Dhaka, Bangladesh
Kolkata, once India's leading city for magic, has lost its links with the art. Can it get its mojo back?

Kolkata, once India's leading city for magic, has lost its links with the art. Can it get its mojo back?

Amitangshu Acharya, Sudipto Sanyal

(From previous issue) States like Himachal Pradesh have categorised magic as art and culture so that magic shows are exempt from entertainment tax and magic goods can be charged a lower 12% GST. But in West Bengal - the nerve centre of magic in India - most magic shops have had to invest in an extra tax accountant just to plough through the new law. Magic tricks and instruments keep metamorphosing, shaped by changing legal and social norms. "There used to be so many gimmicks with cigarettes," says Dalal. "In the 70s, we had 30 magic products based on smoking. Not any more, obviously." Tricks with birds are no longer popular, given stricter animal protection laws. The Ever-Filling Glass trick involved a glass into which milk was poured and it would disappear and reappear again. With the fuel price hike, with a litre of petrol now costlier than milk, many magicians use fuel to make a point. Even Dalal's employees are addicted to magic. Alam has worked at Funtime Innovations for almost 30 years and often performs at small venues after work as Jadugar Alam. "Magic ekta poka," says Jadugar Alam. "Magic is a worm. It burrows in and refuses to leave." Where? In the head? "Bhetoray," he says, 'deep inside', putting his right hand on his heart. "My own son has no interest in magic," he says, with a rueful shake of the head. "In fact, he has minus-interest. He would throw these away if he could," he says, as he mimics throwing away the magic books near him. He picks one up at random (Harry Allen's Sleight of Lips, a collection of one-liners for the performing magician) and says reverentially, "But for us, these are sacred texts. These are my Gitas." In India, magic - its public, spectacular performance - is certainly on the wane, and most so in Bengal. This gradual decline has been bemoaned for some years now. Magic shows are few and far between, and magicians earn less than those in most of the other major places where magic flourishes, such as Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra or Coimbatore. Crystal-gazing The death of the circus, which once paved the path to fame for most magicians, has been another nail in the coffin. Media reports go so far as to suggest that every year at least a few magicians in West Bengal choose to end their lives to escape the poverty. Sarkar refuses to be so gloomy. He runs a school of magic, and he says that while stage magic has no doubt declined, the demand for shows at school programmes, birthday parties, corporate shindigs, and government melas has only increased. The growing Indian middle-class has adopted magic as part of its entertainment package, and Sarkar claims that Bengal's magicians are finding audiences across the rural and peri-urban heartlands of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh too. In a strange quirk of fate then, it would seem that the subaltern has come to the rescue of the show. In other words, the profession is almost certainly in decline, but the practice of magic is far from dying. The internet has made magic more accessible, and there are perhaps more hobbyist magicians than ever before. Because, as Sarkar puts it, "People like not knowing, wanting to know but not to know." The delirium of awe and bemusement that magic activates in us can be a powerful drug; much like the feelings we experience when we are lost in a good book - What happens next? How? Why?- with the contradictory desire of never wanting it to end. It fills, fundamentally, our desperate need for narrative - for fabulous beasts to emerge from fantastic headgear, for quartered bodies to turn whole again, and for water to turn into wine. Magic lets us remake the world, but in a stranger image, with satin robes and purple hats and funnier words. When David Blaine converts a cup of coffee into one brimming with coins, or P.C. Sorcar Jr makes the Taj Mahal disappear, we imagine new realities. This is the closest we get to alchemy. Sudipto Sanyal is assistant professor, department of English, Techno India University, Kolkata. Amitangshu Acharya is Leverhulme doctoral candidate, Human Geography, University of Edinburgh.

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