It’s Indian Independence Day! This one goes out to my son, who is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime by spending several months in that storied, ancient nation.
I thought I would observe the day by doing a little post on the interesting phenomenon of Eastern impersonation among magicians back in the day. The fad is clearly a by-product of British colonialism, and the fact that communication between East and West was increasing during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but not so much that the process would dispel rumor and mythology. Ignorance of Asian culture and religion gave these foreign lands an “exotic mystique” containing “secrets” ripe for exploitation by enterprising showmen. India was not the only land that fascinated western audiences in this way: China, Egypt, Arabia, and Turkey were also fodder for visual ideas and concepts for stage illusions. The cultural plunder included snake charming, the Indian Rope Trick, hypnotism, levitation, and costumes meant to suggest mystics, fakirs and Maharajahs. Artists rendered conceptions of Indian street performers like these:
Below are several English and American magicians who presented Indian themed acts (and a couple of genuine Indian ones). Just click on the link to learn more!
Dean of American Magicians Harry Kellar (1849-1922) apprenticed with a magician named Penn Yan, Fakir of Ava (Isaiah Harris Hughes) and actually went on a fact-finding tour of India in the 1870s, although he professed to be disappointed with the “magic” he found (or didn’t find) there. Kellar was more a white tie and tails magician, although this image above, which features an Indian-looking man bowing down before Kellar’s levitation prowess, seems pretty relevant to include here.
Thurston (1869-1936), often regarded as Kellar’s successor, had an “Indian” phase.
Horace Goldin (1873-1939) did the Indian rope trick before discovering his eventual specialty, sawing women in half.
Carter the Great (1874-1936) also had his “Indian” phase.
Alexander, The Man Who Knows (Claude Alexander Conlin, 1880-1954) was a second sight specialist
Linga Singh, The Royal Indian Magician (Amar Nath Dutt, 1884-1937) was a genuine Punjabi
Blacaman, Hindu Animal Hypnotist
Details on this dude are sketchy, beyond the belief that he was probably from Southern Italy. There is a terrific article about him here.
P.C. Sorcar (1913-1971) was Bengali, and indicative perhaps of changing times. He once caused a stir by sawing a woman in half on British television in the 1950s; the camera cut away before he restored her, causing much alarm in living rooms throughout the country!
By the 1930s, live stage magic was perhaps becoming insufficient to hold the interest of audiences. The concept of Indian magic began to creep into pulp fiction, radio and films, and in unalloyed form, no longer reliant on the restraints of real-time physics.
The seminal contribution to the genre was Chandu the Magician, introduced as a radio show in 1931, then as films starring Edmund Lowe and Bela Lugosi. Chandu was a westerner named Frank Chandler who studied with a Yogi in India who taught him to do astral projection, teleportation, and mind control. This was way better stuff than could ever be done onstage. I wrote more about Chandu in this post.
James Hilton’s 1932 novel Lost Horizon and Frank Capra’s 1937 film version, give us a mythical Himalayan land called Shangri-La where the spiritual inhabitants of discovered the secret to immortality. Wrote about that here.
In 1963, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko of Marvel Comics created the comic book Dr. Strange, which borrows ideas from Chandu, including the concept of an American learning mystical arts in the Himalayas, and embellishes upon the concept most imaginatively. The timing is interesting; it seems to be a twist on the concept for the post-colonial era. It was recently turned into a film which I am most reluctant to see, as I was a huge fan of the comic book in my youth! But now we come full circle, for this is undoubtedly what kindled my interest in such topics in the first place.
Colonialism, appropriation, ignorance, stereotype — these things all suck, beyond a doubt. But, as the Wise Man might say, we are all on a path. At the end of the path, we’ll all know, understand and respect each other much better. I consume hokey pop culture. My son is about to immerse himself in the real culture of India for half a year. We can all work together to write a happy ending for the evolution of the world.