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It’s called the Water Torture Escape Act. The magician is handcuffed, put in a plastic bag tied at the top and lowered in a glass case filled with water. Then electricity is passed through the water, and in a minute a spear hanging over the glass tank will slice through it. The magician has to escape from this situation in front of hundreds of gaping spectators. Gopinath Muthukad had spent two years working this act to perfection. The plan: his assistant would put off the electricity from another point, a light at a corner behind the audience would indicate that it was off. Muthukad had a hidden key to open the handcuffs. So the act began, the countdown for the spear to skewer down started, he quickly released the handcuffs with the keys, but the light in the corner never came on. The water tank was still charged. Thirty seconds, 20 seconds, the light still wouldn’t come on. Fifteen seconds and someone finally pulled the wires from the socket and Muthukad tore himself out of the tank. “In all the tension, my assistant forgot to put the electricity off. It was a really close shave,” he says still shuddering at the thought.
That was almost 15 years ago at a performance in Kozhikode, a bustling city in north Kerala. Muthukad, our own Houdini, has come out unhurt from hundreds of such acts in the last two decades. And in recognition, last week, the International Magicians Society (IMS) in New York conferred the Merlin Award 2011, the “Oscar of the magic world”, on him for outstanding contribution to the world of alchemy. The award levitates Muthukad into a famous club which includes the likes of David Copperfield, Lu Chen and Harry Blackstone. Magician Franz Harary, member of the board of directors of ims, says the Merlin is the most visible public award and the competition is hardcore. “Magic is such an enigmatic and nebulous art that it is hard to judge it. But when your peers vote you for the award, it’s wonderful. And Muthukad has raised the level of Indian magic to another level.”
Back home, on a wet day in Thiruvananthapuram with the sun playing peek-a-boo, a very relaxed Muthukad lets on that it was his father’s stories that drew him to magic. His father, a farmer from Kavalamukkata, a remote village near Nilambur in Kerala, had a way with words, and he would loop young Muthukad’s imagination through an enchanting labyrinth of tales within tales. Every evening after a hard day’s work, his father would lie in his easychair and Muthukad, the youngest of five children, would climb onto his lap. His father would then unspool a yarn. “His stories always had elements of magic and fantasy and largely centred around Kerala’s legendary magician, Vazhakunnam Neelakandan Namboothiri. I was hooked. There was nothing else I wanted to do,” says Muthukad.
Muthukad put up his first solo show at a church festival. Well, almost his first solo show. He was only 10. His father had got a trouser and shirt tailored for him for the occasion. A large crowd had gathered, his family in the front row. It was to be a simple rope trick—a volunteer would cut a rope in two and Muthukad had to magically join it together. But the volunteer from the audience was a tall man and he saw the spare rope that Muthukad had concealed in his sleeve. “He pulled the rope out and waved it around for the audience to see. The crowd jeered and laughed. I fled the scene and wept bitterly. I almost gave up magic. But the people in my village encouraged me to put up another show and slowly I regained my confidence,” he says.
For Muthukad, it’s the audience which keeps him going even after all these years. The trick is to build a rapport with them, he says. Ace magician P.C. Sorcar Jr, the only other Indian to have won the Merlin award, agrees. “Magic is such an emotional art. You connect to people at some ecstatic level.” Which then begs the question: why haven’t magic performances in India not reached the level of showmanship and razzmatazz that it has in the West? Muthukad feels it’s because “today internationally magic has become a performing art of dance, music and other extravaganza. In India, we have not gone as high-tech as they have in the west. For instance, we still do not have a suitable venue for the likes of David Copperfield to perform.”
It may also have to do with there being no great Hogwarts in India, for wizards or muggles, to learn magic. An attempt to rectify matters started in 1996, when Muthukad opened a Magic Academy (which is now affiliated to the Kerala University). The Merlin has also used his powers to spread social messages. “In 1990, I devoted a whole year to the Kerala literacy campaign. We called it Aksharajalam (Letter magic). Through magic I showed the value of letters to adivasis and villagers. Though people laughed during the shows, the message struck home.” Muthukad has also campaigned for national integration and social harmony, and spread awareness against smoking, alcohol and drugs (Stop SAD).
Meanwhile, the magic tricks continue though he no longer does escape acts like the ‘water torture’ one. “I am 48 years old and my body can no longer move with the required speed and agility.” He is now trying to perfect the art of the illusionist which includes reviving the old Great Indian Rope Trick. In Muthukad’s version, a coiled rope lying on the floor unwinds to the sound of music and ascends into the heavens and the swaying rope then slowly stiffens. A small boy climbs up the rope and disappears. “It’s possible to make the boy disappear at night but it’s still difficult do that in broad daylight,” he says. All his energies are right now focused on mastering the rope trick in daylight. In a way, Indian magic has come full circle.