Some years ago at a cultural festival in Mumbai, I saw a dastango perform stories featuring an evil magician, a mountain of emerald, a forest of silver, and pearls dripping from dancers’ clothes into a river of blood — all a backdrop to the adventures of the heroic Amir Hamza and his friend Amar Ayyaar. These stories were from the Tilism-e-Hoshruba (translated as ‘The Enchantment That Steals Away One’s Senses’), a fantasy epic long believed to be the sequel to the older Dastan-e-Amir Hamza . And though the Tilism may have been no sequel, this moment connected this audience to a more exalted one from another age, who had also enjoyed Hamza’s fables.
In Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India (published as Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic in Australia, the UK, and the US), Australian author John Zubrzycki writes that Mughal emperor Akbar commissioned 1,400 folios of the Dastan . Akbar even took to narrating the tales in the style of a professional storyteller, and petrified his ministers and advisers in his youth by jumping over the backs of rampaging elephants, à la Hamza.
Magic was closely interlaced with people’s lives in ancient and medieval India, impossible to separate from fantasy, religion, alchemy, medicine, yoga, occult, astrology, statecraft, and sleight of hand. Zubrzycki’s book, a social history of magic in India, traces how they entwined, separated and morphed over time, and how Indian magic derived from these tangled roots.
Indian magicians, jugglers and astrologers travelled to ancient Rome, the Tang Dynasty Chinese courts and featured in travellers’ accounts, some of which read like the best kinds of fantasy and science fiction. Ibn Battuta saw the rope trick and a levitation act, which so shook the “delicate Tunisian” that he fainted, the author writes. Alberuni, one of the most prominent figures in the Golden Age of Islamic Science, narrated a grisly tale of a man turned into a silver ingot.
The book talks of automata referenced in various ancient and medieval works, including iron elephants that explode in the battlefield, robots guarding royal palaces and thieving mechanical swans. One of the texts referenced, the Arthasastra , advocated necromancy and spying in warfare and the use of soothsayers as spies. The 7th-century littérateur Dandin, in his descriptions of the time of the Pallava kings, spoke of magicians and snake charmers, and thieves using crabs tied to a string to pick locks. Amir Khusrau, chronicling the Delhi Sultanate, wrote of people who could swallow swords like sherbet. Employing magicians to catch thieves in India was well-documented in the 1790s. And as Indian performers astounded the West, Western performers enthralled Indian audiences: Robert Heller, who gave India its first Punch and Judy performance in the 1870s, was so popular that Parsis demanded an exclusive season for their families in Bombay “to the exclusion of Europeans”.
Jadoowallahs has been drawn from various sources — interviews, including with experts as well as stage and street magicians, live demonstrations (the author said he even tried a version of the rope trick at Shivaji Park in Mumbai, to prove his dedication to the topic), private collections and archives from cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, London, Washington, Cambridge and Victoria. The vast scholarly material is handled wonderfully lightly, and anecdotes presented as vividly as though they happened yesterday. I attended two book launches, met the writer briefly and corresponded with him over email.
The making of magic
Zubrzycki said the provenance of most magic could be traced to the East, which was something he discovered only after he wrote the book. “In 1933, Sir Denison Ross, the founder and first director of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, a linguist who could read 49 languages, and the vice-president of the Magician’s Club of London, declared that aside from the manipulation of cards, all the best European conjuring tricks ‘were derived from the East’. As well as being a distinguished Orientalist he was also an accomplished sleight-of-hand artist,” he told BL ink .
The Sydney-based author and researcher has been coming to India for years. He has a degree in South Asian history and Hindi, and has worked in India as a foreign correspondent, diplomat and tour guide. His other works include The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback and The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy .
Contrary to what one might expect, it wasn’t while researching for The Mysterious Mr Jacob that Zubrzycki first became interested in the history of magic, but after a chance remark about stage magic. A bullet-catching trick had gone wrong, killing Chung Ling Soo, a magician, in the early 1900s in London. His Chinese persona was so convincing that few people realised he was really William Robinson, an American. Meanwhile, a Chinese magician named Chung Ling Foo was alive and well, and was briefly even the highest-paid foreign performer in America, but most people believed that while the dead man was Chinese, the living conjurer was someone impersonating a Chinese man. The author said it got him thinking: what had caused this cultural confusion?
When he started to look, he found a world of fetishised exoticism, assumed identities and oxymoronic names (the Fakir of Siva was really the Reverend Dr Haskell, who had several run-ins with the law), and stage productions so lavish, they “sometimes bankrupted the magician”. He pointed to the elaborate stage set on the cover of Jadoowallahs , saying it was that of the ‘East Indian Sensation’ Kar-mi — in reality, Joseph Bryant Hollingsworth from Malden, Massachusetts.
In 1899, London’s Strand Magazine said, “Ask the average man for what India is most celebrated, and chances are ten-to-one he will... unhesitatingly reply in one word, “Jugglers”.” “For them ( Strand ) to make a statement like this is significant,” Zubrzycki told BL ink . “You couldn’t say that about any other country in the East, or in the world, where the country and magic were synonymous.” He got so interested in the subject that, in 2015, he commenced a doctorate on the connections between Indian and Western stage magicians.
The Great Indian Rope Trick
Some of the most fascinating sections in Jadoowallahs are about the involvement of monarchs and heads of states with magic — for longevity, alchemy, victory over enemies, or, later, as a justification of colonial superiority and excuse for suppression. There was Alexander’s meeting in the ancient Buddhist capital of Taxila with naked ascetics, Raja Bhoja’s accounts of leather-and-cloth dolls acting out scenes from Hindu myths, and Humayun’s carpet, which seated 1,400 people, arranged by astrological signs. The book mentions Jahangir’s obsession with necromancy; in his memoirs the emperor describes, in lush detail, the displays of legerdemain by Bengali jugglers. One of these was the rope trick, the benchmark, writes Zubrzycki, against which all Indian magic would later be gauged.
And while I associated many things with this trick — Jahangir’s version had a hog, a panther, a lion and a tiger going up and disappearing, others had severed limbs raining down — there was one thing I hadn’t. “There was paperwork,” said Zubrzycki, “reams of it.” He recounted the story of Lord Ampthill, former Viceroy, who, together with several high-ranking members of the prestigious conjuring society, The Magic Circle, sifted through written accounts and newspaper clippings, and entered into correspondence with claimants to decide if the Indian rope trick actually existed.
There are stories from the Age of Exhibitions, beginning from about the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century, when Eastern performers, particularly Indian, were recruited en masse and shown in ethnographic displays throughout the world. The author spoke at a book launch about the story he’d pieced together from a letter, which he traced all the way to the Viceroy’s desk. Motilal Nehru took a break from his law practice to transport a group of performers and magicians to an exhibition in Paris. Permission was wrested from the Bombay administration while the Delhi bureaucrats were still pondering in an unhurried way whether to let them go, as emigration laws had been tightened following a plague outbreak. Bombay then “forgot” to inform Delhi until after they’d sailed, said Zubrzycki, making air-quotes. “Curzon was furious ”.
A scattered legacy
I asked him if he had a favourite story from the book. “Definitely the story of Amar Nath Dutt, who went on stage as Linga Singh. The story of how he was recruited by a curry cook posing as a prince from Baluchistan, then his involvement in Madame Cama’s revolutionary cell, his successes and failures, and the fact that he was the first Indian magician to combine Eastern tricks with Western stagecraft was quite amazing,” he said over email. There were other great magicians, too, now forgotten. There was Kuda Bux with his X-ray eyes, who “took his secret to the grave,” the author said. He also spoke of Gogia Pasha, a contemporary of PC Sorcar, “who made the term ‘Gilly Gilly’ a household phrase”.
Was there something he had wished to include in the book but couldn’t? “This is a vast subject. There is a lot of material in vernacular languages still to be accessed. There must also be more information in someone’s personal archive, I expect, pertaining to the earliest magic societies in India that were established in the 1880s,” he replied.
Jadoowallahs has striking pictures from archives as well as private and the author’s collections — some of these were the flotsam of colonial life, like cotton labels and posters, and are now collectors’ items. And traces of this age still survive. An exhibition of colonial postcards I went to recently showed pole-acrobats, saanp-wallahs, and men dancing with lances, titled ‘Devil Dancers – India’. I remember seeing life-sized mechanical dolls at the Marble Palace in Kolkata, which might have walked straight out of the book. At a recent lecture on the Nath Siddhas, one of the secretive sects referred to in Jadoowallahs , I learned of the depictions of Siddhas being discovered in caves and temples even today.
This legacy of magic and magicians seems to carry on in unexpected ways. I read a newspaper report about a show that marked Prince Charles’s 70th birthday on November 14, featuring comedians and a galaxy of magicians. His uncle, Lord Mountbatten, had introduced him to the Magic Circle. For his induction in 1975, Charles performed a version of the cup-and-ball trick — one which echoes and re-echoes in Jadoowallahs . The gala’s name? We Are Most Amused and Amazed.
Suhasini Kamble is a Mumbai-based freelance writer