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ASIA
FEBRUARY 22, 1999 VOL. 153 NO. 7


As with any brotherhood, there are factional squabbles. On one side are the conjurers, who excel in palming and concealing, clever finger movements that take endless practice. On the other are the entertainers, who create illusions--making elephants disappear or their own wives levitate. Samraj is from the latter camp. His performances involve shoving knives into plump female assistants, then sawing them in half or chopping off their heads. "You have to make it colorful to attract people," asserts the former engineer. "It is a very expensive art." True, but such acts require little skill, scoffs Gopal Nair, a 75-year-old practitioner who once performed for maharajahs. "I know so many tricks, I could easily become a guru or something. But my heart is too clean." Anyone with money can perform illusions, he says, laughing off stories of wizards who can make, say, the Statue of Liberty vanish. "I did really dangerous things, like swallowing blades and eating fire. I was a hero."

Once upon a time, long before films and TV, magicians were perhaps India's main entertainment medium. Children would screech with joy when men in tattered clothes showed up in the village to pull coins out of dirty ears and chatter with the local dogs, amusing and even alarming spectators. Acts such as the Great Indian Rope Trick were passed like precious heirlooms from father to son. Now the sons are studying to be businessmen, and the tricks are dying along with the tricksters. Fakiruddin, a decrepit, 50-year-old street magician, now spends most of his time drinking. Although his ability to grow a mango plant in just minutes is perhaps the only act that baffles this elite gathering, Fakiruddin is among the poorest of the group. He sleeps, along with his snakes and pet mongoose, at a bicycle parking stand. "People are too stressed," he complains of his dwindling audience. "They have no time to stop and watch. They just walk away."

Even when people tear themselves away from their jobs or television sets, they have little time for folk art. So magic is left to the amateurs--engineers or teachers who alleviate their tedium by learning a few tricks. But there are still moments of enchantment. In dingy dressing rooms, young men and women enthusiastically exchange their work clothes for the glittering disguises of their avocation. They show off wobbling pens, disappearing coins, squirrels made with cloth. Some joke that they wish their skills enabled them to vanish a few unloved politicians. "This is all we want," says A.A. Varghese, an economics professor: "to amuse and amaze with our skill." The real trick will be getting Indian audiences to pay attention.

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