n 1893, years before he made his name as a legendary escapologist, a 19-year-old Harry Houdini sought to entertain visitors at the Chicago World Fair. So he darkened his face with makeup, put on a white robe, and posed as a “Hindu fakir.”
Houdini was capitalizing on the growing fascination with the mysticism and magic of India which had sparked what one commentator described as a “fakir invasion” in the West. Indeed, he was following in the footsteps of many Western magicians who gave themselves titles like “The Fakir of Shimla” and “Fakir of Jeypoor.” These artistes dressed up in outlandish outfits, muddled together tricks from across the world, and passed them all off as Indian.
“…Science was able to explain everything, yet the East held out the promise that there were things out there that might not be explicable, that there might be a place where real magic existed. So Western magicians were very keen to exploit this belief,” said John Zubrzycki, the Australian author of the new book, Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns.
In the book, Zubrzycki traces the rich social, cultural, and political history of the art of magic in India. He explores its close connection with spiritualism and the changing roles of the country’s traditional nomadic street magicians, jugglers, and acrobats, once ubiquitous in Indian cities.
The author first visited India in the late 1970s and witnessed his first Indian street magic performance in West Bengal’s Alipurduar district: An old man and a young boy performed the classic basket trick—a child enters a small cane basket and appears to be stabbed repeatedly, only to re-emerge miraculously unhurt.
It wasn’t until decades later, when Zubrzycki was working on his second book about a diamond trader in Shimla who dabbled in magic tricks, that he thought of tracing the history of the art in India.
Zubrzycki has spent the past three years hunting down hard-to-find journals of Indian magic and meeting local magicians to hear about their lives and pore over their personal artefacts. His research took him from archives in Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata to London, Cambridge, New York, and Washington DC, where the Library of Congress hosts Houdini’s vast collection of books on spiritualism, magic, and witchcraft, which include many references to India.
He found that the enduring idea of India as a mystical place has its roots in the 6th century BC when historians, geographers, missionaries, pilgrims, and royal chroniclers began presenting the region as “a land of strange beasts and fantastical races, ascetics and saints, soothsayers and snake charmers, wonder-workers and necromancers.” Read more