A long, long time ago, in a far-faraway land, there lived a magician. He could turn water to gold and pass through solid walls. He wasn’t Superman, nor Merlin, nor even Mandrake. Was he then the maharaja on stage, he of the shiny coat, the mirrored turban, and that big, twirly moustache? Yes. Painting a picture of herself from her imagination in a Std II essay, that was what Maneka wrote she wanted to be. She couldn’t help fancy herself casting a spell over others, dressed like—and sporting a generous handlebar like—her grandfather, master illusionist P.C. Sorcar, and father, P.C. Sorcar Jr. Long before she could probably spell her name, the girl had magic on her mind.
Now 33, and three and a half years into the magic and thrill of Indrajal, the Sorcars’ stage show, Maneka bewitches audiences with acts built around fairytale romances and sci-fi themes. “It took nine generations of the family for a woman to come up and say, ‘Yes, I want to do magic.’ In patriarchal societies, there were always evil connotations attached to a woman practising sorcery. But I guess it was in my blood!” says Maneka—who was named, incidentally, by Indira Gandhi, and known to family members as Paroma.
As she holds your attention with her deep kohl-lined eyes, vivid expressions and amiable smile, you can’t help feeling the illusionist might be reading your mind. When she’s on stage, you know she lives for showbiz, conjuring eye-popping tricks one after the other, pulling them out of her kitty of illusions in fits of dramatic rapture—reminiscent of the performances of her father and grandfather. But does pulling rabbits out of hats or filling earthen jars with water make you a magician? “Of course not.” Legerdemain, card tricks—certainly not magic enough for any self-respecting performer, certainly not for a third-generation performer of Maneka’s lineage. “It’s about making the impossible possible. We can’t stagnate with old tricks. You’ve got to make people believe in miracles.” And Indrajal, started by P.C. Sorcar the first, stands for a celebration of miracles; it isn’t about hocus-pocus.
For Maneka, magic is all about making the impossible seem possible—making a whole train disappear, for example.
Though her immediate lineage in magic goes back 100 years or so, family legend has it that the first ‘Sorcar’ magician has a mention in the Jahangirnama: he apparently left the Mughal emperor spellbound with some sort of water trick, and was duly awarded a ‘sarkari’, with which came social recognition. The family tradition also draws heavily from street magic, in which performers have to be on the qui vive, surrounded as they are by spectators, think on their feet and be innovative at the same time. “It’s that tradition I want to carry forward. But you can’t be a flag-bearer unless you have it in you,” says Maneka. Indeed, for her shows, she admits to going through back-breaking practice sessions and getting “positive criticism” from her father.
She has his approval. Evidently proud of her, P.C. Sorcar Jr says the audience often wants to see more of Maneka. “Even though she belongs to the same gharana, her presentation is refreshing and modern. Magic runs through her veins,” he says. Indrajal may be about casting a web of illusion, but what about acts like making the Victoria Memorial or a train full of passengers disappear and death-defying escapes from undersea? “My father was able to correlate magic with science and brought it to the level of a popular art. This is why he’s called the Merchant of Vanish,” she says. And how exactly do they make such things happen? “Well, try it. It’s our little secret.”
If she decided to break into the male-dominated field of magic against her father’s wishes after completing her MBA at Ohio University, she says, it was out of a longing for challenge and excitement: “I hate a run-of-the-mill kind of existence. The odds are against me, I’ll be whipped, made fun of all my life. But who cares? I’m here to make a difference.” Given such one-pointedness, it was naturally a daunting task finding a “man who’s man enough for her”. “I didn’t want to get married for the heck of it, she says. “It had to be something magical.” With so many magicians at hand, a groom had to materialise! It happened last year.
On stage, she has charmed her way into people’s hearts with illusions like ‘Body through Body, Soul through Soul’, ‘Metamorphosis with a Nest of Boxes’ and ‘Space Trace’. She has acts and tricks for everyone--for the intellectual, the doctor, the teacher, even college students. Though she couldn’t but learn tricks at home as a child, she tries to craft new acts to her own style.
“Even though I belong to the same gharana, I don’t believe in imitating. It’s a new chapter in my family’s tradition and I’m trying to carve out my own niche.” Quiz her about the future of magic in India, and she says, “All art forms are suffering. We’ve completed 100 years of Indian cinema. Are we giving anything back to it really? If we always obsess over skyscrapers and shopping malls and forget that we are a land of mysticism and snake-charmers, how can we even expect magic to hold appeal in a larger sense?” For now, she hopes to do her bit, convinced as she is about her own magical prowess, dazzling audiences—and, of course, carrying forward the familial and the Indian tradition of magic. And what does magic mean to her? “It’s poetry, it makes you forget that everything’s an illusion,” she says. “It’s also about breaking formulas.” A bit of science, washed down with a lot of art.