Book review: John Zubrzycki looks at the history of Indian magic

His latest book looks at the birth of a national myth and its propagation by leaders and conquerors

DDNJG0 MAGIC IN INDIA, 1888 engraving. Artokoloro Quint Lox Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic

John Zubrzycki, Hurst Publishers

"Ask the average man for what India is most celebrated, and the chances are ten to one that he will ignore the glories of the Taj Mahal, the beneficence of British rule, even Mr Kipling, and will unhesitatingly reply in one word, 'jugglers'," the Strand Magazine wrote in its December 1899 issue. "India's jugglers", the magazine went on to explain, "have been the wonder of India". There was scarcely anyone in England who was not aware of the jugglers' "'Jadoo', or magic working". India's reputation as a land of the occult wasn't, as John Zubrzycki reminds us in his delightful and charming new book Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic, just confined to Britain.

The very earliest European accounts of India depicted it as a land of mysterious creatures. In the Histories of Herodotus, India is inhabited by a race of cannibals who eat their dead and by cat-coloured ants “as large as the wolves of Egypt” which dig out gold from the earth. The Indians steal the gold when the ants are sleeping and offer it to their “king”. Ctesias of Cnidus, writing in 400 BCE, presented India as a place peopled by canine-headed men “who do not use articulate speech but bark like dogs”.

Even Megasthenes, who lived in India as the ambassador of Seleucus I to the court of emperor Chandragupta Maurya and wrote a first-hand account of the country, described it – according to the reconstructed fragments of his vanished writings – as a “mystical and magical land” where people sated their hunger merely by smelling food.

By the medieval era, magic became so inextricably linked with India – where tricks merged with, and enlivened, religious ritual – that Indian magic manuals, translated into Arabic, were being hawked on the streets of Baghdad by the city’s fabled booksellers during the Abbasid caliphate. After India fell to the British, it became an object of fascination and condescension and a source of fear for Europeans. Countless conjurers travelled to India, convinced that it was the place to find and master pure magic.

A trio of Indian magic tricks seized the attention of foreign observers. The first, the so-called Hindu basket trick, involved running swords through a wicker basket after sealing a small boy inside it – and then revealing the unscathed boy. The second was the mango tree trick: a conjurer carrying an earthen pot filled with water, some mango seeds, and a large cloth would a build a mound of Earth, place the seeds in it, sprinkle water over it and cover it with the sheet. He would then mutter some mantras. When the cloth was removed, a sapling appeared – and then grew into a small tree.

In 1913, the American author Hereward Carrington published a slender book, Hindu Magic: An Expose of the Tricks of the Yogis and Fakirs in India, in which he attempted to debunk the trick by asking why only the mango tree was conjured by magicians and no other. The answer, Carrington wrote, was simple: "the peculiar construction of the mango leaf that renders the trick, as presented, possible at all". When the conjuror S S Baldwin asked an Indian magician to produce a banana tree or a tea plant, the native magician demurred: "Nay, sahib, cannot do".

Zubrzycki, however, gives us an account of the Mughal emperor Jahangir's vivid recollection of witnessing a performance in which a band of magicians from Bengal quietly summoned into existence a mulberry tree – before proceeding to produce apple, fig and almond trees, plucking fruits from them and handing them to their astonished audience. "I can only further observe", Jahangir wrote in his autobiography after observing the trick, "that if the circumstances which I have now described had not happened in my own presence, I could never have believed that they had any existence in reality".

The third Indian trick – the one that hypnotised the world – was the rope trick. It involved a small boy clambering up a rope tossed into the air and vanishing at the top. The rope trick has a hallowed pedigree – it appears in commentaries on Hindu scriptures and Jahangir claimed to have witnessed it – but how was it done? The answer: it was a hoax perpetrated by a John Elbert Wilkie, who in 1890 planted what we might today call a "fake news" item on the front page of the Chicago Tribune about a pair of Yale students who travelled to India and witnessed it being performed.

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The item was picked up by almost every newspaper in Europe. Wilkie, who went on to serve as the director of the US Secret Service, admitted he had made it all up – but the retraction, as is always the case, never caught up with the original story. By the 19th century, American and British magicians were painting their faces brown and marketing themselves as Indian magicians. Harry Houdini, born to Jewish parents in Budapest, launched his career as an illusionist in Chicago by posing as a “Hindu fakir”.

The following century, PC Sorcar, the doyen of modern Indian magic, burst on to the international stage by claiming to be "the world's greatest magician". Hardly anyone could protest. Sorcar was an unrivalled showman, using modern marketing to sell his show of "Indian" tricks. When he "dismembered" a woman on a BBC show on a Monday evening in April 1956, the broadcaster's switchboard lit up with calls from distraught viewers who believed they had just witnessed a murder on television. Empire of Enchantment is much more than a history of Indian magic. It is an extraordinarily riveting social history of India, and of India's encounter with the world.

Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic

John Zubrzycki, Hurst Publishers