Was it a trick? Of course it was, otherwise why the cloth? Though, magicians must never reveal their secrets, or the magic is gone. How did the fellow do it? The only answer your sceptical correspondent could come up with was that the Indian must have had incredibly strong haunches, allowing himself to surreptitiously push up unseen from horizontal to vertical, under cover of the cloth. As he did so he must have had his arms under the three sticks, keeping them horizontal. The illusion was that he had risen horizontally, whereas in fact he was presumably actually standing underneath the cloth, and holding out the three sticks in front of himself, to make it look his body and legs had risen. Nothing to it really, after a good bit of practice. On the other hand, he did seem to be up a bit higher than his actual height, which gave some pause for thought … perhaps he was standing right up on tiptoes under that concealing cloth?

We remembered our levitating friend – not that we’ve ever forgotten him, really – in reading John Zubrzycki’s book. What we didn’t know, as the author reveals, is that the fellow was a jadoowallah, a traditional street magician. It’s a word we hadn’t heard ever before (although we recognise the “wallah” bit, which describes a person involved in some kind of activity, such as a punkah wallah, who is one of those servants we occasionally see in old films set in India, sitting for hours pulling a cord endlessly so that an overhead piece of material – the punkah – sways backwards and forwards, providing some air circulation for his masters in the stifling Indian heat. But we digress; these days, electricity has reached the subcontinent).

Zubrzycki opens up with a four-century-old account of Indian magic witnessed by Mughal Emperor Jahangir and takes us through the gamut of jugglers, tumblers, magicians, mountebanks, levitating Brahmins and acrobats, some of whom were eventually taken to the Western world to transfix audiences with their feats “beyond the reach of human power”.


“Brahmin of the Air”, 1832, Madras, featured in Saturday Magazine

The stunts were astonishing wherever they were performed: swallowing swords; leaping through hot irons and pointed instruments; poising men on long poles resting on their breasts, chins and noses; tumbling and vaulting on the tight rope; swinging and balancing on the slack rope; resurrections; and producing trees in an instant merely by placing a seed in the earth. And perhaps most mysterious of all, the Indian Rope Trick, where the end of a rope is simply thrown into the air and then scaled by a man or animal.

The Rope Trick was “the most marvellous of all and would become the benchmark against which all feats of Indian magic would be measured:
As Jahangir recounted: “They produced a chain of fifty cubits in length, and in my presence, threw one end of it towards the sky, where it remained as if fastened to something in the air. A dog was then brought forward, and being placed at the lower end of the chain, immediately ran up, and reaching the other end, immediately disappeared in the air. In the same manner a hog, a panther, a lion, and a tiger, were immediately sent up the chain, and all equally disappeared at the upper end of the chain. At last they took down the chain and put it into a bag, no one even discovering in what way the different animals were made to vanish into the air in the mysterious manner above described. This, I may venture to affirm, was beyond measure strange and surprising.”

Zubrzycki saw levitation himself, which he describes as a trick. “Shamin Khan covered his brother Asim with a blue sheet, tapped his stick on the ground and watched his lithe frame slowly rise above the ground, his head and legs clearly visible. Though I had been told the secret to the trick, it was impressive nonetheless.”

It wasn’t the author’s first encounter with Indian street magic. That was in December 1979 when he wandered into a square at Alipur Duar and found a crowd of curious onlookers encircling an old man and a young boy who were preparing to do the Basket Trick.

“The boy climbed into a round cane basket just big enough to fit into. After putting on the lid, the man started chanting incantations that grew louder and louder. Without warning he picked up a large steel sword and started plunging it into the basket. Blood covered the sword and the boy’s screams were terrifying. There seemed no way he could have avoided the thrusts of the three-foot long blade. I could sense the crowd getting edgy. If this was theatre, then the performance was utterly convincing. Suddenly everything went silent. In went the sword one last time. A blanket was thrown over the basket. After a few moments, the blanket and the lid of the basket were removed and the boy appeared with the sword through his neck. Grasping the hilt in one hand and the tip of the blade in the other, the magician lifted the boy off the ground and presented him to the now completely astonished crowd. The boy showed no signs of discomfort, there were no obvious wounds and no trickery involved. I was sure there was no hidden brace. When sufficient baksheesh had been collected, the boy was lowered back into the basket, a blanket was thrown over it and a few minutes later emerged completely unscathed.”

Such legerdemain could be found all over the subcontinent. A traveller to Madras described the lithe and supple bodies of jugglers as resembling those of serpents rather than men. The most accomplished could leap over an enormous elephant or five camels placed abreast. Chickens were decapitated and restored to life, a man’s tongue severed, swords swallowed. There were balancing goats and somersaulting and prophesying monkeys.


A group of Indian jugglers, featured in The Penny Magazine

Other encounters with these wonder-workers were of yogis, fakirs, mendicants and such mysterious figures and their supposedly magical or inexplicable feats. Who has not seen at least a picture of a fakir lying on a bed of nails?

A core group of tricks come up repeatedly: levitation; snake-charming; fire-walking; beds of nails; cup-and-ball tricks; live burial; sword-swallowing (and self-impalement of various sorts); and various reversible dismemberments and decapitations. Plus, the eating and regurgitation of things not usually eaten or regurgitated. An 1851 account quoted one witness: “Tenpenny nails, clasp-knives, gimblets, were all treated as so many items of pastry or confectionary, and I could not but picture to myself the havoc a dozen of these cormorants would commit in an ironmonger’s shop.”

Zubrzycki tells how some of these magic men were taken from the streets of India to the stages of Europe. As British dominion spread over the subcontinent, such wonder-workers became synonymous with India, and its exotic entertainers became a big hit in Britain. For instance, there was one blockbuster show not to miss in London in the summer of 1813: a troupe of “Indian jugglers” performing in an upstairs room that had been leased on Pall Mall. The playbill promised a “great variety” of tricks from the East, all of them “perfectly novel in this Country”.

The spectacle and marketing was the scheme of a savvy East India Company captain who had rounded up his unusual human cargo in Bombay. He would have found easy pickings at a time when snake charmers were so common that a missionary recorded 722 of them in a single police subdivision. The Pall Mall troupe – now dressed in turbans and white blouses – were soon performing four times a day to keep up with demand.

However, such performers were often exploited, being eventually dumped on the streets and often ending up in the Strangers’ Home for Distressed Asiatics in West India Dock in London. And Western magicians soon began to appropriate Indian attire, tricks and stage names; blacking up and switching to turbans rather than top hats. Harry Houdini, born to Jewish parents in Budapest, launched his career as an illusionist in Chicago by posing as a “Hindu fakir”.

Barring a couple of exceptions, the author says readers will not discover the secrets to any of the tricks described in his book – many of which, in any case, seem inexplicable, even to a hardened sceptic such as himself, he points out. There is enough disenchantment in the world, and Zubrzycki says he doesn’t intend to compound it. However, a chapter on the Rope Trick is titled “The Most Famous Trick Never Performed”.

In the best version of this, a conjuror throws a rope or chain into the air, mounts to the top and disappears before descending in a shower of severed limbs which are, in due course, restored to wholeness. Everyone describes it; nobody reliable seems to have witnessed it first-hand. Was it a myth?

Later in the book, though, he describes an 1876 version of the Basket Trick, in which a young girl, bound hand and foot, is forced into a shallow basket. Then the juggler, in a rage, leapt on the basket and crushed it, thrust a sword through it time and again, and pretended to gloat over the blood on the blade. However, a sharp-eyed member of the audience had seen the girl slip out of the basket when the attention of the others was diverted by a juggler seizing a child in the crowd and pretending to behead her.

Zubrzycki’s book explores marvels, myths and outrageous cons, and offers Westerners a fascinating look into the strange mysteries of India’s often baffling ways.

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