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Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India

Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India
The cover of Jadoowallahs, Jugglers, and Jinns by John Zubrzycki,
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From Emperor Jehangir's fascination with magic to Motilal Nehru's menagerie of magicians, dancers and artists, witness the colour of magic in this John Zubrzycki authored book

Amit Dixit
September 02 , 2018
P.C. Sorcar Jr happens to be the only person I have ever bothered to take an autograph of. With an enthusiastic endorsement from a towering contemporary magician such as him gracing the cover (“Immensely enjoyable”), I felt entitled to have high expectations from this book. And I’m happy to report I came away sated. Zubrzycki is familiar with India, having, in his own admission, worked here as a foreign correspondent, diplomat and tour guide. He is armed with degrees in Hindi and South Asian history from the Australian National University and has previously authored The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback. In other words, he has been touched by the magic of India.

This probably explains his confidence in picking up a subject that has rarely been tackled on such a scale and which may not immediately appear fecund. Meticulously researched, Zubrzycki’s prose has a lightness of touch to which the reader skips along breezily. The book is deliciously rich in detail, both historical and contemporary, from the heydays of Indian magic to its current moment of crisis. When he mentions Emperor Jahangir’s fascination with magic, he also brings up the century-old ape at his court, who could divine “from jumbled up pieces of paper the one inscribed with the name Jesus as the true prophet.”

Demonstrating how past and present meld seamlessly in India, he writes about “the barah pal, the brotherhood of twelve, an ancient collective of strolling players that includes jugglers, snake charmers, animal handlers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, storytellers, impersonators and acrobats. Regardless of their backgrounds, members of this peripatetic brotherhood can share a cooking hearth made out of three stones whenever their wanderings bring them together. Economic changes are breaking down what were once strong bonds between these communities. But their arts of legerdemain live on as an integral part of the social, cultural and religious fabric of India as they have for millennia.”

Until I picked up this book, magic had existed only on the fringes of my imagination. In this page-turner, Zubrzycki’s teases apart the many strands of India’s magical history with a sleight of hand that would put a conjuror to shame, beginning with the barely believable tales of travellers who visited India in antiquity (or did not). Zubrzycki writes about how magicians thrived in India under royal patronage and about the West’s early and unending fascination with—and ultimate appropriation of—Indian magic. Importantly, Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns is also a history of Indian scholarship on magic, and about the prized magical manuals of yore.

One of the most unusual chapters is devoted to Motilal Nehru’s menagerie of magicians, dancers and artists, which he assembled for sending abroad for performances. Two chapters delve into the Great Indian Rope Trick, with the shadow of a doubt the most famous trick in the world. No book on Indian magic can be complete without a chapter on the legendary P.C. Sorcar (Jr’s father) and his legacy, and that’s where the book ends. The all-colour archival plates are gorgeous.

In case you were wondering, in spite of this deep immersion in the web of Indian magic, the indrajal, if you please, Zubrzycki doesn’t give any secrets away. His point is simple: “There is enough disenchantment in the world and I don’t intend to add to it.”

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