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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Mandrake Gestures Hypnotically

An intimate portrait of India’s foremost magician and how he became the king of illusions

Updated: March 17, 2018 1:41:10 am
PC Sorcar, Indian magician, BBC, PC Sorkar biography, PC Sorcar Jr, Indian Express book review (Left) Sorcar casts a spell on Virginia, his first woman assistant; Poster for a tour of Russia

BY AK Shiva Kumar and Ishan Shivakumar

PC Sorcar: The Maharaja of Magic
PC Sorcar Jr
Niyogi Books
252 pages
Rs 1995

April 9, 1956. After a successful tour of France, a 43-year-old Indian magician travels to London. Despite excellent reviews, the British remain sceptical and suspicious of his growing fame. He is nevertheless invited to the BBC’s Lime Grove studio to perform live on television his famous act of sawing a woman in half and putting her back together again. The magician uses the gleaming circular saw to slice the young assistant’s body. And then, everything that could go wrong goes wrong. Despite several attempts, the woman lies unconscious in two pieces, with her eyes closed. The clock is ticking away. At the end of 15 minutes, Richard Dimbleby, the producer of the show, mutters something about the unreliability of Indians, especially when it comes to keeping time. He ends the show and cuts to the news.

But the viewers were not interested in the news. Within minutes, the BBC’s lines were jammed with phone calls deeply concerned and wanting to know if they were witness to a grisly murder. In the studio, however, a turbaned magician stood smiling. It was all pre-planned. Dipti Dey, the assistant, sprang back to life!

The magician was Protul Chandra Sorcar. British newspapers, the next day, carried headlines admitting that Sorcar had pulled off a very clever act to fool the people, signalling that magic and drama cannot be separated. What a showman and genius Sorcar was — a master of telepathy, mind reading, hypnotism and mass hallucination. He was renowned for the incredible feats and illusions he performed — the rope trick, the flying carpet, cycling blindfolded in New York and Paris in addition to solving complex mathematical puzzles, re-joining the tongue, force writing, mass hypnotism on stage, and unlocking handcuffs for a British bobby. Few can forget the Water of India trick where an endless stream of water would flow out of a small ‘magic’ pot — a highlight of his world-famous show Indrajal, intended to highlight India’s unity in diversity.

In this biography, his son PC Sorcar Jr, who has carried his father’s legacy to greater heights, chronicles Sorcar’s incredible journey from being regarded as an Indian trickster to becoming respected worldwide as the Maharaja of Magic. There are incredible nuggets in the book about PC Sorcar the magician, the husband, the father, the entertainer, the humanist. With over 300 amazing pictures, mostly black and white, of the Sorcar family, of celebrities, posters, props, equipment, and cartoons, this biography is a collector’s item.

Born on February 23, 1913, into a family of magicians, Sorcar was fascinated by magic even as a child. He took up magic as a full-time profession after he completed his undergraduate degree in mathematics when he was just 20. His grandfather, among others, discouraged him: “… people will respect you as a singer.” Regardless, Sorcar took the plunge. Basanti Devi, whom Sorcar married in 1938, was the main source of inspiration and encouragement throughout his life. And the rest is history. By 1934, he had started building his international reputation when he performed in Japan, and then travelled to more than 70 countries. He won several awards including the Padma Shri in 1964.

Reading the biography reveals how and why it was difficult — and continues to be so — for the practice of magic to flourish in India. Class, caste and gender act as deterrents. Sorcar faced tremendous opposition from his family because magic — then and 50 years later — is seen as something practised by poor street performers and not by the children of middle-class families. When Sorcar was building his troupe, young Hindu women were not allowed by their parents to act on stage, and that too, wearing the costume of a magician’s assistant. PC Sorcar had no choice but to hire “fair-skinned Caucasian and Anglo-Indian girls” for his troupe.

How he acquired his majestic ‘Maharaja robe’ and plumed turban is equally revealing, and reflects poorly on us as a society that doesn’t respect equality. Maharaja Hanwant Singh, the king of Jodhpur, was fond of magic as a young lad. After learning a few tricks from PC Sorcar and others, the flamboyant king decided to impress and surprise his family and friends by putting up a show for them. He had requested PC Sorcar to be present backstage for help. With very few tricks up his sleeve, the king’s show was a flop, and it ended within a few minutes. Maharaja Hanwant Singh, in desperation, asked PC Sorcar to help him out. PC Sorcar Jr writes, “As Protul started with his performance, it became apparent that some of the royal guests were not pleased… They voiced their disdain, arguing that Protul did not belong to the nobility and no commoner was supposed to take part in the exclusive show.” This was when Maharaja Hanwant Singh came up with a plan — to gift PC Sorcar with a sherwani, a pagdi and a taj of glittering gems. Not only did Sorcar enthral the royal guests, he also made this attire his trademark — and according to folklore, this was the inspiration behind Air India’s Maharaja!

Sorcar died of a heart attack at the age of 58 while performing in Japan. It must have been extremely difficult for his son, the author of this book, to fly down to Hokkaido and carry on with the shows.

Reading the biography forces us as a society to reflect on the future of magic. Despite being the most enthralling and exciting form of entertainment, magic has very few patrons. While audiences find magic intellectually stimulating, people seldom go to watch shows. This is the crisis in the magic market of India. Magicians need to learn from PC Sorcar. They need to adapt and cater to the modern, while at the same time, as PC Sorcar did, retain the Indian core. Otherwise, Indian magic will die a slow death in this age of YouTube, where you can see and enjoy everything without paying for it. Consequently, the next time an Indian magician says, “Pick a card, any card”, the audiences might think, “What’s the point, the magician’s probably seen this trick before!” The strength and power of magic lies solely in its unpredictability and element of surprise. Legends like Sorcar mastered the art to perfection, and the magic brethren in India need to come together and make magic great again.

Economist and lawyer, AK Shiva Kumar and Ishan Shivakumar are magicians in private life

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