“To tell the story of Indian magic is to hold a mirror to India’s religious traditions, its society and culture,” journalist John Zubrzycki writes in his comprehensive history of magic in India. The country certainly has its fair share of vanishing coin tricks (think demonetisation), disappearances and elaborate escape routines (think Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya) and conjuring tricks (think violent rumour-driven mobs and institutions of eminence). But these magic tricks, rather than entertaining us prove to be the duplicitous effects of political misdirection, and it is almost this distinction between magic as entertainment, and the story of magic as vexing reality that Zubrzycki recounts in Jadoowallahs, Jugglers, and Jinns.

Zubrzycki cites anthropologist Jan Van Baal at the very beginning of his book: “Magic is a dangerous word, more dangerous than magic itself, because it is such a handsome term to cover everything that we fail to understand. The term is used far too often as a vague kind of explanation, but in fact it explains nothing.” The definition-cum-premonition is somewhat true. As Zubrzycki makes clear by the end, not understanding comes at the cost of an arrogant division that must be affected between science and spirituality, and between east and west. A magic trick performed in three acts, Zubrzycki plays raconteur in the book to the birth, disappearance, and reappearance of modern Indian magic

The Pledge

The story of magic itself begins, as Zubrzycki tells it, from the very auspices of the Harappan Civilisation. Even though the book’s build-up is slow, it meticulously winds its way through this history – the concept of “maya” as a native connotation of the word “illusion” from the Rig Veda and its use by Indra through “cosmic sleights of hand” (the word “Indrajaala” is still used to denote magic in parts of the subcontinent). The seventh century Hindu sage Samkara used a “wonder show”, the centrepiece of which featured the (soon to be famed) rope trick to explain “maya”. Magic features in other religious texts as well. In the Pali translated Dhammapada, the Buddha challenges his detractors to a show of magical powers by growing a mango tree instantaneously. Curiously, it’s a trick that has made it into the modern Indian magician’s repertoire as well.

Courtesy Pan Macmillan India
Courtesy Pan Macmillan India

Zubrzycki recounts other strange occurrences, such as the reception of a strange 14th century translated Persian manuscript named the Kamarupa Bijaksa, which spoke of magical imagination or “wahm” and divination or “damir­” wisdom that first rested on the authority of the Assamese Kamakhya Devi. Side by side, the book features Ali Adil Shah, the ruler of Bijapur and his interest in the esoteric arts; Kabir and Gorakhnath and their oft-cited transfigurations into stream and frog respectively; Rafa’i Fakirs, Bazigars, thuggees, tamashewallahs and madaris, jadugars, qalandars, bahrupis and sanperas, all of whom, for Zubrzycki constitute the general jadoowallah.

Alongside macabre magic tricks, Zubrzycki observes that most jadoowallahs came from marginalised communities, many of whom would eventually be persecuted under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. The rest of the book almost acts as a lead-up to a conclusion foretold – one in which colonialism effects a division between the West and the rest. The story of Indian magic and its modern history, however, takes stranger twists and turns along the way, and Zubrzycki tells it with an magician’s penchant for strangeness, devoid of any empty pomp and flair the art would take on.

The Turn

The second act of Indian magic, as Zubrzycki tells it, is the story of how it slowly slithered its way out of the subcontinent, swaying to the financial, scientific, legal and cultural tunes of Imperialism’s snake charm.

Snake charmer, c1930s calendar art, Priya Paul Collection, Courtesy Pan Macmillan India
Snake charmer, c1930s calendar art, Priya Paul Collection, Courtesy Pan Macmillan India

Towards the end of the 18th and 19th centuries, magic somewhere lost some of its immersive quality and became the object of anthropological knowledge. Observational accounts of various kinds of performers saw themselves being published by the likes of Indians such as Krishnanath Raghunath in Bombay Beggars and Criers (1892) as well as Govind Narayan in Mumbaiche Varnan (1863). Around the same time, there grew a crop of western magicians (American, English, and German) who started patronising local Indian jadoowallahs in order to learn their tricks. Among these were Howard Thurston, who paid local magicians to perform in his hotel room, Harry Houdini, upon whose insistence a magic trick borrowed from a local magician was patented in his name, and Chung Ling Soo whose real name – William Robison – wouldn’t have been a palatable stage name for western audiences.

Zubrzycki also tells the heartbreaking story of the Oriental Troupe who had made their way to England under the auspices of one Mr Hanlon. However, having arrived, there emerged stories of abuse from within the group, and a lack of payment from their manager on the allegations that they had been drinking. The Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders at West India Dock, set up for cultural refugees, had to be a shelter for the Oriental Troupe. It is an illustrative example that Zubrzycki uses to make clear that of the many jadoowallahs who were brought to England, a large number were made destitute through an imperial sleight of hand. If the first act of Indian magic was filled with a thriving ecology of religion, magic, music and art, the second consisted of its disappearance up the rope. But with every trick, there is a final act, and Indian magicians would would still have theirs.

‘Karachi’(Arthur Claude Derby) performs the Indian Rope Trick at West Hampstead in 1934: Harrry Price Collection, University of London. Courtesy Panmacmillan India
‘Karachi’(Arthur Claude Derby) performs the Indian Rope Trick at West Hampstead in 1934: Harrry Price Collection, University of London. Courtesy Panmacmillan India

The Prestige

In Zubrzycki’s third act, the slow feverish music that has remained as background noise reaches a crescendo replete with drums, cymbals, splitting the story finally into two distinct sides – East, and West, and their analogues of rational/scientific and spiritual/believing, all unravelling around a debate about who could make a rope stand rigid enough to be climbed.

With the story of the fabled Indian Rope trick, Zubrzycki reaches his emotional nadir, almost cinematic in its rendition. The Indian Rope trick, along with the mango-tree conjuring trick had till now been staple leitmotifs of Indian magic, and while the mango-tree conjuring trick had been seen and performed by almost every reputed magician in history, the rope trick had only been mentioned in a number of eye-witness accounts (including the likes of Ibn Battuta and Jahangir). No one in history had actually been able to perform it, satisfactorily at least. A challenge issued by an English occult group known as the Magic Circle around 1918 met with several failed attempts. It is here that Zubrzycki performs his own inverse magic trick. As feverish as the reader gets in wanting to find out the fate of Indian Rope trick, there is no “gasp” offered by the book. It maintains the suspense of how the effect was finally achieved, and by whom (if at all by anyone). There is a big reveal, yes, but perhaps magic, as the story goes, is not actually about the revelations but what goes on behind the scenes. The actual performer, it seems, died with the secret in 1970 having learnt it from a dying Gorkha soldier who allowed him to only pass it on if the situation required, and never to profit from it.

By the 1920s the Rope Trick was on the programme of many of the world’s leading magicians including Harry Blackstone | Wikimedia Commons.
By the 1920s the Rope Trick was on the programme of many of the world’s leading magicians including Harry Blackstone | Wikimedia Commons.

The story of magic

The story of modern Indian magic is finally one of temperaments and how people viewed it. There were those who were enchanted by the world of magic and took part in it, and those who looked to separate themselves it. At a party hosted by Sir Arthur Lothian, the resident of Hyderabad, in the 1940s, when a fakir split his stomach and disembowelled himself, a guest commented with a stiff upper lip: “Hardly an appetising number to include in one’s programme at a cocktail party.”

It happens to be the case that, just like our quotidian card tricks, the metaphors of magic are both ubiquitous and cliched – from fakirs to rope tricks, and from rabbits in top hats to vanishing acts, they appear everywhere.

Zubrzycki not only infuses his book with a slow sound and fury, but makes apparent that politics, in the end, is the reigning supreme metaphor for magic, and just as people and cultures are made to disappear, they find ways of reappearing elsewhere, at other times.

Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India, John Zubrzycki, Pan Macmillan India.

Vipin Krishna is a researcher at UCLA.