Monday, 30th October 2017

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Weave magic at home and abroad

P.C. Sorcar is probably India's most well-known magician. Also known internationally, he was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s, when he performed live and on television. A few generations earlier, Eddie Joseph (1899-1974), a Baghdadi Jew from Calcutta, was internationally acclaimed and had published over 70 books on magic. It is said that he created a trick a day. Eddie's effects and techniques are still used today.

By JAEL SILLIMAN
  • Published 2.08.18
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P.C. Sorcar is probably India's most well-known magician. Also known internationally, he was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s, when he performed live and on television. A few generations earlier, Eddie Joseph (1899-1974), a Baghdadi Jew from Calcutta, was internationally acclaimed and had published over 70 books on magic. It is said that he created a trick a day. Eddie's effects and techniques are still used today.

Eddie's stage name was Eddie Jason. He has the distinction of having Bombay's magic circle named after him: the Eddie Joseph Ring. In 1951, the governor of Bombay awarded him the title 'Dean of Magic'. Eddie represented India at the International Brotherhood of Magicians in 1928 and was very active in the Society of Indian Magicians. While much is known about his magic, very little is known about his family background. I learnt this from his cousin, the 90-year-old Solomon 'Sol' Bekhor, living in London. Contrary to Wikipedia's claim, this great magician was not born of European parents. Sol explains: "Eddie's mother, Habiba, was my father's sister."

Eddie saw the Great Nicola - "the international mystifier" - perform while he was in Calcutta. He was so impressed that he started practising magic tricks when he was 12 years old and became a professional at 18. He wrote regularly for international publications starting in the 1920s. Since he was writing from India, some people thought he was a fictional character created to boost sales. "I had no idea that my cousin was a genius. He was humble and kind and everyone loved him. I wish I took an interest in magic then. He performed a lot of tricks for me," Sol said.

Eddie was the first magician to practise magic over the radio and made over 30 appearances. In 1935, he performed as part of the official silver jubilee celebrations for King George V. During the Second World War, he travelled extensively as the Prattling Trixter to entertain British and American servicemen. After the war, he served as editor of The India Magic Digest. He opened his own school of magic in Bombay before emigrating to the United Kingdom where he worked in magic until 1965 when his daughter, Esther, died.

Eddie's mother was the granddaughter of Hacham Schlomo (Solomon) Bekhor, a notable rabbi and scholar in Baghdad. "Some of his writings are preserved in the archives of the Hebrew university," Sol said. "He opened the first printing press in Baghdad." Jewish people who did not want to join the Turkish army when Turkey allied with Germany against the British came to India to avoid conscription. They had initially tried to go to Britain, but Britain diverted them to India as the latter was looking for entrepreneurs and professionals. The 1,00,000-strong Jewish community of Baghdad had many educated members. Among those who left Baghdad was Eddie's mother. She came to Calcutta with her uncles and married Moshe Hai.

His family, like those of others from the Middle East, assimilated quickly into the Calcutta Jewish community. In the 19th and 20th centuries, waves of Jews from the Middle East had been coming to Calcutta and the other port cities. The community, known as the 'Baghdadis' because they followed the liturgy of Baghdad, included Jewish people from across the Middle East.

The Baghdadis were enterprising. Thus, Moshe Hai was able to set up shop rather quickly in the mercantile city. While their numbers never crossed 4,000 in Calcutta - it was much less in Bombay - they made an important mark on the city in terms of business, art, theatre, film, media and administrative services. A few also became politically and militarily important (for more on notable members of the community, see www.jewishcalcutta.in). Moshe Hai Joseph owned a coffee shop called Morrison's on Lindsay Street. Sol's father owned the Tea and Coffee Shop in New Market. Moshe's family lived on Chowringhee Lane. All the children received a good education and did well for themselves. Eddie's brother, Solomon, emigrated to Canada and joined the Canadian Armed Services. Another brother, Isaac, was a very good photographer and worked at a studio called Wallace Heaton on Old Court House Street and later in Jubilee Stores on Park Street. Eddie's brother, Nissim, was a civil engineer. During the war, the British needed spare parts that he manufactured for the ministry of defence. Florence, Eddie's sister, studied at Oxford. Eddie and his wife, Sarah, had two daughters. Esther studied violin from a young age and became a famous solo violinist in Calcutta. Her premature death led Eddie to give up his career. He died in the UK in 1974.

While renowned for his magic, his story is also one that underlines how Calcutta's Baghdadi Jews were truly cosmopolitan. Families that came from the Middle East and lived in Calcutta for two generations, as Eddie's family did, made a name for themselves both in India and abroad. When Eddie's family and other members of the community moved from Calcutta, they re-established themselves as quickly in their professional fields and re-integrated themselves in the West.