“Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic” by John Zubrzycki


If any reader has ever thought about Indian magic, those thoughts would likely conjure up (pun intended) images of snake-charmers, levitation, rope tricks, jugglers and people taking afternoon naps on beds of nails.

Indeed, the cover of this fascinating book shows a snake charmer playing his pipe and lying on a bed of nails at the same time, a combination that was certainly new to this reviewer, and Zubrzycki opens with the Emperor Jahangir expressing his wonderment at the rope trick, which “would become the benchmark against which all feats of Indian magic would be measured.” After watching a parade of animals going up a rope and disappearing into thin air, the Emperor wrote “never did I see or hear of anything in execution so wonderfully strange.”

But Indian magic isn’t just these old standards, and it goes way beyond Western feats of prestidigitation or producing rabbits from hats; it’s illusion taken to its highest art form, it’s been around for a very long time, and it survives (barely, and sometimes in the face of police regulations and the necessity for bribes) still on the streets of some Indian cities, as Zubrzycki’s interviews with contemporary performers attest. But, as a musician told the author after a bulldozer raid on an artists’ community,


We perform and entertain people and they kicked us out of our own house. Is this democracy? It is absolute injustice.


And, after reading about some of the incredible things done by Indian magicians, one’s sympathies are wholly with that musician, and one hopes that this more than a thousand years-old art will somehow survive and once again flourish.

“The whole tribe of sleight-of-hand men in Europe are mere bunglers,” a British observer wrote in 1797, “when compared with the jugglers in India.”

Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic, John Zubrzycki (Hurst, June 2018)
Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic, John Zubrzycki (Hurst, June 2018)

It’s well-known, thanks to Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, that there has always been a connection between the two, but in India that connection goes further back in time than any in the West. For example, Zubryzcki tells us that the Atharva Veda, which dates from about 1400 BCE, was actually compiled by “fire-priests skilled in the performance of magical rites”, and that Somadeva’s Katha Sarit Sagara or Ocean of Story, written in the 11th century, is “brimming … with tales of magicians and their spells.”

Zubrzycki’s consummate scholarship ranges easily over this material and much more, weaving, with his own magical touch (this book is never dull or heavy) an utterly fascinating history of a wonderful cultural tradition which has received little scholarly attention from Western writers and which, curiously enough, could serve almost as a modern companion to Frazer’s immense work of erudition. Yes, Zubrzycki writes about magic as entertainment, but after the opening chapters about the development of Indian magic readers are left in no doubt as to its enduring spiritual components. Audiences may or may not have been directly aware of them, but there was certainly more to magic than meets the eye (I can’t stop making these bad puns); some magicians worked for kings, others became criminals, and still others were called to more mundane tasks such as “spell-casters in the Strangers’ Home”.

PC Sorcar, billing himself variously as “The World’s Greatest Magician” and “Maharajah of Magic”, merrily sawed girls in half for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

“The whole tribe of sleight-of-hand men in Europe are mere bunglers,” a British observer wrote in 1797, “when compared with the jugglers in India.” And so, a few years later, began the importation of Indian magicians to the West. As most people in England were not likely to experience first-hand the wonders of India, it occurred to one Peter Campbell, a ship’s captain, that if he could persuade some Indian performers to put their taboo of crossing an ocean aside, he could possibly make a great deal of money by exhibiting their talents at home. In 1812 they duly left for England, and by early 1813 English audiences were eagerly watching sword-swallowers in action.

For the next hundred or so years there would be a steady trickle of Indian magicians crossing the ocean, while in England and other places magicians learned “Indian” tricks or even represented themselves as Indians, so successful was this oriental sleight-of-hand with Western audiences. It opened up new and mysterious, sometimes disturbing worlds and extended the imaginative vistas of people who had barely heard of India.

The trend flourished past Indian independence, too; in the 1950s we find, for example, PC Sorcar, billing himself variously as “The World’s Greatest Magician” and “Maharajah of Magic”, and making full use of such media as radio and television, merrily sawing girls in half for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and Gogia Pasha, “the World-Renowned Egyptian [sic] Master of Magic” plied his trade as far afield as Australia. The latter presented an eccentric East-West “fusion” of a wide range of tricks, from “X-ray Eyes” to the “Basket of Death.” And there was always Amar Dutt with his x-ray eyes. When Western magicians, sensing that the Indians knew a thing or two, began appropriating their skills, the Indians did the same in reverse, as the chapter “From Turbans to Top Hats” explains. Magic, we are told, became more “progressive, scientific, educational” in their hands, and they seem to have had little difficulty with adapting their skills to modern technology and the expectations of a better-educated audience, Western or otherwise. When they did that, Houdini looked like an amateur.


There are chapters here on fakirs, jugglers, beds of nails, a “magical menagerie” and rope-tricks. Zubrzycki has it all, and his scholarship ranges far and wide. The author is ideally-suited to write this book, too; he is not merely a professor sitting far away from India in a chair weaving delicate and erudite arguments about the arcana of magic, but almost a magician himself, collecting an immense amount of material (there are over fifty pages of end-notes and a massive bibliography) and somehow putting it all into a readable and fast-paced book with two sections of superb illustrations.

A writer for The Australian, Zubrzycki has also worked as a tour guide and a diplomat; he has solid academic credentials, having written a doctoral thesis on the connections between Indian and Western magicians, which of course informs a considerable part of this book.

Zubrzycki also ends on a word of optimism for the dwindling bands of street magicians in India whose plight frames the book. Rajeev Sethi, a man dedicated to preserving the old arts, including magic, tells him that “They won’t disappear. There will be a reaction,” because people will always want to be struck with wonder. A reading of this book goes a long way to making us feel that wonder and hope that one day, like Emperor Jahangir and so many others, we will be struck with it.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.