While some now ride autos, others are jobless, but almost everyone agrees that their craft has been given a raw deal by the government.
New Delhi: Generations grew up mystified by the so-called Indian basket trick, where swords were poked through baskets ostensibly holding a person who then emerged unscathed. But then the internet arrived, and exposed the trick for the play of distractions and clever contraptions it was. And just like that, the magic was gone.
With the internet laying bare the once deeply-guarded secrets of their craft, professional magicians in India have few rabbits left to pull out of their hats. Where they were once the embodiment of mystique with their colourful costumes and rhythmic incantations, contemporary magicians find their tricks evoking scant curiosity in a generation raised on the internet.
And with magic failing to keep the kitchen fires burning, many practitioners of this ancient performing art have been forced to take up ordinary jobs to get by.
Shamim Khan, 52, lives in Delhi’s Kalandar colony and rides an auto-rickshaw for a living. But when the rare opportunity arises to perform magic, he readily dons his old role again.
Magic, after all, is Shamim’s family profession, and his forefathers, he said, performed for the kings.
“I started performing magic tricks when I was five years old and grew up believing that I would remain in this profession all my life,” he added. “I have been to different cities to perform magic tricks.”
His brother Asam Khan, now 74, was fairly renowned for his craft in his younger days. He is jobless now. Given magic’s falling prospects, he discouraged his children from following in his footsteps, and his son now runs a grocery store. The son of their brother Hassu Khan, also a magician, is a tattoo artist.
Both Shamim and Asam used to perform behind the Red Fort until they were forcibly removed, along with several other street magicians, also known as madaris, over security concerns.
Magic’s modern men and women
Compared to Shamim, Asam and their fellow ‘traditional’ magicians, their modern colleagues have it much better.
Hassan magician, for example, performs at birthday parties, charging Rs 1,500 for every half an hour.
“We can still survive,” he told ThePrint, “The main sufferers are the traditional magicians whose value is reducing with each day.”
Hassan, too, is a descendant of a magician family of the traditional school, the difference between the two variants basically being the nature of the tricks and their costumes.
Modern magicians in India sway towards such tricks as mind-readings, often employing their mobile phones in the service of their show, and generally perform in casual everyday clothing.
The bright side
While a general consensus exists on the role of the internet in doing professional magic in, one of the craft’s modern practitioners, illusionist Sangeeta, said there was a bright side too. The internet, she said, had helped spread awareness and eliminate superstitions.
“Magic must evolve. If old tricks are revealed, the magicians should come up with new ones,” she added.
The tricks that are revealed, she said, are the ones not performed properly.
Even so, there is one issue that all magicians seem to agree on — the lack of recognition magic has received, despite being a “performing art on a par with theatre”, carried out for popular entertainment.
“I have tried to get in touch with the government multiple times and have requested them to exempt magicians from the goods and services tax (as theatre artistes have been), but our demand has only fallen on deaf ears,” said magician Rajkumar, who runs Delhi School of Magic.
“Magic involves dance and drama. We are performing tricks. I don’t know how it is different from theatre,” he added.