John Zubrzycki (Ph.D, University of NSW), author of Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India delivered a special lecture titled “Empire of Enchantment: How India’s Conjuring Traditions Transformed Western Stage Magic” at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad (UoH) on the 29th January, 2020.

Referring extensively to his book, he spoke on the travel of Western magicians in India and Indian conjurers to Europe and the States and the resulting exchange of magical methodologies, while stating the differences in attitude behind them: the “Western” belief in magic as science vs. the “Eastern” belief in magic as supernatural ability. Such exchanges were not equal, however, and many impoverished, mostly lower caste street conjurers, sword-swallowers and performers had their tricks bought and improvised upon by European magicians, who then attempted to one-up them and prove Indian traditional magic as inferior to European, Modern magic, following the colonial logic of proving colonized people as inferior. This colonial impulse was double-edged: by performing Indian tricks better than Indians themselves, Europeans also attempted to show how the wonderment of native audiences indicated the general lack of Reason in colonized people. Zubrzycki traced how several of these European magicians set up elaborate stage shows with highly Orientalised and exoticized “Indian” themes with Indian tricks, even taking up “Indian” names, to cater to an European urban public’s obsession with exotic Indian magic. At the same time, such a great demand for Indian magic shows brought several Indians to Britain and America, where some of them became household names, an example being Amar Nath Dutt or “Linga Singh”.

Zubrzycki then spoke on the formation of troupes of conjurers who would be sent to perform in India exhibitions in Europe and politico-legal deliberations as to whether magic constituted manual labour. He also spoke on the emergence of magic schools, international magic magazines and societies in cities like Calcutta. The lecture ended with a Question-Answer session, where the changing nature of magic over the ages, the difference between “white” and “black” magic and magic’s enduring relevance both in India and the West were discussed.

Laboni Mukherjee, Department of English, UoH