The politics of Indian magic took centre-stage at the recent launch of John Zubrzycki’s book Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India

The tone of the book was set even before its launch, as a professional magician, who goes by the name Gopal Mentalist, was invited on stage. For the next 15-odd minutes — and a longer stint at the end of the evening — the mentalist evoked surprises, changed currency notes, and read peoples’ minds over and over again, before giving up the dais for author John Zubrzycki and Mukund Padmanabhan, Editor, The Hindu, to discuss the aeons-long journey of magic in India.

John Zubrzycki’s latest book explores this topic extensively, as the title Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India (Pan Macmillan) suggests. What the title doesn’t suggest, however, is the impact of Indian magic on the global scenario, and vice versa.

This is what Zubrzycki and Mukund’s conversation dwelt on at the ballroom of Taj Club House over the weekend, as an audience of avid readers looked on.

The author confessed that when beginning his research, he had no idea that his book would touch on such a wide expanse of topics. “I see it as a social, political and cultural history of India through the lens of magic,” said Zubrzycki. But that, he added, is what he loved about research: you never know what you might come across.

For instance, one of Zubrzycki’s most intriguing finds was, “When, sifting through archives, I came across an official letter by Motilal Nehru, asking for permission to send a troupe of jugglers to Paris.” This, among other things, led to a discussion on the social status of magic in India, which was influenced by the social status of its performers, vast numbers of whom came from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds. Zubrzycki further underlined this point by describing an old debate on whether magic constituted as manual labour: a debate which had a direct impact on magicians’ ability to take their talent overseas. It took a long time, said the former diplomat, “for magic to be recognised as an art form in the country”. The glorious days of Indian magic, and PC Sorcar’s image on the global stage, were also discussed at length.

The timelesness — of sorts — of Indian magic also found its way into the conversation, with Mukund citing the book to say that some of the magic tricks described in the introduction were similar to those performed in the Mughal courts, and were described in the Jahangirnama hundreds of years ago. Though the art has declined immensely today, Zubrzycki insisted that there will always be a place for magic in this country, as there will always be a yearning for surprise and wonder.

The book launch was part of a month-long series of events on literature, music, cinema, comedy, fashion and more across multiple cities that comprise Australia Fest. The fest is being held in Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Hyderabad and other cities till May 2019. For details, visit www.australiafest.com

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