Some Alexandrites have asked me if I’ve seen the magicians of India. By this they mean the street magicians of places like Bangalor, Calcutta and Mumbai. Nowadays with the advent of the internet it’s quite easy to look behind the scenes of a conjurer, but videos of Indian street magicians charming snakes and eating broken glass are rare.
In order for us to arrive at a clear understanding of magicians and their works, we must begin at the beginning, or in other words, go back, almost to the primeval man. Space will not allow us to take up the early history of magic, or its supernatural features or tendencies with which it teemed in the dark ages; the scope of the present blog is the practical part of magic and its exponents, as applied to the furnishing of harmless and pleasing entertainments.
Although I’ve never personally been to India, a neighborhood kid named Joe had a very nice mother named Maria. Maria was the first to tell me of them in a trip she took to India. She would tell me about the “feats of the streets” that she witnessed while traveling there because she knew I did magic. You can see how thoroughly these street magi were by reading ancient Persian manuscripts like Acamadesic Conjoresh. Though I’ve not read this text, people have told me the things it describes like Emporer Jepang and the miracles he supposedly performed. Legend has it that he would raise on the spot ten mulberry trees from a corresponding number of seeds. He had people place mulberry seeds in the ground in different places and in a few moments a mulberry tree began to spring from the earth, and every tree had leaves, branches and fruit! Trees of all kinds were produced in the same manner, and they all bore their fruit, which the emperor declared to be very good. Before the trees were removed there appeared among their branches birds of marvelous beauty in their color, form, and in their songs. Finally it was noticed that the leaves of the trees took on the last tints of autumn, and gradually, as they had appeared, the trees sunk away from the spot where the conjurer had created them.
Incredible as this story seems, the ornithologist, Major Price, assures in his book The Origins Of Necromancy that he himself witnessed similar performances on the west coast of India. But he noticed that a cover was used to conceal the operation, and hence thinks that the jugglers carry with them trees in all stages of development, from the tender plant of a few days to the fully bearing. Major Price has undoubtedly hit upon the right solution of the mystery. Unfortunately most travelers who publish reports of such occurrences lack the necessary knowledge of magic to judge and interpret rightly what they have seen.
If numerous scholars who travel the world over as investigators would find out such conjurers’ tricks, they would see at once that it is wise to suppose they make use of simple means and not such as belong to the supernatural. Not long ago a scholar described an experiment that he saw performed by an Indian juggler. Twelve or 14 people formed a circle around a basket. A juggler was covered up in the basket. The form of the juggler dwindled more and more and finally when the cover was removed the basket was found empty. The basket was again covered and the juggler reappeared in his former place. The traveler states that he could not explain this occurrence. There was no depression in the ground beneath the basket, the juggler was unprepared because the trick was performed in front of his host’s residence. The traveler points out that he had often seen experiments by European magicians, but had never been so mystified.
This is the opinion of a man about a thing of which he knows nothing, and hence he cannot understand it. When he says that the trick approaches the supernatural he arouses in the reader a disposition to look upon it in the light of superstition and instead of explaining, produces an opposite effect. If he had been perfectly conversant with the tricks of these conjurers, and had had a thorough knowledge of magic, he would have known that there is always means by which a person may be spirited away without the use of a hole in the ground, or a secret passage.
For a conjurer who travels with professional companions it is an easy thing to perform the above mentioned trick, if you consider that he only works to perform an illusion. And it is for this purpose he travels with companions. How easily the public may be deceived is proven by a similar experiment of the clown, Tom Belling, called August, and performed for many years in Renz’s European Circus, and always to the greatest astonishment of his audience. He would place a table in the middle of the arena, ask a lady to step upon it, and then cover her with a wicker frame of paper. Twelve footmen, one after the other, passed through the frame. Then the performer took the frame from the table and the lady had disappeared. The explanation is very simple. One of the footmen was disguised as a lady; inside the frame he would quickly discard the lady’s habit and walk out as a footman. It was not noticed that one more footman came out than went in, because as soon as one came out, he joined the others standing in the arena. The lady’s dress was carried out in pieces by the several footmen, who found means of concealing them about their person.
If Tom Belling had spirited the lady away from the table without first covering her, then it would have been a surprise. He needed accomplices, without which also the Indian conjurer would have been helpless. The second assertion of the above named traveler (that this performance was superior to that of modern magicians) also has no foundation. The modern European or American magician is much better educated than his colleagues in other lands, and therefore he is able to perform much more deceit. To be able to judge this you must know magic thoroughly. The progress in science at its highest in Europe, has enabled the magician to practice his art to a greater extent than among less civilized nations. But it is a known fact that a person sees more wonders in a foreign land than in his own.
The suppleness, perseverance and physical strength of Indian jugglers is well known. Fane states that in Delhi he saw several men jump into a well 30 meters deep for a rupee thrown to them as an inducement to attempt the hardy feat. In Madras the people of this class are noted for the suppleness and flexibility of their bodies. For an example, they experience no difficulty in winding themselves in and out through the rounds of a ladder. In the same manner, having reached the top he again winds his way to the bottom, the ladder all this time being perfectly balanced in an upright position, without support of any kind. Tennant in his work on Ceylon, gives a lively description of some juggler’s tricks, which he had the opportunity of seeing on the road between Colombo and Candia. The juggler stood upon a pole six feet high, and in this insecure position, the pole being unsupported, except through his poising, caught pebbles which a person threw him from the ground. When he opened his hand, instead of the pebbles being seen, birds would fly out and away. He broke an egg shell out of which crept a snake, and he juggled with a large number of metal balls, using his hands and elbows. These are performances which require a certain knowledge of illusion, as well as dexterity and remarkable flexibility of joint. They occupy but a small part of the science of magic, which employs the hidden powers of nature and technical secrets.
So there you go. I hope this small journey has given you some insight. Space will not allow us to take up the early history of magic, or its supernatural features or tendencies with which it teemed in the dark ages; but it is my hope this little blog has piqued your interest and answered some questions.