Tricks of the trade

Tricks of the trade

By ANIRUDH VOHRA | | 9 July, 2016
In the old days, magicians wore top hats and mascara as they presented their hackneyed card tricks to a bored audience. All that has now changed. To be a professional magician in today’s India, is to be a savvy illusionist who doesn’t mind playing corporate gigs, writes Anirudh Vohra.

It’s time to cast a cold, rational gaze on the business of magic. Traditionally, ours has been a country that has the magical strain running across the very fabric of its cultural imagination. Just look at some of the more popular Indian novels and movies and you are more than likely to come across some trickster or illusionist, some expert magician who defies the boring norms of logic and adds an element of wonder to the tale. This may be why there’s such great appetite for magic shows both in India and in the West: they add a shot of mystique to our mundane lives, by convincing us momentarily that laws of nature don’t always have to hold, and that things don’t always have to take the logical course. 

Yet in Indian cities, magic seems to have taken a backseat, ceding ground to other forms of popular entertainment. Professional magicians are hard to find in our cities today, unlike, say, a decade ago, when magic shows would travel from one locality to the other almost on a weekly basis. Back then, magicians conformed to the old stereotype: wearing top hat, long coat, mascara and rouge. They had a booming voice, a theatrical laugh, and an unending supply of rabbits and pigeons (usually issuing from their hats).

That was the old-school of pro magic. Today’s small but growing community of young magicians prefers to do things their own way.

“If you look at the magicians we had back in the day, you see strange people with big eyes who dressed up in an even stranger manner. Their art did fascinate people but the overall act lacked something to attract followers,” explains Rahul Kharbanda, a professional magician based in Delhi, who has been practicing the craft for over a decade now.

Just as times have changed, so has the common idiom of magic as it is practiced today. Old-school magic, including the hackneyed tricks associated with it, have now evolved into styles that are more contemporary and appropriately slick. New subcategories of magic have now emerged, with illusionists and mentalists ruling the roost.

Kharbanda picked up the fine points of his trade from his father, who in his own turn learned the magician’s craft from the great P.C. Sarkar, perhaps the most celebrated magicians ever to emerge from India. “In the last decade or so,” Kharbanda says, “things have changed drastically in this circuit, thanks to globalisation and the entry of corporate sponsors. Demand of magicians is very high at corporate events these days.”

Just as times have changed, so has the common idiom of magic as it is practiced today. Old-school magic, including the hackneyed tricks associated with it, have now evolved into styles that are more contemporary and appropriately slick. New subcategories of magic have now emerged, with illusionists and mentalists ruling the roost. According to Kharbanda, while old-style magic may be on the way out in India, these new forms have found great favour young audiences.

 “One the biggest differences in magic today as compared to earlier,” he says, “is that now, magicians learn the craft after getting conventional education, while earlier it wasn’t the case. Today, they dress up and speak like you and me, so the audience finds a better connect with them.”

Some are trying to explore newer ways to enhance that connection with the audiences. Manas Tayal, another Delhi-based magician is trying to do that by fusing magic with standup comedy. “Comedy magic,” Tayal says, “is nothing new. It has been popular in the West for a long time, but in India it’s still in a very nascent stage.”

It’s among the most unique of creative expressions: to make people laugh and to punctuate that laughter with a sense of wonder. “I get five minutes at an average show, which is the time given to any standup comedian during open-mic nights. So I try to present a few tricks that are wrapped in humour, and so far the experience has been really good.”

This change in perception, with regard to magic in India, has to be attributed to primetime television, particularly to figures like David Blake and Domino, both international magicians who have their own, widely-watched TV shows. This is the new breed which might be replacing the old charms of street magicians in cities like Delhi.

“India was and to some extent even now is full of street magicians,” Tayal says. “People who go from town to town showcasing their art in their gaudy clothes and tricks that have been around for ages. But cable TV changed all that. That’s when we started witnessing new styles of magic and great new tricks. It made guys like me seriously consider taking this up as a profession.”

Card tricks, associated with old-school magic, are now passé. (Below) Belguim-based magician Arvind Jayashankar.

So magic is getting bigger in India, but how far behind are we from the West? “Not very,” says Arvind Jayashankar, an internationally-known name in the world of magic, who lives in Belgium and has presented shows across the globe. “India has picked up quite a lot. One thing you need to realise is that magic can’t compete with art forms like music and comedy. Even in Western Europe it’s not mainstream but yes, the awareness and appreciation towards it is higher,” Jayashankar tells Guardian 20 over a phone conversation. 

Jayashankar starting touring 11 years ago, right after finishing college. “I think one of the reasons magic has reached where it is in the West is due these talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent, America’s Got Talent and so on…as several of the seasons had magicians emerge as winners. India too has these shows now, so we will witness a change here too. Give it some time,” he adds.

The biggest factor in all this is that Indian cities have platforms — TV shows, corporate events — where magic can be showcased, which is enough to inspire the younger generation to pick up the wand.

“Magic is an art that takes time to perfect,” Jayashankar says. “A magician practices his tricks for hours before taking it in front of the audiences. And still there are instances when the trick falls flat and fails to impress the audiences or at times ends in a disaster. So the opportunity to showcase one’s work more and more is really important. Which today are aplenty in India. So, yes, we are on the right track and all we need are more and more people taking it up.”     

27-year-old Suhani Shah, a celebrated Illusionist, author and life coach, is part of that fresh troop of pro magicians that Jayashankar is referring to. She tells Guardian 20: “Reality TV has changed things big time. It took magic to the average household and helped promote so many aspiring magicians. I’ve been in the Industry for the past sixteen years and can say things are getting better day by day. The money is good, the popularity is good and there’s recognition. What more does an artist desire? Learning magic and getting new tricks is neither easy nor cheap, so the biggest thing that has opened up the doors for more people is the sponsorship money. Earlier there were involved only in a limited number of things a magician would do, like private parties or shows. But now we have standup magic, corporate shows private gatherings, and TV appearances. All this means more money for the magician to not just make his ends meet but also to invest in his art. Also, YouTube is filled with videos on Indian magicians and their art.”

So the times, they are a changin’: this is the message that come from the community of magicians in Indian cities. “Magic,” as Suhani says, “has evolved. We no longer do the same rope tricks or pull a bunny out of the hat. Like the audiences, our magicians, too, have matured.”

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