Tricks of the trade

Meet the Australian entertainers who enchanted India long before cable TV

Illusionists, escapologists and musicians from Down Under took their pop culture to the farthest corners of the subcontinent in the 19th and early 20th century.

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.

Murray the Escapologist, New South Wales, circa 1920s.
Murray the Escapologist, New South Wales, circa 1920s.

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.

Mystic Mora and Doc Rowe standing in front of posters advertising their performance at the Garrison Theatre, Peshawar (1917).
Mystic Mora and Doc Rowe standing in front of posters advertising their performance at the Garrison Theatre, Peshawar (1917).

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).

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Putting the patient first - insights for hospitals to meet customer service expectations

These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

As customers become more vocal and assertive of their needs, their expectations are changing across industries. Consequently, customer service has gone from being a hygiene factor to actively influencing the customer’s choice of product or service. This trend is also being seen in the healthcare segment. Today good healthcare service is no longer defined by just qualified doctors and the quality of medical treatment offered. The overall ambience, convenience, hospitality and the warmth and friendliness of staff is becoming a crucial way for hospitals to differentiate themselves.

A study by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions in fact indicates that good patient experience is also excellent from a profitability point of view. The study, conducted in the US, analyzed the impact of hospital ratings by patients on overall margins and return on assets. It revealed that hospitals with high patient-reported experience scores have higher profitability. For instance, hospitals with ‘excellent’ consumer assessment scores between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with ‘low’ scores.

This clearly indicates that good customer service in hospitals boosts loyalty and goodwill as well as financial performance. Many healthcare service providers are thus putting their efforts behind: understanding constantly evolving customer expectations, solving long-standing problems in hospital management (such as long check-out times) and proactively offering a better experience by leveraging technology and human interface.

The evolving patient

Healthcare service customers, who comprise both the patient and his or her family and friends, are more exposed today to high standards of service across industries. As a result, hospitals are putting patient care right on top of their priorities. An example of this in action can be seen in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. In July 2015, the hospital launched a ‘Smart OPD’ system — an integrated mobile health system under which the entire medical ecosystem of the hospital was brought together on a digital app. Patients could use the app to book/reschedule doctor’s appointments and doctors could use it to access a patient’s medical history, write prescriptions and schedule appointments. To further aid the process, IT assistants were provided to help those uncomfortable with technology.

The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.

Play

As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.

Play

So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.

Play

As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”

Play

By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.