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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 16, April 15, 2023

A Classic on Indian Magic | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 15 April 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



Jadoowallahas, Jugglers, and Jinns:

A Magical History of India

by John Zubrzycki

Pan Macmillan India — Picador India
Pages: 508
ISBN 9789386215352

Magic, in case you did not know, is as old as India. Indeed, the blurred boundaries between magic, mythology and religion continue to be the defining feature of Indian enchantment, the origins of which go back to the start of the Harappan civilization nearly 5,000 years ago. Australian diplomat-turned-writer John Zubrzycki unveils the gem of a story on Indian magic in this thoroughly researched, eminently enjoyable and authoritative book.

The concept of maya, first mentioned in the Rig Veda, is vital to understanding the place of magic in Hinduism. Sword swallowers, conjurers as well as court jesters were a part of the social fabric of India since the Vedic era. They were patronized by kings, queens, and the nobility for their power in performing exorcisms and divinations, countering the effects of inauspicious omens besides providing entertainment to ministers, women of the harem as well as ambassadors from distant lands. Mughal kings who settled down in India were no different. They too were drawn to miracle shrines, magic springs, astrology, necromancy, stars, precious stones as well as signs and omens. Magic could not have asked for a better fertilizer than ancient and timeless India.

Often, a Hindu or a Muslim holy man will vanish objects, pass skewers through his body or walk on hot coals to convince almsgivers of his spiritual powers. (Of course, not every holy man did this for money; many in fact hid their powers.) The street magician copied these feats or added new ones such as being buried underground or lying on a bed of nails, also for pecuniary ends. The art of magic was taught by the father to the son and to other male successors, covering many generations.

This remains valid even today even though magic is no more a richly paying work; but most magicians, the book says, know no other craft and so slog on. Religious differences have not affected the world of magic. There have been instances of a Hindu holy man teaching Muslim magic — a classic example of symbiosis between the jadoowallah and the sadhu.

For too long a time, the majority of magicians came from marginalized communities including lower castes and nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes. They practiced sleight of hand, juggling, snake charming, tumbling, tight-rope walking, and other forms of acrobatics, sold magical charms and herbs, played music and trained monkeys, bears, and other animals to perform. The women were often fortune tellers, palm readers, dream interpreters, dancers, gymnasts, quack doctors, and tattoo artists. This changed when Europeanized Indians started taking up magic professionally in the late 19th century, often adopting Western dress, tricks, and stage techniques. By then, India was more than famous for the Basket Trick, one of the oldest and most mystifying feats of magic in the world, the Indian Rope Trick as well as levitating magicians and mystics.

After initially rejecting tempting offers to sail to the West, Indian jugglers and magicians started giving performances in England in 1813. Ramo Samee, probably a corruption of Ramaswamy, quickly became the most famous Indian magician of the 19th century. His legacy would have a profound impact on the evolution of magic in the West. It is a pity he had been largely forgotten in the land of his birth. By the 1830s, he was reputedly earning 25-30 pounds a week while a normal juggler would be lucky to get one pound a week.

If measured by the number of participants and the variety of acts, the years 1885 and 1886 marked the high point of Indian magic and popular culture in England. So powerful was the appeal of Indian magic that some Westerners gave themselves Indian/Hindu identity to gain an extra audience. And despite a section of Western magicians trying to prove Indian magic as humbug, the number of Western magicians sailing for the subcontinent by the beginning of the 20th century had turned into a flood. India, it was acknowledged, was the land of magic and unceasing mysteries.

Once a new crop of better-informed and educated magicians came to the fore in India, Western-style tricks and the latest imported props widely began to be used. Magic came to be seen as something progressive, scientific, and even educational, a profession to be learned from books, not from the pavement-dwelling jadoowallah. Although P.C. Sorcar stole the thunder in the 1950s, there were others before him who set the bar high, so much so that Western magicians began accepting their Eastern counterparts into their innermost circles. It was a Westerner who gave Sorcar the sobriquet “Maharajah of Magic”.

Author Zubrzycki regrets that new legislation in the 1990s forced Qalandars and their performing bears to largely disappear from the streets. Snake Charming has also gone into decline. It takes about 14 years to learn the magician’s craft; but after all the struggle, today’s jadoowallah — as opposed to the more successful magicians — will consider themselves lucky if they can provide a decent life for their family. The author is unhappy that Bollywood has largely neglected the rich tradition of Indian magic, an important aspect of the country’s history and culture.

If you want to read just one book to know all about Indian magic, this is it.

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