Chanakya taxed illusionists, says this magical history of India

'Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India' is thoroughly researched

By Uddalak Mukherjee
  • Published 7.09.18
  • a few seconds read


The spirit of John Zubrzycki's book is best captured by its subtitle. This, indeed, is an expansive account of the history of magic in India, made magical by the rigour of Zubrzycki's meticulous research.

That the research has borne fruit is evident from the ground that Zubrzycki covers. Chronicling the evolution of illusion and its practitioners from the Grecian times into the period that witnessed the march of the wizards from the East into the Western market could have daunted a less intrepid researcher. But Zubrzycki proves equal to the task, delighting readers with anecdotes and their, often obscure, sources. How else would one know, for instance, that among those entertaining guests attending a banquet in honour of Alexander's wedding was a group of Indian jugglers? Or that Kautilya, while urging sleight-of-hand artists to be employed as tools of surveillance, had also sought to impose a licence fee on "jugglers, dancers, singers... buffoons, mime artists... and wandering bards..." The texts that Zubrzycki resurrects while mining these nuggets are dizzyingly diverse - religious treatise, colonial documents, old newspapers, journals - and, occasionally, unconventional. Thus, readers get a glimpse of Shri Krishnadevarayana Dinachari, the diary of Vijayanagar's monarch.

But anecdotes, no matter how enchanting, can lose their charm a bit on account of dreary presentation. Zubrzycki the narrator is not as gifted as Zubrzycki the researcher. The narrative, a faithful, but not quite imaginative, rendition of a long and layered history of indrajal, can thus have a soporific effect at times.

The importance of Jadoowallahs lies in its inferences. Zubrzycki unveils the complexity of India's empire of magic when he argues that the lines among faith, mysticism, spiritualism, livelihood and entertainment cannot be discerned with ease when it comes to examining the culture of conjuring. This blurring of boundaries, Zubrzycki shows, has been endorsed by scholarship: John Campbell Oman's monumental book, The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India, had also reflected upon the intertwining between religious ritual and the conjurer's craft.

But the centrality of magic to the Indian consciousness is not without its peculiarities. Zubrzycki shows how illusion, overwhelmingly, remains a subaltern vocation. The brutal colonial reprisal on conjurers - many communities were marked criminal - could be explained by the vice of class prejudice. The genteel P.C. Sorcar - Zubrzycki devotes a chapter to the Maharajah of Magic - may have been an exception.

What one misses in these pages is a philosophical scrutiny of magic's resilience in modernity. Does illusion survive because the unreal, ironically, helps the human mind cope with the ugliness of reality?