Book World: The Story Behind Some of The World’s Most Awe-inspiring Magic Tricks

For thousands of years India has been a land where magic, myth and religious mysteries have tended to mix together.


Oxford University Press has done an immense disservice to John Zubrzycki’s fascinating “Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic.” Apart from some print-on-demand atrocities, I’ve seldom encountered a book in which so many words have been repeated, dropped, misspelled or misused. I can only suppose that this slovenliness – “damming” for “damning,” sentences garbled because of a missing verb or pronoun – indicates over-reliance on a computerized auto-correct function. No competent proofreader would have allowed such an embarrassing farrago to go to press.

Oxford’s delinquency is particularly annoying because Zubrzycki, an expert on South Asian history, clearly worked hard to produce what is, despite its textual irritations, a valuable and entertaining book. For thousands of years India has been a land where magic, myth and religious mysteries have tended to mix together. Seemingly miraculous powers have long been ascribed to yogis, fakirs, ascetics and jadoowallahs, or street magicians. The subcontinent is, moreover, the birthplace of that most famous, and controversial, of all illusions: the Indian Rope Trick. Many early 20th-century Western magicians even adopted Indian (or Chinese) stage names, then created shows that capitalized on the glamour of the mystic East.

Indian magic actually begins with the creation of the world. “In the Rig Veda,” writes Zubrzycki, “the warrior god Indra, the first great magician, employed ‘indrajal’- a net of magic – to ensnare the world, save it from demonic forces and give mankind a reason to live.” Hinduism itself stresses the pervasive power of maya or illusion. A yogi, much like Marvel Comics’ Ant-Man, might acquire “supernatural powers such as animan, the ability to become minute” and “mahinam, the ability to become large.” In like manner, India’s Buddhists maintain that priests who had “mastered siddhis, or supernatural forces, could cause rain to fall, see far distances, fly through the air and generate living beings out of ashes.”

As “Empire of Enchantment” proceeds, Zubrzycki discusses ancient occult texts, the sorcerers at Mughal courts, wondrous automata and the Arabian Nights-like adventures of epic hero Amir Hamza. We learn that Aindrajalika, or conjuring, was one of the 64 arts listed in the Sanskrit sex manual the Kama Sutra. Extremely devout pilgrims, Zubryzycki relates, might wander the earth penitentially holding their arms above their heads or sleeping on a bed of nails. Still other esoteric masters would allow themselves to be buried underground, then days or even weeks later be revived after apparent death.

By the 19th century, the British Raj oversaw a subcontinent swarming with rope-dancers, acrobats, sword-swallowers, fire walkers and masters of sleight-of-hand. A jadoowallah might perform the Mango Tree Illusion, in which a small bush bearing ripe mangoes rises up from stony ground, or the Basket Trick, in which a boy crawls under a small basket, which is then pierced by swords until his pitiful cries die out and the basket is finally turned over, only to reveal that the child has disappeared. Most shocking of all, one could sometimes watch what looked like an actual beheading, though the supposed victim eventually reappeared hale and healthy.

By far the best-known Indian magician of the 19th century was Ramo Samee, who toured widely in America and Europe. In the late Victorian era, though, unscrupulous entrepreneurs frequently defrauded Indian “jugglers” – a term that included magicians – who had been lured west to amaze crowds at various international expositions. Lachee, the “Gum-elastic girl,” for instance, “could thread a needle with her toes while blindfolded and her body contorted in the shape of a hoop.” Soon Western magicians, such as Harry Kellar and Howard Thurston, were traveling to India to learn what they could from its jadoowallahs, whom they nonetheless frequently disparaged. As Zubrzycki emphasizes, racial and national prejudices gradually led to what amounted to intense rivalry over whether Eastern or Western magic was the more powerful.

The Indian claim to superiority ultimately rested on the legendary rope trick. At its simplest, a rope is thrown into the air and grows rigid, then a boy climbs up it and disappears. Was the illusion ever actually performed? Did it require special equipment, perhaps a rope woven around short lengths of bamboo that could be covertly socketed together? Or might the whole thing simply be the equivalent of an urban myth? Zubryzycki’s devotes an excellent chapter to differing theories.

“Empire of Enchantment” ends by tracing the careers of India’s most honored mid-20th-century magicians. Kuda Bux allows his eyes to be tightly bandaged and demonstrates that he can easily read any text placed before him. P.C. Sorcar buzz-saws a 17-year-old girl in half on British television and the program suddenly cuts off when the obviously distressed magician is shown shaking his head over something that has gone terribly wrong. It hasn’t, of course, since Sorcar – a master of self-promotion – later calls himself “The World’s Greatest Magician.” He is rivaled as a maharajah of marvels only by Gogia Pasha, whose show mixed Western and Indian deceptions and included such evocatively titled acts as the Flying Ranee, the Cabinet of Dr. Albini, Wonders of the Pyramids and the Basket of Death.

Ultimately, then, “Empire of Enchantment” should be regarded as quite a good book-though it could have been even better had somebody done a proper job of proofreading. As writers and magicians both know, details matter. One slip may be forgiven but a slipshod presentation breaks the spell.

Special To The Washington Post

Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic

By John Zubrzycki

Oxford. 396 pp. $29.95

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