You cannot expect objectivity from a book written by a son about his father. Especially if the son’s existence is inextricably bound to his father’s farther-than-life persona. When you are best known to the world as PC Sorcar (Junior), you cannot but make sure that your senior’s legacy remains unsullied, fantastic and magical. As if your life depended on it. And it actually does.

PC Sorcar: The Maharaja of Magic is a rather special book. It brings to life a man and a very important moment in history. PC Sorcar was the stage name of an enterprising, adventurous and articulate Bengali by the name of Protul Chandra Sorcar, who rose to international acclaim in the 1940s and enjoyed a golden run from the 50s to the 60s. A magician, illusionist and escapologist performer, he is credited with having taken “Indian magic” to the world, after stripping it of connotations of the occult and black magic. The master of elaborate stage acts such as “Water of India”, “X-Ray Vision”, “Drum Illusion” and “Floating Lady” that were drenched in Indianness, Sorcar was successful in playing to the West’s and Japan’s curiosity about exotic India. Still hurting from the wounds of the World Wars, that part of the world was hungry for an escape, and Sorcar provided it.

Crowds and cars throng a theatre hall to catch ‘The Great Sorcar’

The book traces the extraordinary life of the man who anointed himself the “World’s Greatest Magician” and travelled the globe as India’s cultural ambassador with an entourage of female assistants, helpers, managers, and elaborate stage props that required several trucks to be transported.

He performed to packed theatres and stadiums in Japan, China, Australia, Russia, the US and Europe, often on live TV. This was at a time when India was still seen as a land of half-naked fakirs and flamboyant Maharajas – an impoverished colony that was struggling to attain its independence. Written by his son, who literally stepped into his father’s shoes by accident, the book offers a glimpse into a world that has all but faded away – when entertainment was an immersive experience, and special effects were not what you could produce in an Andheri studio. Imagine hundreds of Europeans being “mass hypnotised” by a man dressed like Indian royalty. Full page articles in the Daily Mirror talking about how a brown-skinned magician from the Third World had impressed the Queen’s England. An all-out war between magician rivals that could read like unpublished pages from a JK Rowling book (though the Sorcars have a stated dislike for the author’s brand of magic). The book is replete with vintage posters and rare photographs – one shows a beaming Sorcar walking down a Japan Airlines aircraft in full Maharaja regalia with a bevy of Indian beauties and turbaned men behind him.

It is all fantastic. And like magic, keeps us at a distance, guessing. Sorcar Junior is seemingly overwhelmed by his subject – his father, his guru and the star. And he says as much:

Is it possible for a son to make a fair assessment of his illustrious guru and father without letting himself be overwhelmed by a deluge of sentiments? While telling the story of the magical life of PC Sorcar, I have sometimes been carried away by emotions. It was obvious and natural. But this man belongs to history as well as to us, his near and dear ones, and now we must take an objective view and see where he stands – in this moment and in eternity.

Like a true magician, Sorcar Junior keeps his cards close to his chest, rarely taking readers behind the illusion. Rather, he produces a cinematic smoke screen with great flourish. He wants his father’s magic to retain its charm. He writes of the significance of his father’s rise in a world of magic dominated by the European masters of the time, but he does not tells us exactly how the West was won. The book lists his achievements but does not takes us into the head of the maverick genius. Perhaps by design.

According to material available with one of Sorcar’s booksellers, the magician was in fact involved in many incidents of professional rivalry and managed to emerge victorious on several occasions. However, only one incident – that of his debut in Paris being sabotaged by a French magician – is mentioned in the book. Page after page is devoted to reinforcing the legend of PC Sorcar, the “World’s Greatest Magician.” Every challenge that the boy from Tangail in Bangladesh faces in his single-minded pursuit of professional glory is retold from the perspective of a fan boy.

Sorcar Senior, according to some reports, was a man given to self adulation. And his son continues to put him on a pedestal. So what you get is a narrative brimming with extraordinary moments – his first show in Japan in 1932 (devised by the other famous Bengali Subhas Chandra Bose, who was working with the Japanese to raise money for the freedom movement), the way he was made to eat cow dung because he had traversed the “kaala pani”, how he conquered sceptics in London during a live BBC show featuring a woman who was sawed in two, and his last show in Japan during which a heart attack killed him. But Sorcar Senior is made to appear almost invincible, flawless, and somewhat of an unstoppable force, even when some of the pictures offer you a glimpse of the dhoti-clad man at home with his wife and daughters, as he sails through one challenge after another:

His life was a constant attempt to merge the real with the imaginary, to push his mortal self made of flesh and blood to match up to the vision of the ultimate Jaduwallah that he had in mind.

The book does have it poignant moments. Sorcar’s relationship with his wife for instance, is charming and told with great sensitivity. Especially when she begins to fear the worst about her ailing husband on his last tour to Japan.

The tragic moment when Sorcar Junior has to step in to revive his father’s tour after his untimely death has tremendous cinematic potential as well. You can almost hear the debutant’s heart pounding as he wears his father’s robes and steps into the spotlight.

But in this world of magic, fathers, sons, wives and friends, all speak to each other in a language that could fit right into an episode of the Mahabharata, with calls of duty, moral responsibility, grand declarations of love, respect and promises that replace real conversations. Yet, all is forgiven, when you realise that you are actually looking at material that could make for a fabulous Netflix mini series. It is dramatic – here was a regular Bengali man who was evidently conquering the world with his sleight of hand, optical illusions, plenty of gimmickry and elaborate costumes.

It takes you to a world that is long gone – a Magic Congress where magicians from around the world would meet to talk, letters exchanged between rivals, and parlours of the former Indian royals where the Maharaja of Jodhpur entertained guests with his own brand of magic. There is plenty of intrigue too – backstabbing, revolts, betrayals, and the unfailing tug of the rags to riches story of a man, a magician. Sorcar’s acts were visually spectacular. He tried his best to infuse his work with the spirit of India – women dressed in the costume of Manipuri dancers, assistants dressed like Rajasthani folk musicians.

Uday Shankar and Sorcar – cultural ambassadors of India

Like the other Indian artist who was enchanting the West with his slice of India at that time, the dancer, choreographer Uday Shankar, Sorcar managed to combine Indian mysticism with sophisticated western style choreography and presentation.

“Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of magic, that of the West and that of the East. The latter is more mysterious and psychological and even philosophical as compared with that of the West,” my father was quoted as saying.”We need will power in Eastern magic – not only hand tricks and fooling people’s eyes.”

Sorcar’s houseful shows were not just about magic, but also a road show for India. Everything from the rope trick to hypnotism – familiar tropes in narratives about Indian magic – inspired his acts. And he wore his turban and sherwani with pride.

PC Sorcar: The Maharaja of Magic, PC Sorcar (Jr), Niyogi Books.