Magician PC Sorcar’s globetrotting career started with the help of an unlikely figure – Netaji Bose

In a new book, Sorcar’s son looks back at how a young man from Calcutta became a global entertainer.

In June 1937, one twenty-four year old Indian magician, fresh from college, visited the shores of Japan by the P. & O. liner Sirdhana with his selected magic show. He gave successful magic performances in Kobe on June 20th at the India Club, attended by the Prince of Mysore, Mr. & Mrs. Saxsena (Indian Trade Commissioner), Mr. & Mrs. Inamdar, Dr. Godbole (delegates to the World Education Conference), members of the India Club, the Indian Social Society, the President, Indian National Committee and Indian Trade Association in addition to all the Indian residents of Kobe and Osaka. This show proved very successful and lavish reports were published in all the Japanese newspapers …

— Gasho Ishikawa, renowned magician, author and journalist based in Tokyo, in his reminiscences about my father, in ‘Sorcar in Japan’.

It was Subhas Chandra Bose who encouraged my father to go to Japan. He is known to the world as ‘Netaji’, or ‘The Leader’, but father was one of the fortunate few who used to call him simply ‘Subhas-da’ – the suffix reserved for a warm address to an elder brother in Bengali parlance. He was introduced to Bose at the famous Saraswati Press in central Calcutta. At that time, it was not merely a place for elegant printing, but also a meeting place for the city’s intellectuals. Netaji was undoubtedly one of the most prominent amongst them.

Sorcar’s magic acts were designed to transport spectators to a land of enchantment and exoticism.
Sorcar’s magic acts were designed to transport spectators to a land of enchantment and exoticism.

Like thousands of youths at that time, young Protul [Chandra Sorcar] was naturally attracted by Bose’s charisma. Gradually, as they became closer, he started fundraising for Bose’s nationalistic activities through his magic shows and even acted as a courier boy of sorts for some of his secret political documents. Bose, too, had a special reason for liking Protul. Here was an educated Bengali youth who was trying to build an independent career in an unusual profession instead of becoming a clerk in the colonial administration. During his visits to the press, whenever he found time, he used to chat with Protul to hear more about his aspirations and his magic. ‘It won’t be any good going to England. They will never give an Indian his due respect. They will pull you down unless you become their lackey. Better go to Japan. They really value talent.’

But it was easier said than done. Staging a show overseas would require a lot of money and preparations, besides logistic support from local contacts. One day, while my father was taking a long walk from Bhawanipore in south Calcutta to Hedua in the north absorbed in this thought, a black Austin car suddenly stopped beside him at Esplanade. ‘Get in,’ came the firm command from inside the car in an unmistakable voice. He complied and the car started moving. Then came the final instruction: ‘Rashbehari called. You must go. Do some shows there and raise some funds for him as well.’ There was no scope for a second thought. Rashbehari Bose, the mentor of many Indian freedom fighters, was trying to build a solid support base in Japan for the freedom revolution in those days.

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

Ishikawa mentions that Sorcar ‘gave shows in Kobe under the joint auspices of the Kansai Japan-India Society and the Federation of Buddhist Associations’ and ‘also performed in Tokyo under the arrangement of Late Rash Behary Bose and others. Ananda Mohan Sahay of India Lodge, Kobe organized his Japan tour, which received very good receptions from both the press and public of Japan.’

It was not a smooth sailing though, quite literally. Due to financial constraints, Sorcar had chosen a cheap voyage on a ship that carried cargo as well as some passengers. His ticket was for ‘deck’ class, meaning he had to sit out in the open during the entire journey. A few days before reaching the Japanese shores, the ship was caught in a fierce storm on the Pacific Ocean. The deck passengers were desperately trying to taking shelter inside from the raging sea. But my father remained on the deck, embracing his only possession – a box full of magic equipment. By the captain’s order, no luggage would be allowed inside. The next morning, when the weather cleared up a little, his co-passengers came out one by one and found him ravaged by the wind and the storm, running a high temperature. ‘What’s in that box that you wanted to save so desperately?’ they asked him. ‘My life,’ he answered. Naturally, they didn’t understand. Suspicion and speculation grew about the box’s contents. Secret documents? Arms and ammunition? Gold and precious stones? When the ship finally harboured at Kobe, father found that his most valuable treasure, the box, was lost.

A list of illusions of Sorcar’s Indrajal show at Chaya Theatre, Calcutta.
A list of illusions of Sorcar’s Indrajal show at Chaya Theatre, Calcutta.

Shattered and shivering with fever, he landed at Kobe. But it was difficult to get past the immigration desk. When they asked about his purpose of coming to Japan, he told them he wanted to do some magic shows and earn some money. But one needed permission from the foreign ministry for that. To his horror, he found that his visa and other papers were also gone! After much pleading, they issued him a fresh visa, but strictly as a tourist. He would not be able to give any performance. He accepted the condition, but knew that he would not be able to adhere to it for long, because he had to fulfil the task given to him by ‘Subhas-da’. It was a duty towards his nation, after all.

By dint of sheer luck, he found out that some Indians lived close to the port. And there was even a Bengali among them! Protul put up with them. After a couple of days they informed him of a gathering at the local Magicians’ Club. He could go and prove his abilities there. But these magicians, they warned him, were very highbrow people!

I must tell you here that my father believed in ‘epic’ performances – which required elaborate props and detailed preparations to reach perfection. And here he was, standing before the untrusting eyes of a group of Japanese magicians in a strange land with nothing but his bare hands. And then he remembered. He was always reluctant to show any magic at the chat sessions in Saraswati Press, no matter how important a personality requested him – not even Subhas Chandra Bose. Whenever they pestered him, he told them, ‘To play football you need two goalposts and a ball and to put on your jersey and boots. I, too, need my equipment to perform magic.’ Once Bose had teased him by saying, ‘I know you refuse because your magic is not suitable for showing to adults. The tricks you know are only fit for children.’ Father was furious. He almost snatched Bose’s handkerchief from his pocket and started performing his tricks. At the end of the ‘show’ Bose patted him and said, ‘Keep up this rage. One day it will take you to the top of the world.’ It took only a few minutes for Protul to humble the ‘highbrow’ magicians. They accepted him as one of their own and even gave him some money and promised to arrange shows for him. But what of the visa restrictions? ‘We will take care of that,’ they assured.

The historic performance took place on 20 June 1937, the memory of which Ishikawa cherished for all his life. The show that marked the beginning of the metamorphosis of Protul to P.C. Sorcar.

An original litho poster of Sorcar.
An original litho poster of Sorcar.

He did not think of going to Britain as long as India was a British colony. He simply hated the idea of going to the ‘enemy land’ to entertain its people. But he did not see any wrong in going there after Independence. He chose his magic as the answer to the exploitation of two long centuries. He decided to go to Britain as the Maharaja of Magic.

In England, Lord and Lady Mountbatten showed their sincere respect to him. Father told me that Lady Mountbatten had asked many questions about the condition of people in post-Independence India and the position of magic in their social life.

As mentioned in the Introduction, Sorcar was invited by the BBC even before he had the chance to perform shows in British cities. He was assigned fifteen minutes. Magic had always been a very popular art in Britain. Sorcar understood well that these fifteen minutes would not be enough to win over the minds of millions of seasoned spectators nor attract potential event organisers from among them. But he had the inherent talent of entertaining people simply through his dramatic way of presentation. He hurriedly listed his items to be shown. And the last item on the list was the cutting of a young girl in two halves. The rest is history. When the fifteen minutes were up, the show finished with a cliffhanger ending.

The entire press rushed to the BBC office. Innumerable phone calls by anxious viewers threw the city’s telephone system out of gear for two hours. The next day, all major newspapers carried one big headline: ‘The girl is all right! It was all an act of magic by Sorcar of India.’

Books by Sorcar on elementary magic.
Books by Sorcar on elementary magic.

The Daily Mirror of 10 April 1956 gave the headline: ‘“Girl cut in half ” shock on TV.’ Its correspondent Cufford Davis wrote:

A magician startled B.B.C. television viewers last night by ‘sawing a girl in half ’ – and pretending that he had killed her.

He made such a realistic job of it that the B.B.C. switchboard was flooded with calls from viewers anxious to know whether the girl was all right.

The magician, Indian-born Sorcar, performed the trick at the close of his act in the magazine programme ‘Panorama’.

The story was accompanied by a smiling photograph of the beautiful lady assistant. It was captioned ‘Magician’s girl Dipty Dey’, along with a quote from her: ‘So, I’m all in one piece. I’m happy, alive and well – and I look forward to being cut in half again.’

Sound systems and percussion equipment that were used in the Indrajal shows.
Sound systems and percussion equipment that were used in the Indrajal shows.

All photographs courtesy PC Sorcar Jr. and Niyogi Books.

Excerpted with permission from PC Sorcar: The Maharaja of Magic, PC Sorcar (Jr), Niyogi Books.

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