At noon on Christmas Day 1932, a group of curious onlookers gathered at Apollo Bunder in Bombay. They were there to watch Les Cole, better known as The Great Levante and widely regarded as Australia’s foremost magician, replicate one of the feats of the famous escapologist Harry Houdini. With his hands and legs securely handcuffed, Levante leapt off the sandstone wall landing feet-first in the tepid waters of the Arabian Sea. Forty-five nerve-wracking seconds later, he surfaced having magically unlocked his shackles much to the relief and applause of those watching.

The Christmas Day dive was the culmination of a successful three-week season in Bombay. Levante was accompanied as always by his wife Gladys, a piano accordionist, and their daughter 11-year-old Esme who was billed as “the Daughter of the Gods, the Child Phenomena, Mentalist and Crystal Gazer”. They spent 18 months touring India, travelling as far west as the Khyber Pass.

Levante was not alone in taking Australian popular culture to the farthest and riskiest corners of the subcontinent. Nor was he the first Australian to jump off Apollo Bunder. That honour went to Murray Carrington Walters, better known as Murray the Escapologist, who on Christmas Day in 1925 repeated in Bombay the stunt he had performed in Calcutta a few weeks earlier when he dived off the Howrah Bridge manacled in a straightjacket, six pairs of leg irons and 12 feet of chains.

Murray travelled up the Khyber Pass, but unlike Levante kept going west, reaching Kabul on a freezing cold winter’s day in early 1926. There he sought an audience with Amanullah Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan. Murray was fulfilling a dream he had harboured since childhood – to travel the world as a magician. Aged just 25, he had already been to Peking, where he was manacled hand and foot to a railway track as the Shanghai Express bore down on him. In Phnom Penh, the King of Cambodia enjoyed his sleights of hand so much he offered him one of his 30 wives as a reward. Murray politely refused.

The challenge Amanullah Khan now set would have given Harry Houdini, Murray’s idol, second thoughts. The Emir showed him the most secure prison cell in his kingdom – a cell so claustrophobic it made the Black Hole of Calcutta “look like a Swiss chalet”, Murray would later recall. If he could escape he could keep the bag of 5,000 silver rupees the Emir had left inside. If he failed, he would remain in the cell for the rest of his life. Without hesitating Murray took up the challenge and won.

Nicknamed the “loveable rogue” by his followers, Murray would later boast of taking to the stage “in every quarter of the globe, from Alaska to Abyssinia… and from Afghanistan to the Steppes of Tartary”. In total, the ever debonair-looking Murray toured 87 countries, becoming the most travelled entertainer of his day.

Backed by a brash class of showbiz entrepreneurs, Australian entertainers cornered the Asian market, bringing everything from Shakespeare to bush ballads to the stages of Shanghai, Rangoon, Colombo and dozens of other metropolises.

Almost every genre of Australian popular entertainment passed through India. Minstrel shows, mystics and mind readers, men impersonating women, women impersonating men, dance and comedy routines, romances, operas, operettas, pantomime, vaudeville and burlesque, ventriloquists and variety acts – even bell ringers.

Many came not once, but twice or even thrice, trawling India’s hill stations, its military cantonments and the courts of the maharajas. On fair grounds and maidans, Australian circus troupes set up their big tops complete with clowns, acrobats, lion tamers, fire-eaters and tightrope walkers. So lucrative was the Indian market that even the Calcutta earthquake of 1879 and the outbreak of the plague in Bombay in 1896 were not enough to deter Australian entertainers. Between 1885 and 1940 hardly a year went past without some form of Australian cultural presence in India.

Of all the entertainment genres, it was magic that usually stole the show. The flow of conjurers and illusionists went both ways. The first Indian “jugglers”, as they were known, were appearing as part of travelling circuses entertaining miners in Australia’s Gold Rush towns with demonstrations of sword swallowing, bullet catching, fire breathing and balancing feats. Rowe’s American Circus arrived in Australia in May 1853 with a company of South Indian jugglers and a nautch dancer. Newspaper advertisements described them as the “soothsayers of India” whose astonishing performances were “impossible to explain”.

In 1862 Burton’s Great National Circus toured Victoria with two Indian jugglers, Mahomed Cassim and his brother Abdallah, who were billed as coming from “the Court of the Rajah of Mysore”. But their engagement came to an abrupt end when they were arrested, tried and found guilty of the murder of an Indian hawker whose remains were found in bush land near the town of Queanbeyan in New South Wales, in February 1863. Despite calls for clemency, Abdallah was hanged on May 27, 1863. Cassim served a life sentence.

In the late 1880s, an Australian named John Roberts – described by Calcutta’s Deputy Commissioner of Police as a “a collector of curiosities and manager of a skating rink” – scoured India for performers, eventually bringing a troupe of 16 to Melbourne in 1889. Spectators at the Royal Museum and Grand Palace of Amusement were promised Indian jugglers, dancers and acrobats.

In reality the group was little more than a freak show. Aside from two jugglers, one of whom committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree after becoming an alcoholic, the troupe consisted of three women who appeared in the show as the three Queens of Oudh, an old man who was meant to be their prime minister, and another man who played the brother of the now defunct Oudh monarch. The surviving juggler had two children who performed the basket trick as often as ten times a day. One of the boys was also a contortionist. In addition to a “large-headed” man there were two “monkey boys”, who were allegedly caught running wild in the jungles of India but were in fact the offspring of leperous parents.

If trying to imagine how this macabre ensemble looked on stage is difficult enough, picture the scene in Melbourne on Thursday November 7, 1889, when the entire troupe in native dress marched to the city watch house after staging what was described as a “mutiny”.

According to newspaper reports, the trouble started when the troupe went on strike after not being paid for 22 days and had failed to receive an assurance that they would receive return passages to India when their six-month tour contracts expired. It appears that Roberts had gone broke. When the police seized one of the men, the others “set up a most terrible wailing”. Their screams attracted a large crowd to whom they appealed for help. When the police took one of the men away, the remainder of the troupe marched down Swanston Street before being locked up on a charge of insulting behaviour.

The plight of the Indians so alarmed the local “Madrassi residents” of Melbourne that they petitioned the Secretary of the Government of Madras to allow them to act as interpreters for the jugglers and their families. In November 1889, the Premier of Victoria reported to the Government of Madras that the Indians had been grievously ill-treated by their employer. It was eventually agreed that the Victorian government would repatriate the whole group at the cost of £11 per person.

The entry of commercially savvy theatrical entrepreneurs such as Maurice Bandmann, who built Bombay’s Opera House, as well as tougher rules on emigration introduced by the Government of India, led to a reduction in the number of jugglers and circus performers being abandoned or abused by their employers.

Meanwhile, Australian illusionists continued to come to India in large numbers. Among the Australian performers who signed up for Bandmann’s Indian circuit were Mystic Mora, a clairvoyant and fortuneteller, and her partner Richard Rowe, better known as Doc Rowe, who was billed as the “hypnotic electrical wonderworker”. The pair spent the best part of two years from 1918 to 1920 on the subcontinent presenting the Mahatma Mysteries and travelling as far west as Peshawar. Mystic Mora claimed she had foretold the Titanic disaster, the end of World War I and had picked three Melbourne Cup winners.

Murray was one of those performers who returned to India several times. In October 1929, he was back at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay billed as “Murray the Man who has Baffled the Police of the World”, performing alongside the “Madame Zomah: The Unsolved Mystery”. Zomah, whose real name was Adelaide Giddings, was a mind reader and crystal ball gazer who dressed in the style of an Egyptian queen. She used a silent code in her telepathic tricks that no one could ever crack.

Murray’s main act involved being secured by members of the audience with handcuffs and leg irons, packed in a canvas bag and then put in a moderate-sized wooden box by members of the audience who kept the keys. “The box was then moved behind a screen and within a couple of minutes Murray appeared before the audience as free as a bird.” the Bombay Chronicle reported.

When World War II broke out, the escapologist was performing at Berlin’s Wintergarten before Hermann Goering and Adolf Hitler, who as a young boy fantasised about becoming an escape artist. Murray fled Germany on a bicycle with a female member of his crew, leaving behind 20 tonnes of equipment. With Europe being engulfed by war, he travelled East arriving in Bombay in October 1939. Once again he checked into the Taj Mahal Hotel, omitting to tell the management he was broke. Fortunately for Murray, he soon had a full schedule of bookings and was able to cover his accommodation costs. He then returned to Australia promising to jump off the Sydney Harbour Bridge – a feat he never attempted.

Aside from making magic, Australian illusionists were responsible for mentoring one of pre-Independence India’s most successful magicians. Born in Bombay in 1897, Rustomji Dittia started learning at the age of eight from a group of jugglers who gathered each night at a Muslim burial ground. On his first tour to India in 1911, Doc Rowe took on the 14-year-old Dittia as an apprentice, teaching him how to put into practice the tricks he had been studying in books such as Edwin Sach’s Sleight of Hand.

In 1932 it was Dittia who organised Levante’s dive off Apollo Bunder. The two became close friends. The Australian escapologist would later credit his Parsi friend with teaching him how to breathe fire using coconut fibre, a wand and some muslin cloth. Dittia was one of the founders of the Indian Society of Magicians and later became its president. His stage show was one of the largest in the Sub-continent.

Sydney-based writer John Zubrzycki is the author of the The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy (Penguin Random House) and The Last Nizam: The Rise and Fall of India’s Greatest Princely State (Picador).