Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns (Pan Macmillan). The former diplomat and journalist was in conversation at the 10th edition of the Mountains Echoes festival in Bhutan. Excerpts from an interview:
How did you chance upon India and Indian magic?
I came to India after completing school. I later studied South Asian history and Hindi. I came back as a foreign correspondent and was studying the country’s culture, politics, society, which led me to write. A chance remark at a dinner party about an Australian magician, dressed up as a Chinaman, who performed in Australia in the early 1900s, got me intrigued. Research showed that he, Chung Ling Soo, was actually an American. His main rival, Ching Ling Foo, was a real Chinese magician, but the American was so good at pretending, that everybody thought that the real Chinese magician was the fake one. I was fascinated with this cross-cultural confluence of performance magic. I came across various extraordinary characters — The Fakir of Oolu, The Fakir of Shiva, The Fakir of Simla, none of whom were Indians but appropriated Indian magic in their shows. The history of Indian magic, I realised, has never been explored fully. It was my second book The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy (2011), about Jacob who dabbled in magic and sold the Jacob diamond to the sixth Nizam, that got me interested in Indian magic. I realised it had a long, rich history.
Did Indian magic contribute to Western magic?
The roots of most magic could be traced to the East — the Far East, Egypt, and India. Indian magicians were performing in ancient Rome. An Indian conjuring manual was translated into Arabic in the Abbasid caliphate in the 10th century. There’s a theory that the gypsies of Europe came from India, and a lot of them did sleight-of-hand tricks.
Was Motilal Nehru, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty patriarch, India’s PT Barnum?
In the Bombay archives, I found that Motilal Nehru recruited and sent a troupe of 60 Indian magicians, including one from Delhi’s Kathputli Colony, to the Paris Exposition in 1900. It’s fascinating that nobody knew about it. He did it because there was a lot of money to be made. Many such magicians sent abroad to perform at fairs were dumped on the streets afterwards and had to be repatriated because of a huge exploitative trade.
Was Kuda Bux the first Indian mentalist?
Kuda Bux was from Kashmir and famous for two tricks: firewalking, and X-ray eyes, in the late ’30s. He could read off a book and see things despite a fully bandaged face. Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (1977) is based on his life.
The famous Indian magician Gogia Pasha gets attention in your book. Are you also writing his biography?
After Jadoowallah…, his family asked me to do his biography (to be published by Speaking Tiger). There’s almost nothing in the public domain about Pasha, whose life was a rich tapestry of drama and fighting the odds against the backdrop of the Partition. After PC Sorcar Sr, he was India’s best-known magician.
Tell us about their great rivalry.
In 1860s and 70s, magic was done by traditional groups, some of them from the lower castes. When Indians realised that you could pick up a Western magic manual, journals or book and do a card or rope trick by yourself, they started doing it. They came from more educated and westernised elite backgrounds and read English. Some took it up as a hobby, some as profession. Some, like PC Sorcar Sr and Gogia Pasha, went abroad and were on a par with the best Western magicians.
Multan-born Pasha made his career in India. He was also called the Gili Gili Man (Gili Gili was Egyptian for magic). Pasha appropriated the persona of an Egyptian magician, and, perhaps, that’s why his main rival Sorcar Senior didn’t consider him to be Indian. Pasha had a fantastic sense of humour, danced with musicians on stage, conducted levitation, and performed magic for Hitler once. Sorcar Sr called himself the world’s greatest magician before he even left Bengal. Sorcar wasn’t a particularly good magician, he was a great showman and publicist and had a huge ego. Glorified among Indians, Sorcar received the Padma Shri (in 1964), but people didn’t know about the other story of how ruthless he was towards his rivals. He put Indian magic on the world map, but so did Pasha. Sorcar’s career was mediocre until he appeared live on TV in England in 1956. He was sawing his assistant in half, when the programme presenter said, ‘we’ve run out of time’. He left his assistant sawed in half on stage. He knew if the show was terminated at that point, he would get the publicity he was craving for.
In the world of magic, women have mostly been used as props. Historically, who are the women in magic?
Sadly, there aren’t that many. In India, there’s PC Sorcar Sr’s granddaughter, Maneka. There was a French magician, a female fakir, Koringa, whose signature act was hypnotising crocodiles. Mostly, women were into crystal-ball gazing and mind-reading.
Magicians are vulnerable. The recent death of Jadugar Mandrake in Hooghly river shows that.
The act went wrong. It is a depressing state for magicians. It forces people like Mandrake to do more spectacular, dangerous things. Magic is very competitive. French magician John Eugene Robert-Houdin — after whom (Harry) Houdini named himself — said, ‘a magician was an actor playing the part of a magician’. To be a magician, you need to be a good actor, and convince the audience that you’re doing real magic.
You are also working on a book on Maharani Gayatri Devi?
I’m writing on the Jaipur royal family. Gayatri Devi is just one part of the story, and although she is the most written and talked about of the Jaipur royals, there’s much about her life that has never been told. The narrative non-fiction (by Juggernaut) will cover the last century.