The Hardest Trick of All

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MEENAKSHI GANGULY CochinDressed in a sequined jacket and a silk turban, the magician wiggles his fingers over a wicker basket. The crowd stares transfixed as he mutters feverishly, swaying to an amplified soundtrack of banshee-like wails that invoke the ancient snake-charmers' call to the cobras. Hesitantly, a thick rope peeps over the edge of the basket--and then creeps slowly up to the sky. The crowd gasps as the rope grows taller and taller, defying gravity. A child runs up and climbs the stiff rope. He jumps off, the magician flashes his hands and the rope drops into a limp coil on the ground. The Great Indian Rope Trick, long dismissed as a myth, has worked. The magician, Padmarajan, smiles broadly and takes a bow. Though wizardry holds a cherished place in Indian myth, the only magic acts most citizens see these days are cheesy shows at clubs and birthday parties, where men in top hats pull scraggly doves from pieces of cloth or produce eggs from empty bags. In a bid to revive the craft, more than 150 magicians met last week in the southern city of Cochin for Om Hreem '99, a convention named after the Indian term for abracadabra.

Holding court in the city's biggest auditorium, the participants bring out fresh tools of the trade, show off new acts and collectively mourn their vanishing art. Boasts B. Dayanand, a senior member of IBM (the International Brotherhood of Magicians): Magic is the second-oldest profession in the world. The practitioners debate the big questions: Is it right to work with live animals? Is the commercialization of trick tools a bad thing? Should the state give welfare benefits to down-at-the-heels magicians? The latter question grows ever more relevant, as India's tricksters slip deeper into a rut of multiplying ping-pong balls, feather dusters that change color and tired stunts involving playing cards and currency notes. There is no development or research, laments Anthony Joseph, who organized the meeting. Magicians are not coming out with novel ideas.

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As with any brotherhood, there are factional squabbles. On one side are the conjurers, who excel in palming and concealing, clever finger movements that take endless practice. On the other are the entertainers, who create illusions--making elephants disappear or their own wives levitate. Samraj is from the latter camp. His performances involve shoving knives into plump female assistants, then sawing them in half or chopping off their heads. You have to make it colorful to attract people, asserts the former engineer. It is a very expensive art. True, but such acts require little skill, scoffs Gopal Nair, a 75-year-old practitioner who once performed for maharajahs. I know so many tricks, I could easily become a guru or something. But my heart is too clean. Anyone with money can perform illusions, he says, laughing off stories of wizards who can make, say, the Statue of Liberty vanish. I did really dangerous things, like swallowing blades and eating fire. I was a hero.

Once upon a time, long before films and TV, magicians were perhaps India's main entertainment medium. Children would screech with joy when men in tattered clothes showed up in the village to pull coins out of dirty ears and chatter with the local dogs, amusing and even alarming spectators. Acts such as the Great Indian Rope Trick were passed like precious heirlooms from father to son. Now the sons are studying to be businessmen, and the tricks are dying along with the tricksters. Fakiruddin, a decrepit, 50-year-old street magician, now spends most of his time drinking. Although his ability to grow a mango plant in just minutes is perhaps the only act that baffles this elite gathering, Fakiruddin is among the poorest of the group. He sleeps, along with his snakes and pet mongoose, at a bicycle parking stand. People are too stressed, he complains of his dwindling audience. They have no time to stop and watch. They just walk away.

Even when people tear themselves away from their jobs or television sets, they have little time for folk art. So magic is left to the amateurs--engineers or teachers who alleviate their tedium by learning a few tricks. But there are still moments of enchantment. In dingy dressing rooms, young men and women enthusiastically exchange their work clothes for the glittering disguises of their avocation. They show off wobbling pens, disappearing coins, squirrels made with cloth. Some joke that they wish their skills enabled them to vanish a few unloved politicians. This is all we want, says A.A. Varghese, an economics professor: to amuse and amaze with our skill. The real trick will be getting Indian audiences to pay attention.

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