How Indian magic, illusion in its highest art form, came to the West and opened up new, mysterious worlds

Empire of Enchantment by John Zubrzycki delves into the fascinating history of Indian magic and reveals how the country’s magicians first came to the West, where they showed their counterparts a thing or two

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2018, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2018, 12:27pm

Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic

by John Zubrzycki


4 stars

Thinking of Indian magic is likely to conjure up (pun intended) images of snake charmers, levitation, rope tricks, jugglers and people taking afternoon naps on beds of nails. Indeed, the cover of Empire of Enchantment shows a snake charmer playing his pipe and lying on a bed of nails at the same time, a combination that was certainly new to this reviewer.

Author John Zubrzycki, meanwhile, opens with the 17th-century Murghal emperor Jahangir expressing his wonderment at the Indian rope trick. After watching a parade of animals going up a rope and disappearing into thin air, the emperor wrote “never did I see or hear of anything in execution so wonderfully strange”. Zubrzycki explains that the rope trick “would become the benchmark against which all feats of Indian magic would be measured”.

Anuradha Roy grapples with love and loss in passionate tale of India

But Indian magic isn’t just about these old tricks. It is illusion taken to its highest art form and has been around for more than a thousand years. It still survives, barely (and sometimes in the face of police regulations and the necessity for bribes) on the streets of some Indian cities, as Zubrzycki’s interviews with contemporary performers attest. But, as a musician told the author after a bulldozer raid on an artists’ community, “we perform and entertain people and they kicked us out of our own house. Is this democracy? It is absolute injustice.”

After reading some of the incredible things done by Indian magicians, many will sympathise with that musician and hope that the art will somehow survive and again flourish.

It is well-known, thanks to Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, that there has long been a connection between magic and religion, but in India that connection goes back further than in the West. Zubrzycki tells us that the Atharva Veda, an ancient sacred text dating from about 1400BC, was actually compiled by “fire-priests skilled in the performance of magical rites”, and that Somadeva’s 11-century Katha Sarit Sagara, or The Ocean of Story, is “brimming … with tales of magicians and their spells”.

The book is never dull or heavy. Zubrzycki’s consummate scholarship ranges easily over the material, weaving, with his own magical touch, a fascinating history of a cultural tradition that has received little scholarly attention from Western writers. Curiously enough, it could serve almost as a modern companion to Frazer’s immense work.

When Western magicians, sensing that the Indians knew a thing or two, began appropriating their skills, the Indians did the same in reverse

Zubrzycki writes about magic as entertainment, but after the opening chapters, which detail the development of Indian magic, readers are left in little doubt as to its enduring spiritual components. Some magicians worked for kings, others became criminals, while some were called to more mundane tasks such as “spell-casters in the Strangers’ Home”.

“The whole tribe of sleight-of-hand men in Europe are mere bunglers when compared with the jugglers in India,” a British observer wrote in 1797. A few years later, the importation of Indian magicians to the West began thanks to a ship’s captain, Peter Campbell.

It occurred to Campbell that, as most people in England would never travel to India to experience first-hand the wonders there, he could make a great deal of money by getting Indian performers to exhibit their talents in England – provided he could persuade some of them to put their taboo of crossing an ocean aside. In 1812 a number of performers duly left for England, and by early 1813, English audiences were eagerly watching sword-swallowers in action on home turf.

For the next hundred or so years there would be a steady trickle of Indian magicians crossing the ocean, while in England and other places, local magicians learned “Indian” tricks or even represented themselves as Indians, so successful was this oriental sleight-of-hand with Western audiences. It opened up new, mysterious, sometimes disturbing worlds and broadened the imaginations of people who had barely heard of India.

The trend flourished past Indian independence, too. In the 1950s, for example, P.C. Sorcar, billing himself variously as “The World’s Greatest Magician” and the “Maharajah of Magic”, merrily sawed girls in half for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic while making full use of radio and television; Gogia Pasha, “the World-Renowned Egyptian [sic] Master of Magic” (as he marketed himself; he was actually Indian) plied his trade as far afield as Australia, presenting an eccentric East-West “fusion” of tricks from “X-ray Eyes” to the “Basket of Death”.

When Western magicians, sensing that the Indians knew a thing or two, began appropriating their skills, the Indians did the same in reverse, as the chapter “From Turbans to Top Hats” explains. Magic, we are told, became more “progressive, scientific, educational” in the Indians’ hands, and they seem to have had little difficulty adapting their skills to modern technology and the expectations of a better-educated audience, Western or otherwise. They made Houdini look like an amateur.

A writer for The Australian newspaper, Zubrzycki has also worked as a tour guide and a diplomat; he has solid academic credentials, having written a doctoral thesis on the connections between Indian and Western magicians, which of course informs a considerable part of this book.

Human side of Southeast Asia’s criminal underbelly exposed in Hello, Shadowlands

He ends on a word of optimism for the dwindling bands of street magicians in India whose plight frames the book. Rajeev Sethi, a man dedicated to preserving the old arts, including magic, tells him that “they won’t disappear. There will be a reaction,” because people will always want to be wonderstruck. Reading this book goes a long way to making us feel that wonder.

Asian Review of Books