THE KING OF ILLUSION

Protul Chandra Sorcar single-handedly took Indian magic to the world and made headlines wherever he performed, says his son, magician Prodip Chandra Sorcar

On April 9, 1956, people in London stared in disbelief at their television screens. That night, a celebrated magician from India was given an opportunity to entertain the British audience. He was fresh off a triumphant tour of France, where he had received rave reviews.

The magician was allotted 15 minutes on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) network, where he decided to perform his favourite act – sawing a woman in half and putting her back together. He looked confident about the task at hand. The gleaming circular saw went clean through the body of his young assistant, cutting her into two as she lay, apparently unconscious. It was then time to restore her to one piece and wake her from her magical stupor. However, despite several attempts by the magician, the woman would not open her eyes. Meanwhile, his time was over. The BBC, a woman cut in two on live television notwithstanding, cut to the scheduled daily news. Within minutes of the performance going off air, the BBC phone lines were jammed. Concerned viewers, who were convinced that they had witnessed a rather grisly murder on screen, called to enquire the fate of the poor assistant. It was all part of the magician’s grand plan; he had deliberately instructed her to lie unresponsive at the critical moment. He ensured that when the network switched to the news, it would seem as if they did so to cover up the fact that the Indian magician may have  accidentally killed his assistant. The uproar was instantaneous and he made headlines the next day. That man was Protul Chandra Sorcar, one of India’s greatest magicians. He was also my father.

The royal costume

The story behind how my father was made to wear a royal ensemble is an interesting one. The maharaja of Jodhpur, Hanwant Singh, pursued magic as a hobby and learnt a few tricks from several magicians, including my father. Once, he decided to surprise his family and friends with his newfound talent and requested my father to help him with his performance. The duration of his performance, however, was rather short and to make up for the rest of the time, he invited my father to take over. But the distinguished gathering voiced its disdain, arguing that no commoner was supposed to participate in the show. The maharaja then got hold of a royal sherwani, a pagri and a taj of royal gems, and in that regal costume, my father went on to enthral the royal audience. My father was a proud Indian and disliked wearing a Western suit for his performances. He had always been on a search for an attire that would define the ethos of his Indian spirit and befit the persona of a ‘prince of illusion’. His search ended here, and he did not let go of the look ever.

My first tryst with magic

Father was very particular about maintaining the sanctity of his rehearsal room, as he believed it was essential for achieving perfection on stage. He held that magic is 30 percent science and 70 percent the art of demonstrating that science. And in order to master that art, one needs constant practice. He was wary of letting me and my siblings enter the world of showbiz at a young age, a reason why his rehearsal room was closed to us. But I refused to bow out easily. I was quite young when I discovered a vent in the room adjoining his, from where I could see almost his entire rehearsal floor. From there I learnt my first lesson in magic. I would take notes of everything he did – his expressions, body language, the experiments he conducted with his acts and the way he orchestrated everything. And later, in my room, I would practise everything in my mind. But with time, I became impatient, not content with just practising. I would sneak into his room whenever he was not around, to study his notes and familiarise myself with the show plans he used to chalk out on a board.

My first show with father

It was 1958; I was 16 years old. Father was preparing for a show at the New Empire theatre hall in Kolkata (then Calcutta). He was going over his act with the troupe when some of his assistants started demanding a raise and even threatened to leave if their demand was not met. Father refused to give in to their pressure and they left.

He was in a fix – he had a housefull audience and no assistants for his show. I stepped in, confidently told him that I could be his assistant and went on to confess everything – about watching him from my hiding spot, going over his notes and even acted out the parts of his assistants! He watched me intently. I made no mistakes. At the end of it, he looked relieved and immediately got me a costume. The show went on without a glitch and at the end of it, my father had the widest smile on his face. That was my greatest reward. With excerpts from the book

PC Sorcar: The Maharaja of Magic by Prodip Chandra Sorcar

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