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Magician’s Curse: The sad tale of Delhi’s finest trickster

Celebrated by magic enthusiasts abroad but reduced to performing at children’s birthday parties in India, Ishamuddin, master of the Great Indian Rope Trick, opens up to Pawanpreet Kaur about unfulfilled ambitions

PAWANPREET KAUR  25th Sep 2011

Ishamuddin at his house in Kathputli Colony

n the dark alleys of Kathputli Colony, amidst the filth and squalor that we've come to expect from every urban slum, lives Ishamuddin, the great forgotten magician of Delhi. A bundle of reflective thoughts and infinite energy, this master magician rose to international acclaim by performing The Great Indian Rope Trick, debunking myths that the legendary trick was only a figment of fevered Western imaginations.

Ishamuddin was ranked among the Top 20 magicians in the world after he performed the act in Delhi in 1995 and repeated his feat in front of a 30,000-strong crowd at the Udipi beach in 1997. Sitting in his small but clean shanty, it's hard to believe that this celebrated magician could have this kind of life, that such fate could have befallen him. As he wistfully Googles for pages about himself, you can smell a sense of despair, though the fetid smell emanating from a nearby open-drain leaves little scope for anything else.

Ishamuddin feels that despite its rich repertory of traditional performers, In dia has abandoned its traditional arts at the altar of modernity

The 40-year-old conjurer lives with his wife and six children in Kathputli Colony, home to hundreds of puppeteers, magicians, acrobats and jugglers. He has realised that his art may never be appreciated in his own country. Ishamuddin says, "It's sad that the distinction of my being one of the best magicians in the world did not come from India. Here I'm just a lowly madari (street performer). If I ask an MBA graduate to be my manager, they'd ridicule me by asking, 'madari ka manager'?"

Born into a family of masets (magicians), Ishamuddin apprenticed with his grandfather and father, both of whom were seasoned street magicians. "I remember people gathering in crowds to see us perform and give us decent reward money. Today, if I attempted something like that, I'd be shoved off the road by the police," he smiles.

His frequent trips abroad have given him some exposure and his English is surprisingly good for a man who was schooled only till class seven. His daughter Jasmine hands me a stack of newspaper clippings on Ishamuddin; there are articles from newspapers around the world, datelined Austria, France, Germany, Japan and the UK.

The Rope Trick, which mesmerised magicians for centuries, was long thought to be a hoax. Tracing its history, he explains that according to legend, philosopher-king Raja Bhoja once threw a thread towards the sky, which his wife used to climb to heaven. Magicians of yore later used it as a bait to keep the audience enthralled and wanting more. A great mixture of folklore and marketing, he quips. "So, in a sense, by performing the trick, I invented or rather I revived a lost art. I was inarticulate, so people doubted my ability to perform the greatest magic trick ever known; however, they believed Western authors who wrote about it," he says.

About the trick itself, he adds cryptically, "It's not magic, it's just a trick." In Ishamuddin's version, the magician commands a thick rope to rise in the air as he plays a flute and invites a child to climb the by-now-taut rope. The child is then commanded to descend and on the magician's call, the rope falls limply on the ground. What makes his trick special is that he performed the trick under open skies, something no one has attempted before.

"I had heard of it as a child and when American writer Lee Siegel told me a reward was being offered to anyone who could perform the trick, I was determined to crack the mystery." He immersed himself in ferreting out information from diverse sources, right from Jahangir Nama to Siegel's Net of Magic, while his mother and wife went rag-picking to provide for the family. "And though I did perform the trick, I never got the money," he claims.

People were sceptical about his performance. Some claimed he had installed a mechanism below the basket to support the rope. "So, after the rope rose to about 4 feet, I would lift the basket and show the audience that the rope was suspended in mid air."

Now with shows being few and far between, Ishamuddin, who took the global magic arena by storm, makes a living by performing odd-tricks at birthday parties. "My performances are sold as part of 'birthday party packages' that also offer cakes and balloons," he says. To bring in some extra coffers, his wife sells chickens, which are accommodated comfortably in a small corner of his house.

rt is a great leveller and so is poverty. And the two together form a toxic concoction of disillusionment, a recipe almost, for the demise of spirit. Sitting in his shanty, Ishamuddin is a picture of broken dreams. Yet, unlike other residents of this colony, his lament is not just for his own art. He feels traditional arts have been neglected in India while being feted out on foreign shores.

"Street-based arts are no less than the classical ones. Why has one been left to die at the cost of the others," he asks. "Which other country can be called the 'land of snake charmers'? It is our collective heritage; instead of being ashamed, we should we proud of it. Four out of the five ancient civilizations — Rome, Greece, Mesopotamia, China and India — have lost their traditional art forms to modernity. We in India have survived, and yet there is no attempt to save us from extinction," he rues, saying street artistes in India should be termed an 'endangered species'.

He feels that despite its rich repertory of traditional performers, In dia has abandoned its traditional arts at the altar of modernity. "Instead of mindlessly imitating Western arts, we should design modules adopted by countries such as Russia and Brazil to revive and promote our own art," he says. While in Europe, Ishamuddin saw dedicated spots, such as booths or amphitheatres, for street performers. "They have academies that offer diplomas in magic, puppetry, juggling and other performing arts," he exclaims. The near-total absence of something as basic as information banks or an art directory in India baffles him.

People are born into the maset caste, he says. But now, there is a reversal of trends as the younger generation wants better professions for a better life. "My daughter wanted to attend a performing arts course but there is hardly enough money for home. We just cannot afford it," he says. Bitterness, like the footfall of a cat, is silent and certain. "Artists like me are carrying this country's heritage, yet our first battle is against hunger and poverty," he says. "When the 2010 Commonwealth Games happened, a lot of my journalist friends were shocked to learn that I was not asked to perform at the opening ceremony," he adds with a weak smile.

A street artist is trapped in a vicious circle of money lenders, payments, performances and poverty. "Banks don't give us loans. Whatever I earn from my shows goes into settling old bills," he rues. Organisations working to promote art or "the so-called intellectuals", as he calls them, "have been selling us to the West for too long". Acknowledging the general appreciation Indian performers meet on foreign shores, he says, "Unlike our Western counterparts, Indian magicians don't perform on the proscenium stage. The audience get 360-degree view of us and they really appreciate that, unlike in India, where our repertory is taken for granted."

However, Ishamuddin has not lost hope, yet. He talks passionately about his dream project wherein he intends to 'map' traditional performing arts and artists of the country. "Then, in collaboration with scholars of anthropology, I want to organise a series of lectures in national and international universities to create a better understanding of our collective heritage, before it's lost in oblivion," he says.

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