The Fakirs of old India sat crossed legged on a tattered mat, amid piles of cloth, and performed miracles: charming cobras, Indian cups and balls, the human volcano, producing sparrows from beneath a small  basket, lifting a heavy weight with the eyelids. These magicians learned their trade through an oral tradition that dates back hundreds of years, yet their mysteries are as vibrant today as ever.  Let’s take a time machine …

The use of exotic animals in performance magic is a difficult topic. While it’s true that, in most civilised countries, there are laws to protect the welfare of performing animals, and that the rise of social media has made animal abuse akin to career suicide, there is still something decidedly off about locking up non-domesticated animals and using them for entertainment. And yes, that goes for zoos too, before you start.

Indian Magician, Jadugar Anand, has come under fire for one of his acts that involves a captive elephant. “People for Animal,” an an animal rights organization, has petitioned the Indore circuit bench of Madhya Pradesh high court to confiscate the animal, alleging that Anand’s use of it violates the Wildlife Protection Act. 

The group initially complained to local officials of the state forest department, asking them to seize the animal and release it into the wild, but Anand provided documents showing he obtained permission to use the elephant in his performances. Having acquired photographic evidence of what appears to be an open wound on the elephant following a performance, the group went to the high court, alleging abuse. 

A spokesperson for the organization claimed the case was set to be heard on May 24th, but there’s been no news of a verdict as of yet.  

Suhani Shah is an Indian magician, mentalist and public speaker who… wew, yeah. Okay. This is a thirty minute bit and it’s all shot in portrait mode. Yeah, it causes me physical pain to see that as well. Shah tries to fix the issue multiple times, but for some no-doubt-horrible reason, radio host MJ Uday thinks that it’s acceptable to shoot vertical video. It is not. Ever. 

But on the plus side, the extended vertical space does allow Shah to show off her hair, which, as she points out, is actually quite nice. So, no, she doesn’t wear her trademark hat because she’s going bald. 

Skip to five minutes in for the first trick.

Shah is currently performing live shows in Goa, India.  

As it has with most performance arts, the internet has completely changed the rules when it comes to magic. While many younger magicians have embraced a radically transformed version of the art that plays well on YouTube, many older magicians with a more traditional view of the industry are struggling to stay afloat. 

Nowhere is that more obvious than in India, where a rich history of live magic is being threatened by performers quitting the industry in droves. A report in GulfNews featured interviews with a number of sadly retired magicians, many of whom blame the internet, or their lack of a response to it, for the premature ending of their magic careers.

“When people began shifting to the electronic media, I did not take the transformation seriously,” said Prakash Pant, a former magician now working as a real estate broker. “Not adapting to change soon led to facing awkward moments during the shows. Before I realised what harm my obstinacy would do, the shows stopped coming.”

Krishan Gopal is no longer a magician, but has turned his reputation for magic performances to his advantage. He now provides consultation for psychosomatic ailments and depression.  

“Magic is a fine art that requires immense practice,” he explained, “but even in the age of technological advancement, some people continue to think that a magician is a tantric (occultist) and approach me for solutions for all kinds of weird problems.”

Even successful performers like Op Sharma and Op Sharma Junior have felt the internet’s impact on their business. 

“There is so much information and entertainment available on the Internet that people tend to spend a lot of time online and they are left with little time to step out of the confines of their house to enjoy live shows,” Op Sharma Jr. told local media.  

But the issue is not just a matter of magicians being unable to pull people away from their computer screens. Op Sharma and son also think the Indian government’s lack of spending on the arts is also contributing to the declining interest in magic.

“In foreign countries, governments come forth to encourage talent and support the artistes,” they said. “In several cities of India, we have to perform at cinema halls or at other places because there are no government auditoriums, which points to the fact that cultural activities are not being promoted.”

My grandmother once told me you can’t lie to a liar. Actually, that’s not true. What she really told me can’t be printed here, but that lying to a liar thing was the gist of it. 

Perhaps that’s why so many magicians, be they people of faith or otherwise, seem to embrace skepticism. Miracles seem a lot less impressive when you know how they’re done. Such is the case for veteran magicians, Op Sharma and his son, Op Sharma Jr., also known as Satayaprakash. The pair are currently touring India, performing shows meant to undermine and expose “Godmen;” self-styled gurus who use simple magic tricks to attract followers.

“Through our magic, we aim to make people aware of superstitions and pull them out of the clutches of their old-fashioned beliefs,” Satayaprakash told the local press. “Self-styled Godmen befool people with simple acts of hypnotism. I show my audience how a ring can spew ash and how a Rs 100 note can turn into Rs 500. These are all tricks and mind games and one should not fall for them blindly.” 

 Like many of his western peers Satyaparkash worries that the internet might be keeping audiences away from live shows, denying them a crucial aspect of the magic experience. 

“There is so much information and entertainment available on the Internet that people tend to spend a lot of time online and they are left with little time to step out of the confines of their house to enjoy live shows.” 

“Magic, however, is one such art which is best enjoyed when watched live,” he continued. “The element of surprise is lost when we watch videos on the Internet. We feel it more when it happens in front of our eyes. Although there are many youngsters who are interested in learning the art, the number of spectators has not been very encouraging.”

Still, Satyaprakash’s own sons are looking to follow in the footsteps of their father and grandfather.  

“My sons are also keen on learning and taking up the art,” he said, “but I have told them to study first and then get involved in this. The more they study, the better magicians they will become since it all involves science and a little art.”  

India has a vibrant magic community, yet few of its magicians have achieved the same level of impact or fame as P.C. Sorcar. Born in 1913 into a family of magicians, Protul Chandra Sorcar discovered a passion for the field as a child. He attained international fame in the 1950s and 1960s, performing in many countries as well as on television.

This year, we’re getting a closer look at his career from a very well-informed source. Sorcar’s son, Prodip Chandra Sorcar, has followed in his father’s footsteps as an illusionist and as an author. He penned an upcoming biography titled P.C. Sorcar: The Maharaja of Magic. The book includes nearly 300 color photographs of one of India’s most important magicians.

Amazon is pegging the release date as March 26, and the book is available for pre-order. If you want to get an advanced look, though, Indian website Daily O has an excerpt of the book, offering a fascinating picture of how Sorcar’s career drew on his cultural experience to dazzle audiences:

Many of PC Sorcar’s acts have been picked up from Indian rituals and folklore. To the Western world, these appeared as utterly bizarre, unfathomable. Their magicians perfected sleight of hand tricks with coins and cards and billiard balls but Indian magic was in a league of its own. It seemed to defy rational science and the laws of nature. 

Read the whole excerpt here.

Magicians in India are making a push for the government to recognize magic as an art form. The Association of Illusionists and Magicians is hosting a convention on December 15 to discuss how they can mobilize more interest and support for their work. Atul Patil, president of AIM, spoke to The Hindu about the group’s goals.

“We have collectively decided to protect and popularise this art. This convention will seek to find ways not only to boost this art, but also to work for the welfare of illusionists and magicians across the world,” he told the publication. “There are two quick ways to make magicians popular again: accord magic the status of an art form, and reduce entertainment tax on shows.”

More than 250 magicians are expected to attend. The convention will also have magic shows and performances that are open to the general public, in addition to lectures on magic.

Kismat Ali was just trying to do something nice by delivering the custom vest his brother had ordered from the shopping district of Karol Bagh. He didn’t really think anything of it as he took the vest through security in his carry-on bag, but officials at Indira Ghandi International Airport were concerned. Why were there motors and batteries on a vest? What was its purpose? 

“The vest had created a scare as it looked like an improvised explosive device. However, we verified the vest, tested it and also checked the location from where it was bought,” said Sanjay Bhatia, DCP. Still, the fact that Ali couldn’t explain what all the gizmos did was enough cause for alarm that the police were called in. 

Eventually, authorities were able to confirm that the vest wasn’t a tool of terrorism, just a magician’s assistant – the garment was festooned with electromagnets to help make objects appear or disappear as needed. Ali’s brother, who’d ordered the vest, is a magician in Assam. 

If you’ve ever had a similar run-in with airport security over something weird (but harmless) in your luggage, share it in the comments! And if you ask your brother to pick something up for you, let him in on the secret before he heads to the airport.