In October 2014 I was travelling in a minibus back from the South Asia Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. We were going to the airport. I got chatting to a man opposite me who had also been at the conference. I asked what he did. He said that he did research on street magicians in India. We agreed to have lunch and kept talking about magic. He let slip that he is a practising magician himself. Of course I did what many before me must have done: I asked him if he could show me a trick.
The magician requested a pen. I gave him one. He then rolled up his sleeves and covered the pen with his two hands. He took the lid off the pen and then slid the pen back into its lid. He repeated this several times. I could hear the ‘click’ as the lid went back onto the pen, although I couldn’t see the pen because it was behind his hands. All of a sudden, just after I’d heard one of the clicks, he opened his hands. The pen was gone. Again: His sleeves were rolled up, and I had been watching his hands intensely and hearing the clicks.
At that moment the world stopped. I felt like life had suddenly got another dimension. I felt like a seven-year-old child. Perhaps Father Christmas does exist. I looked at him, and he just smiled.
“It must have been a sleight of hand,” I blathered later as we walked to the plane. “I suppose you guessed where I would look. “He glanced at me, almost pityingly, “I didn’t guess anything”, he said. “I knew where you would look.” I never found out the man’s name.
Magic has an incredible power to unite, to transgress cultural and social boundaries, and to create communities of feeling. This became even more powerfully clear to me recently in Melbourne, where the Australia India Institute hosted thee street magicians from India, in partnership with the Festival of India.
Let me just say right away that last night was a landmark event.
Held at the State Library of Victoria, the evening started with a stunning presentation by John Zubrzycki, a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales and recent Incoming Fellow at AII@Delhi. John gave us a state-of the-art introduction to the history of Australia-India relations with respect to magic.
We learnt that Indian magicians – they were called ‘jugglers’ – came to Australia as early as 1853 and performed in Lonsdale Street, just a few metres from where we were watching the show last night! We also learnt about Australians who had toured India, including one escapologist who dived off the Gateway to India in Bombay in a bag with his arms and legs shackled (he escaped). The same man went to see the Amir of Afghanistan who made a bet with the escapologist that he would not be able to get out of a prison cell. The escapologist was taken to the most secure dungeon and left there with 5,000 rupees. “If you escape you can take the money”, the Amir said. “If you don’t escape, you will be left here forever.” He got out.
The show itself last night was remarkable: intensely funny, brilliant, and thoroughly entertaining. We were treated to a virtuoso performance by Rahman Shah and his two aides, Varun Bhat and Akshay Bhat, the latter an extremely skilled puppeteer. Rahman’s style is participatory, and at one point he had six audience members on stage in what was one of the evening’s funniest – and most amazing – skits.
The show was conducted in Hindi to a mostly Hindi-speaking audience, although questions were translated into English. I think it is one of the AII’s first bilingual events and there was an atmosphere in the hall unlike anything I’ve experienced so far as Director.
Rahman, the magician, comes from a poor community in Delhi and lives in a small room with his wife and six children. During questions he spoke about the struggles that street magicians face to practice their art in the face of a sometimes dismissive, and occasionally cruel, local administration. Rahman featured in a documentary titled Tomorrow We Disappear about the challenges that street performers face in modern India.
Last night was inspiring, transformational, a triumph. We are deeply indebted to all involved, especially Rahman, Varun and Akshay for travelling from India and entertaining us so beautifully. Magic does happen.