SORCAR: GREATEST ILLUSIONIST IN INDIAN HISTORY
by John Booth, Globe-Trotting Magician and Author, California, USA
For different reasons and qualities, the three persons with whom I personally conferred during my first visit to
India in 1948 that most impressed me were Pandit Nehru, the Prime Minister, Devadas Gandhi, the journalist son of Mahatma Gandhi, and P.C. Sorcar the distinguished illusionist.
In his own sphere each man will be remembered
for countless generations after most of his contemporaries have been forgotten.
But I am concerned here primarily with the fascinating conditions and background
that united to produce, most unexpectedly in the world of conjuring, the
phenomenon that is Sorcar. That he occupies an unique niche in the worldwide
realm of legerdemain is almost universally recognised.
A great man brings a contagious spiritual
dynamic to his creations. He may not articulate this. But it has the capacity,
subtly, to move his fellow man in ways uncanny. The soul of India, spiritual
and natural, that nurtured Sorcar has so much of mystery, poetry and conjecture
When the outsider considers India his heart
embraces Buddha, Asoka and Gandhi; his imagination sees the incomparable
Himalayas and the legendary Ganges; his spirit is moved by the eternal
Taj Mahal. The soul of these jewels is a mystical quality. India is mysticism
It is fitting that this land should spawn
the yogi, the fakir and the jaduwallah. Out of the staff of speculation
myth-makers appropriately gave birth to the beguiling Indian Rope Trick
legend. That is probably the counterpart of the Western world's Jack and
the Beanstalk tale is less important that the fact that both stories prove
the universality of minds, the brotherhood of man, under the uniting bonds
of similar hopes, needs and loves.
The beginnings of magic in the vast Indian
subcontinent are misty with poetic overtones. Some persons assert that
magic was practiced in the court of Lord Indra and so Indrajal is a synonym
for the art. Sorcar has reached far back to these legendary origins for
this gemlike word to describe his own theatrical productions. Within India,
magic is also characterized as Bhoj-Baji or Bhoj-Vidya, named for Rajah
Bhoj who allegedly practiced the mysterious calling. Since the good Rajah
lived more than 2300 years ago, India offers significant credentials to
back its claim as a "Home of Magic and Mystry".
Not until the British arrived in India
was a firm bridge built connecting it with the vast world of the West.
Millennia had passed without the arts of the Asiatic nation being much
more than a vague rumor in European capitals. But now channels of communication
were opened. India revealed to the world a rich culture depth in philosophy
and religion. But it was quickly seen that conjuring itself had long since
passed its apogee. It had stagnated and needed the inspiration of fresh
breezes from the outside.
What had caused this degeneration?
No art possesses status or vigor unless
it can contribute to and draw from the other aspects of local or universal
culture. A sterile and static art form is like a castoff mango skin. The
meat that is its vitality has already been eaten. Nothing is left to revitalize
it or for it to give its possessor.
Indian magic had lost its ability to relate
meaningfully to the surrounding culture. This was a tragedy because at
one time Bengali magicians and jugglers could intrigue the highest imperial
When I made a respectful pilgrimage in
1957 to the tomb of the Great Emperor Jehangir, outside gentil Lahore,
I walked in the shadow of a man whose autobiography in Persian, Dwazda-Shaha-Jehangiri,
relates his astonishment at the feats of seven Bengali wizards performed
at his court. Twenty-eight feats are described in detail many of which
are unknown to followers of legerdemain today. Allowing for credulity and
exaggeration some of the basic effects suggest new avenues of investigation
for creative 20th century minds.
Gradually not only the stunts themselves
but the creative spark manifest in this 1606 A.D. performance at the Royal
Court began to sputter out. A few routine tricks were being repeated interminably
by each generation of practicing magicians. Originality had dried up because
the art no longer was drawing inspiration from its own environment. In
consequence, it could no more endow others with ideas, lift them with wonder
or challenge their intellects.
And so it deteriorated and became the possession
of the streets and the illiterate poor. Without creativity and shorn of
vitality it had little to offer to Indian culture. Its status reached the
nadir in the art world. Conjuring was associated with jaduwallah crouched
beside dusty roads, eking out a living with the few annas cast their way.
This is not to deny that an occasional
star flared briskly in the sky. The annals of Indian conjuring lore that
lie upon my bookshelves tell of several nineteenth and twentieth century
practitioners whose skills have made them memorable.
I am thinking of Sheshal in the 1830's
who titled himself the Brahmin of the Air. Under his spell an assistant
would float in a sitting position, several feet off the ground, with one
hand lightly resting on a short bamboo pole. History notes that Indian
magicians were the world's first to perform the surprising feat of human
suspension in midair without any seeming support.
It remained for two English magicians to
perceive the depths and possibilities of the Indian suspension. Sylvester,
"The Fakir of Oolu," caused a sensation by removing the bamboo pole. His
helper still remained suspended in midair. But it was London's celebrated
John Nevil Maskelyne, sharer with French-Hungarian Bautier DeKolta of the
reputation of being the most inventive magician in history, who raised
this masterpiece of Indian magic to its zenith. Under his wand, the suspension
took the miraculous step of becoming a levitation. The motionless suspended
human being was made to float upward, moving smoothly and gently in obedience
to the Maskelyne commands!
Thus does one culture appreciate and draw
upon another. And both develop in the process.
The inspiration for one of the Western
world's fundamental puzzlers, the Needle Swallowing Trick, can probably
be traced back to the genius of Ramo Samee (Ramosamee). In the 1840's he
was apparently swallowing beads and horse hair separately and then regurgitating
the former threaded upon the latter. He created a sensation with this at
the Garrick Theatre in London. European magicians seized upon this India's
fascinating effect. By substituting needles, sharp and made of steel, they
added a measure of peril and drama missing in the glass beads, and gave
the world one of its classic effects.
All magicians again are indebted to a basic
For the next three quarters of a century
Indian magic rested. The street magicians continued to grow mango trees
under dusty mantles and cause balls to move mysteriously from cup to cup
in one of the ancient classics of legerdemain. Juggling, acrobatics and
snake charming were adjuncts to bolster a faltering art unable to stand
strongly on its own feet.
Hindoo fakirs for generations have practiced
feats of self-immolation and self-hypnosis. These are often associated
with religious concerns or performed in the open air as on ghats beside
the Mother Ganges. Constructing upon these fear-defying, body controlling
concepts, a number of 20th century Indian necromancers have achieved fame
beyond their own shores.
Abdul traveled America with Howard Thurston,
who was the world's greatest illusionist during the first third of this
century. For nearly an hour he would remain visible, lying with eyes closed
in a sealed glass casket under water at one side of the stage. The main
show moved forward semi-oblivious to the man whose life process was being
sustained with so little oxygen.
Tarah Bey and Romen Bey confounded physicians
of East and West by controlling and varying the rate of their pulse beats.
Kuda Bux and other Indian conjurers have shown the West how successfully
a barefooted man can stride through a long firepit resisting surface temperature
of 800 degrees fahrenheit. This ancient and honored Hindoo feat of fire
walking has been transferred to the cultures of Pacific islands like Fiji
All of these artists evoked memories of
the great days of Indian magic. They underscored India's abiding absorption
with mysticism, the relationship of mind control over body action, and
the power of the human soul when united with the Oversoul of all Being.
This is a philosophical orientation frequently overlooked in Western conjuring
which tends to be concerned with physical phenomena: the production, transformation,
transference or vanishment of material objects. To India's many contributions
to world magic, I would add this one of the most monumental. The rest of
the earth has not yet fully perceived its significance. When it does I
predict important unprobed dimensions will be revealed and developed for
creative themes and problems in conjuring.
Unfortunately, except for these rare exceptions
appearing at intervals, Indian conjuring across recent centuries has been
primarily associated with the manipulative magic of the open streets. It
was the occupation of illiterate, impoverished wandering performers whose
repertoires were predictably limited and unchanging, who performed generation
after generation oblivious to the vast currents of change and growth occurring
in the culture around them.
The brilliant heritage was there. But the
art had sunk into dormancy, associated with mediocrity and parochialism.
One might say that India, one of the world's largest nations and oldest
civilizations, was waiting quietly and hopefully for a long overdue giant
to appear who could release the springs of creativity and bring the conjuring
art back into full flower.
The land of Buddha is so extensive and
populous, its traditions so old and ingrained, its economic and political
situation undergoing such epochal transformations, that few persons expected
that our generation would produce such a man. It requires an individual
of such stature, resources and genius to make a revolutionary conjuring
impact upon so complex and huge a nation that no one visualized the magic
world itself being able to develop such a personality.
A sage has remarked that when the night
is darkest often the dawn is then closest to breaking. Out of the twilight
of Indian conjuring into the full glare of the cultural spotlight moved
His coming was quiet at first. A student
of Calcutta University and a young gentleman of obvious culture, his taking
up the study and practice of the neglected art of legerdemain was in itself
an act of courage for a person of his background. His facile pen began
to write articles published in magicians' journals in many countries outside
India, from Japan through Europe to North America.
Like many an unrecognized leader before
him, he was at first occasionally chided by the foreign pass for his claims
and use of superlatives. But this did not deter him. Unknown to magicians
outside his native land, the early 1940's saw the writing and publication
by Sorcar of nearly a dozen small books on magic for the people of Asia.
Printed in Bengali and English they dealt with hypnotism, pocket tricks,
stage illusions and Hindoo magic. Already he was beginning to lay the foundations
that were to work a miracle in the history of Indian conjuring.
One November afternoon in Calcutta I was
taking lunch in the dining room of the Great Eastern Hotel. It was 1948
and I had not yet met Sorcar, although we had corresponded. Suddenly I
saw that unmistakable figure, with handsome and smiling face, working its
way through the tables toward me. In his hand was a copy of one of my books
'Forging Ahead in Magic'. He was kind enough to say that it had been of
great help to him in his development.
At that first meeting it was clear to me
that I was in the presence of a man with rare drive, vision and capacities.
Already he was almost as well known in India as Thurston and Blackstone
were in the United States or David Devant had been in England. He was rapidly
becoming a household word in the urban centres of his own land.
Later, Sorcar generously helped to settle
me in the overnight railroad carriage bearing me north to the palace of
the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. In the process he summoned a news vender
staggering under a load of magazines that stretched above his head.
"Here is some reading matter for your trip",
the magician said, purchasing four different magazines from the stack.
What he didn't state (and which I learned to my delight as I leafed through
the publications later) was that each of those current magazines contained
an article from his own pen. Few, if any other magicians of the world,
could duplicate that casual feat in their own country.
During my week as guest of the Maharajah
he alluded several times to his fascination with the work of his fellow
countryman Sorcar. Indeed, the artist was already commanding the respectful
attention not only of India's press but of its leaders. Within a few short
years he had begun to transform the domestic standing of the art and restore
memories of command performances once associated with the Emperor Jehangir
and the great Moghul dynasty.
In spite of his amazing standing in this
newly independent nation, I felt that he had still not performed the necessary
breakthrough that only a great man could accomplish. In the volume that
I wrote following my year roving Asia from Japan and China through to India
and Tibet, 'Fabulous Destinations', I included this forthright paragraph:
"Before I departed India's shores, the
Great Jason (Eddie Joseph), in Bombay, and P.C. Sorcar, in Calcutta, among
others, entertained me lavishly. They spread before my eyes the riches
of their repertoires. From the four corners of their colorful cities they
brought in leading prestidigitators. Dinners and public shows were staged.
Never have people been kinder in their hospitality. But they were Western-minded,
Western-acting magicians. Purely Indian miracles were lacking. I saw no
indigenous magic other than the few centuries-old works with which we are
I recognized that I might offend by this
frankness. But I hoped ardently that the Indian readers would be big enough
to see the truth of my judgment; and then try to relate conjuring to their
own rich and ancient cultural attainments. Sorcar proved that he is a big
man. One has only to look at the recent history of Indian magic!
Slowly the magic and illusions, the costumes
and arrangements, that reminded one of European or American conjurers were
cast aside. In place of the Western tuxedo Sorcar donned the rich robes
of an Indian prince. The legends and arts of his own great country provided
settings and themes for the best magic that the world could offer. No narrow
chauvinist, Sorcar respects quality and worth no matter what its ethnic
or national origin. He has poured into his massive stage shows, after transforming
some of them with his own culture touches, illusions with automobiles,
buzz saws and other objects as modern as the minute itself.
Looking back, it seems as though almost
overnight Sorcar, alone, lifted respect for the conjuring in India onto
a new level. He performed the sort of historic breakthrough in an art concept
that occurs only once every few centuries. It is one thing to attract widespread
attentions by the use of novelties and sensation. It is quite another matter
to affect the very foundations of an art's character and status in one's
own country. This latter result has been the herculean achievement of Sorcar,
the Calcutta University scholar, who has gone on to become one of the cultural
leaders of his period.
Today, conjuring in India is often associated
with the finer arts. Almost solely through the efforts of Sorcar it now
has a literature of its own. He is known as an author of books all over
the globe. His monumental trilogy, is nearly of an unique character in
conjuring literature annals. That it will perpetuate the name of the foremost
Indian illusionist of history less important than the fact that it advances
a great art and the cause of Indian culture.
Fortunately Sorcar is not a prophet without
honour in his own land. The President of India conferred upon him in 1964,
the title "Padmashri"(The Lotus). The Mayor of India's largest city, Calcutta,
gave him a Civic Reception, which is almost the local counterpart of the
Broadway tickertape parade with which America would accord a returning
Conjuring has indeed achieved a long sought
status when one of its practitioners is so honoured by his own nation.
Years ago I wrote prophetically, "For Eastern
Magic Sorcar is performing the identical historic function that the illustrious
Robert-Houdin served for Western Conjuring. Both magicians found magic
in their own places and time identified with the lesser arts but by virtue
of their own cultural attainments and by sheer force of personality and
skill, raised legerdemain to a position of respect among greater arts.
Both conjurers will be remembered gratefully by generations yet unborn
as immortals in the entertainment world, as masters in their own great
Let us examine more closely this parallel
between P.C. Sorcar and Robert-Houdin, two magicians living almost precisely
one century apart. Frenchman Robert Houdin is called the "Father of modern
magic". He made an almost clean break from the old-time conjuring styles
by giving up the heavy trappings and equipment, the occult atmosphere and
often coarse presentations; in their stead, he worked upon a clean stage,
dressed and acting as a man of culture and learning. In lifting magic from
a busker's occupation to a calling fit for society and the intelligentsia
he transformed its image and character into one of the nobler arts.
I have already detailed the manner in which
Sorcar, although primarily an illusionist, has fulfilled a similar cleansing
and elevating mission in the great Asiatic subcontinent. Robert-Houdin
wrote six notable books plus one of the finer sets of memoirs in all literature.
In the course of his performances, royalty, beginning with Louis Philippe
of France, sat at his feet. His government awarded him several medals,
chiefly for his pioneering application of electricity to the operation
of clock motors. Finally, the illustrious French prestidigitator undertook
an ambassadorial journey to Algeria "to counteract the influences of the
Marabout priests over the natives."
P.C. Sorcar's contributions to the world
of magic literature already fill a small bookself. His sorcery has been
the marvel of numerous heads of state not to mention royal personages like
the King of Nepal. Although not associated with scientific pursuits or
startling inventions, as was Rebert-Houdin, the Indian wizard's governmental
awards derive directly from his distinction as a conjurer. Finally, Sorcar
and his company have been his own government's official Cultural Ambassadors,
being sent on triumphant tours to the Soviet Union and Japan among other
countries. To find a worthy exchange for the magician, the Soviet Union
sent back to India nothing less than its greatest performing arts groups,
the famed Bolshoi Ballet!
Magicians with European-styled illusion
shows have usually drawn good houses on tours around the world. But few
of them matched the repeated box office records established by the Indian
illusion extravaganza INDRAJAL, offered by the Great Sorcar and company,
in country after country. This Asiatic cultural attraction is offering
India's arts, augmented by universal conjuring secrets, to the rest of
the world as a goodwill offering prop of the resurgence of that ancient
land's own best traditions.
A consummate artist usually has a rare
sense of history. Sorcar has distinguished between the transient and the
permanent in the arts. He understands the continuity that makes for stability
and learning; he recognizes the imperative of innovation and courageous
breaks with the past when the times demand it. He has not feared to spend
money lavishly in order to move closer and closer to perfection. His energies
have been unflagging to put the magic touch of refinement on every detail
that can add to a distinguished entertainer's artistry. Above all, he is
constantly growing and improving.
Sorcar knows that it is the uncommon, the
elegant, the mysterious and the poetic that inspires struggling man to
hope, sacrifice and climb. The public, more than it realizes, wants masterpieces.
They lift people above themselves. Sorcar possesses the mystic amalgam,
this indefinable charisma, that marks the man likely to be remembered by
Within India, as in many countries of the
West, conjuring possess a high status, today, because it has finally meshed
in with the order arts. Its vitally is not merely self-renewing but expanding
through interaction with the erudition, findings and achievements of surrounding
culture. Only this dynamic and potential in any art form can attract to
it men of outstanding capacities and backgrounds. It is fantastic when
one man can create this condition, in one lifetime, in a nation as ancient
and complex as India. Sorcar effected this miracle while becoming a world
A great magician is a Poet of Prestidigitation,
a Tiffany of Thaumaturgy. He enlarges our imagination as he takes us into
mysterious dream world where horizons have no limits and immortality is
breathed into all being. Age-old classical magic will never die, for there
is a crystal thread which ties true artistry to the human soul. It casts
a lustrous light over the humdrum, converting the prosaic into the miraculous
and capturing eternity in a moment of time.