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Razzle, dazzle: Young Indian magicians pull up new tricks to break cliche

Comparisons with the West may be odious, but the benchmarks for inventiveness have been set astoundingly high

Dhruv Munjal 

< Delhi-based illusionist Rahul Kharbanda performing one of his trademark iPad tricks
Delhi-based illusionist Rahul Kharbanda performing one of his trademark iPad tricks

For a kid, one of the perks of subscribing to was that you never had to bother with buying posters. Every issue came with a new one, carefully sandwiched between two equal sections. I collected many over the years, but my two favourites — they adorned my bedroom walls well into adulthood — were Zinedine Zidane, prancing with the ball at Euro 2004, and a ponytailed Roger Federer, still slightly raw and only beginning to accumulate his improbable haul of 20 Grand Slam titles.

The only poster I ever bought was a peculiar one. It was American magician Criss Angel. His eponymous TV show, Criss Angel Mindfreak, was, well, freakishly good. He could float between buildings, walk on water, hypnotise and make fall asleep a crowd of 100 people, cause elephants to vanish into thin air, and pass through metal gates. What added to the show’s appeal was Angel’s oddball personality: he wore thick eyeliner and funky jewellery, painted his fingernails black, and was even lead singer of a rock band. He was in the body of Avril Lavigne.

I wasn’t the only one awed by him. While growing up in Ludhiana, a wide-eyed Rajesh Kumar, fed up of watching decked up in preposterous costumes and copious make-up pull rabbits out of a hat, was being deeply influenced by Angel. “I was always a science geek, so it didn’t take me long to figure out the tricks performed by They were stale and boring,” says Kumar, now 25. “With Angel, I saw something supernatural, something beyond explanation. That was magic for me.”

'Comedy has probably peaked. And I strongly feel that magic can be the new comedy,' says Karan Singh

‘Comedy has probably peaked. And I strongly feel that magic can be the new comedy,’ says Karan Singh

Such was the inspiration that Kumar is now a star in the domestic magic circuit, having famously wowed judges during the 2015 season of India’s Got Talent. Instead of performing on stage, Kumar was always keen to take his magic to the streets, the early days of which saw him make cards and coins appear out of nowhere. Recently, he managed to ignite a completely isolated light bulb, a routine that has its roots in Kumar’s close study of Nikola Tesla.

Kumar’s repertoire of tricks and approach to his craft is refreshing simply because it’s a departure from the larger-than-life shows performed by classic Indian magicians, normally in closed surroundings, aided by trap doors, mirrors and jazzy lighting. Now based in Mumbai, Kumar says he could never relate to traditional Not one for the conventional, he usually performs in slickly tailored, boldly coloured suits (think burgundy).

Kumar is among the few aberrations on the Indian magic scene. Even as advances in science and technology have seen magic across the world evolve into a more sophisticated art form, people across smaller cities — and even the metros — are content being dazzled by classic Indian effects such as the rope trick, cup and balls, and the basket routine. Wondrous as they are, they fail to cause genuine bewilderment because their secrets have been laid bare by the internet.

'I could never relate to acts performed by old Indian magicians. They were stale and boring,' says Rajesh Kumar

‘I could never relate to acts performed by old Indian magicians. They were stale and boring,’ says Rajesh Kumar

“I think magicians must understand that sawing a person into half isn’t going to cut it anymore. The audience is smarter than that,” says the popular illusionist Ugesh Sarcar. “Now it’s all about pushing the boundaries, and not enough guys are doing that.”

That’s surprising, partly because India has a rich cultural history in magic. In the eminently readable Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India (Pan Macmillan, 2018), Australian journalist John Zubrzycki writes about how Jahangir was smitten by the art all those years ago, happily bewitched by the feats of the magicians visiting his court. One time, a juggler from Bengal produced trees of Jahangir’s choice by merely placing seeds in the ground. On other occasions, fireworks were set off in the sky without being touched, and rice cooked in a cauldron without a fire being lit.

“During that time, and for the centuries that followed, there was this tide of orientalism. People in the West saw anything coming out of the East as exotic. When they heard of Indian magic, they were convinced it was real,” Zubrzycki tells me over the phone from Mumbai.

As word spread about their tantalising brilliance, Western magicians tried to ape their Indian counterparts, in some cases even trying to steal secrets from them. The impact of their work travelled far and wide. Now, of course, a quick Google search for the world’s best magicians will yield no Indian names. “We know nothing about magic beyond P C Sorcar. Which is sad because we have a lot of other talented artistes,” says Kumar.

'Sawing a person into half isn't going to cut it anymore. The audience is smarter than that,' says Ugesh Sarcar

‘Sawing a person into half isn’t going to cut it anymore. The audience is smarter than that,’ says Ugesh Sarcar

To be fair to magicians, coming up with entirely new tricks is fiendishly difficult. Almost all use age-old principles, but add their own twists and variations to give the tricks a more contemporary look. The problem here is not so much the effects themselves, but the shtick in which they’ve been delivered down the years, all done with little imagination and shoddy storytelling. That reputation hasn’t been helped by the fact that magicians are still primarily seen as hobbyists who perform at children’s birthday parties.

“It’s important to understand that most magicians still come from impoverished backgrounds. So they don’t have the money or education to be bold enough to experiment. That’s why they’re stuck in time,” reckons Rahul Kharbanda, a Delhi-based illusionist.

Kharbanda was luckier in that respect. His father, Ashok, was a pioneer of sorts on the Delhi magic scene of the 1980s. Kharbanda’s magic is nothing like his father’s. A lot of his work involves modern gadgets, primarily the iPad. The 38-year-old can pull out playing cards from inside the screen, and bring alive a glass and drink by just drawing it on his iPad.

“I started using stuff like phones and iPads because they’ve become universal now. Everybody in the audience understands them. Plus, you get a greater visual effect,” explains Kharbanda.

Others, such as Karan Singh, are sparking interest by performing implausible acts of mentalism. Singh, 27, likes to call himself a psychological illusionist whose intuitiveness allows him to penetrate people’s minds. In a quest to offer something unique, Singh likes to blend his magic with the topical. He recently asked his audience to think of Game of Thrones characters that he later correctly guessed. He pulled off a similar trick themed around the general elections.

“I try to come up with a story first, and then insert it with what’s current, preferably some pop-culture reference,” says Singh, who, in some ways, is India’s very own David Blaine, often hanging out with celebrities and drawing the same bemused reactions that the mysterious American performer became famous for.

Even Sarcar, who was perhaps the first Indian magician to have his own TV show, Ugesh Sarcar’s 3rd Degree, which ran on UTV Bindass for four seasons between 2007 and 2010, has dumped just “tricks” and moved on to experimenting with energy and human psychology. “With knowledgeable crowds, magic is about intelligence now. You have to be a step ahead,” feels Sarcar.

Comparisons with the West may be odious, but the benchmarks for inventiveness have been set astoundingly high. One of the best illusionists going around is the charming Shin Lim, a young Canadian who managed to prevail on Penn & Teller: Fool Us not once, but twice. He also won the 2018 season of America’s Got Talent. Lim doesn’t use comedy in his acts; in fact, he doesn’t communicate with the audience at all. Instead, he relies on stupefying sleight of hand — you have to see him to believe him — with intense background music and smoke used for theatrics. You can see a deck of cards melt away in his hand, or watch him switch card backs in less than a third of a second, which is faster than it takes you to blink.

Another gem is Steven Brundage — he, too, fooled Penn & Teller — who has repeatedly showcased his mindboggling mastery of the Rubik’s Cube, solving it in under a second, and once stunning Simon Cowell by asking the America’s Got Talent judge to disarrange a cube and then producing an identical one that he himself had mixed up while looking in the other direction.

In the US, TV has a played a significant role in catapulting fledgling magicians to mainstream popularity. In fact, modern magic entered people’s living rooms only through solo TV shows by Angel and Blaine in the mid 2000s. India is yet to see such a boom. “It’s difficult to say why the boom never arrived,” says Singh, adding that TV ensures visibility but that YouTube is now equally effective.

India’s Magic Star, a reality show that hit the airwaves in 2010, was cancelled after just one season. Shows such as India’s Got Talent attract their fair share of magicians, but largely focus on music and dance. In fact, some feel that the histrionics and mawkish storylines that have become the staple of such shows do more harm than good.

Kharbanda, who has been approached by a number of reality shows in the past, says that instead of talent, producers seek “sob stories” that can be fed to credulous viewers. Preveen Pandita, another among the new wave of performers who has also trained reality show participants, says that the makers encourage youngsters to copy tricks introduced by foreign artistes. “They used to show me videos and tell me to teach contestants that particular effect,” he remembers. “Magic doesn’t work like that. You need originality; you need to have your identity. That is the only way we’ll progress.”

The reality is perhaps grimmer for street magicians who no longer arouse curiosity among millennials. Danish Khan, a slight man in his early 30s, who once performed a variation of the three-card monte — one that involves spotting the “money card” — in and around Old Delhi but now works at a gas agency, says that harassment from authorities and a general lack of interest forced him to shut shop. Magic in these parts is passed from one generation to another, but Khan is certain that his 11-year-old son will play no part in the family profession.

Despite their healthy number — India has approximately 5,000 of them — magicians do not benefit from any government scheme or policy.

“The fear is that due to fading prospects, a fifth-generation kid may want to take up a job in IT instead of doing magic,” says Zubrzycki. “But magicians are much more clever than we think. They’ll most probably find a way.”

The more established ones are hopeful that magic in India will go the comedy way. Once just a side effect in films, languishing on the periphery, comedy stormed the general public’s consciousness with a glut of talent shows a decade ago. The space has recently exploded due to a flourishing stand-up industry. “Comedy has probably peaked. And I strongly feel that magic can be the new comedy,” says Singh. Which means that new heroes — unfortunately, some of them still do wear capes — may be on the horizon. And, who knows, I may just buy another poster.

First Published: Fri, June 14 2019. 20:29 IST