The Londoners who happened to be watching the special BBC show on 9 April 1956, featuring an Indian magician, were left aghast at the sight of a woman being cut in half. Due to time constraints, the show was taken off air almost abruptly—right after the severing act had taken place, but before the trick was finished and the woman returned to her original, singular form. As a result, the BBC was flooded with letters and calls of complaint. The viewers wanted to know if the woman subjected to the blade was really no more. It was only the following day, after local newspapers carried headlines like “The girl is alive”, that calm was restored. One of the reports carried a reassuring quote by Dipti Dey, the woman in question: “So, I’m all in one piece. I’m happy, alive and well—and I look forward to being cut in half again.”
But the real highlight of the show wasn’t Dey, or the outraged BBC viewers. It was an unknown magician from India, named Protul Chandra Sorcar, who became an international sensation after this event. “The incident made Sorcar famous overnight,” recalls his son Prodip Chandra Sorcar, popularly known as P.C. Sorcar Junior, one of whose own trademark tricks is “Cutting a Lady in Half”, which he inherited from his father.
Sorcar Jr. has recently written his father’s biography, entitled The Maharaja of Magic, which gives us the inside story of India’s most distinguished family of magicians. Sorcar Jr. himself is the eighth generation practitioner in this lineage, and now the baton is carried forward by a member of the ninth generation: his daughter, Maneka.
“When I was quite young,” Sorcar Jr. tells Guardian 20. “I used to think that I have two fathers—one P.C. Sorcar, the magician, and another, my Baba. I was totally enamoured by P.C. Sorcar. He was an idol and an omnipotent phenomenon for me. But, I was not very fond of Baba. He used to ask questions like, ‘Why are you walking barefoot?’ ‘Where are your slippers?’ ‘Have you completed your studies?’ These daily questions annoyed me.” He adds, with a laugh, “Who likes that?”
Still, the young Prodip looked up to his father. And when the time came, he did his best to be able to step into his shoes. The most important lesson that the father imparted to the son was that there was nothing “magical” about magic. That it was all rooted in the natural, observable world. And that to learn the art of magic, you had to master its craft.
“The first thing I learned about my father was that he was not a supernatural being,” Sorcar Jr. says. “He showcased the magical world through science.”
There were no mantras. No holy fire. There was absolutely nothing related to superstition that the father passed on to the child. Instead, it was the love for science that was instilled in the young Sorcar. “I started respecting science, I started learning it. I thought if I am familiar with the concepts of science, I’d be able perform well on the stage,” says Sorcar Jr., who holds an M.Sc. degree and completed his doctorate in applied psychology from University of Calcutta.
“The magic of today will be the science of tomorrow,” says Sorcar Jr., over the phone from Kolkata. Then, referring to our phone call, he continues, “Think about the telephonic conversation we’re having. Imagine for a minute that we are in the Mughal era and we ask Jehangir the emperor to speak to his wife over the phone. For Jehangir it would be magic, something unthinkable for him. But, the phone conversation at present is just the way of life today.”
A large part of his professional aim is to dispel the commonly believed theory that magicians have occult powers. “I always tell the audience that I don’t have any mystical capacity, every trick is done through science, for your entertainment,” says the master magician. “But mostly people do not want to believe me when I say this, no matter how hard I try. People don’t like it when I tell them that it is all a trick.”
To his fellow magicians, he has the following message: “I want to convey that, don’t spread superstition and don’t play the role of God. Devil doesn’t exist but if you continue to do so you will become the devil.”
Magic shows are passé these days. They’ve become an extension of the popular entertaining industry, with big-budget TV shows to their name. Figures like Dynamo and David Copperfield have emerged as superstars, and their digitally-tailored, made-for-television tricks generate millions of hits online. The world of magic is today going through its digital transformation. Does it worry the classically-inclined Sorcar Jr.?
“Those tricks are all 2-dimentional. People are so hooked on to it. They don’t realise that the ‘magicians’ on TV are using trick photography. After all, in cinema, you can do everything. There are many editing processes. Real magic happens on the stage, where the charm increases manifold,” says the magician, who was awarded the Merlin Award for Magic by the International Magicians Society.
To call Sorcar Jr. old-school, isn’t in any way to take away from the astonishing inventiveness of his tricks. Not many TV magicians would dare to even attempt some of Sorcar’s standout acts. He has made popular monuments vanish, for example. And once, in 1992, his abracadabra chops made an entire train disappear. Surely, these were illusions of perspective, but to pull these off without any tech support requires real skill. He says, “Amid all the cheer I was receiving when I made this train disappear, I was weeping. I was euphoric. My hard work had paid off.”
To a huge extent, magic is a creative enterprise. So it comes with its own set of drawbacks and challenges. Plagiarism is one of them. But it doesn’t quite bother Sorcar Jr. According to him, his tricks remain his own, not matter who performs them: “I can sing a Lata Mangeshkar song, but no one will listen to it.”
It often happens that someone from the audience would come up to him and enquire about the secrets to his tricks. “People come to me and ask me how I do a particular trick. And I readily teach them. I feel elated to boost the innocent, honest attitude of the people.”
But the magician also uses this opportunity to educate the crowd on the links between rationality and magic. “I tell people, ‘Don’t trust your eyes very much’. As we also may see illusions, mirages, hallucinations, and then we start believing in such things. I tell people to believe in things in a logical sense. And at the same time, it is important to not disrespect the things you don’t know and to try to learn it as science.”
For Sorcar Jr., magic is a science, as well as an art. It has been a family tradition passed down through generations. His father had made a name for himself across the world after that BBC show. And the son is widely regarded as India’s best-known magician. “The show must go on,” Protul Chandra Sorcar had told his son many years go. It may well have been the best piece of advice Sorcar Jr. was ever given by anyone.
All images sourced from the archives of magician P. C. Sorcar Jr.
‘The Maharaja of Magic’ is published by Niyogi Books