Ishamuddin does not remember the first time that he performed as a magician. “One day, you just get up and think that you can do it,” he says.
Maybe his neighbours share this view. Maybe they don’t. One doesn’t know. Kathputli Colony in West Delhi’s Shadipur area is a maze of narrow lanes. As the name suggests, it is a residential colony of street performers. There are puppeteers, jugglers, acrobats, folk singers and magicians, living cheek by jowl in shabby settlements, surrounded by filth and darkness.
Even in the pleasant February weather of Delhi, it can get rather uncomfortable here. So, while the men are out earning their livelihood, women pick nearly as many fights as lice off each other’s heads. It’s that sort of locality. Young boys, who don’t want to follow their family profession, end up spending time at the corner shop, wearing fake Armani T-shirts and selling the occasional cinema ticket in black. Meat shops in Kathputli Colony have a peculiar smell; they sell sheep intestines and feet, which is all that the residents of this impoverished colony can afford.
Few, if any, residents of Kathputli Colony strike it rich enough to leave their surroundings for better living conditions.
This is where nine-year-old Ishamuddin came to live in 1971, with his monkey-showman father and ragpicker mother. He studied till Class VII in a nearby school. Later, after gaining a measure of fame as India’s first Rope Trick magician of the modern age, Ishamuddin would tell his son the reason why he left school. Both father and son were in Japan, where Ishamuddin had a performance. In the evening, they got to watch Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker.
One scene in the film bore a stark resemblance to an episode in Ishamuddin’s own life: invited by a school friend to his house, his friend got a slap from his mother upon learning of Ishamuddin’s family trade. The mother’s angry words, “Tu kya madari banega?” (Do you want to become a street performer?), rang in his head so painfully that he never went to school again, preferring to accompany his father on his performance rounds of Delhi. It was then that Ishamuddin heard about the Indian Rope Trick.
It is a trick that many people have heard of, but very few have any understanding of. All the same, it is no ordinary trick. In fact, it is stunning enough to be considered worthy of university-level research.
So, what really is it? Not something you would happen to have seen lately, that’s for sure. In his paper on the Indian Rope Trick, award-winning magician and magic historian at Edinburgh University, Dr Peter Lamont says that in the classical version of the trick, “The performer causes a rope to magically snake into the air and remain erect. His boy assistant then scurries up to the top of the rope and promptly disappears. The performer calls for the boy to come back, but he refuses to return. The performer becomes annoyed, climbs the rope after the boy, and also vanishes.” Suspense created, spectators witness pieces of flesh falling to the ground. Then, the magician descends and places the pieces in a basket, in full view of an ashen-faced audience. After some magical words are mumbled by the magician, the boy emerges from the basket, lo and behold—alive!
The Indian Rope Trick is believed to be more than 700 years old, some say even older, finding mention in the Jataka tales. Its earliest Indian written mention is in the memoirs of Mughal Emperor Jahangir.
While the Rope Trick is believed to be of Indian origin, the 14th-century-traveller Ibn Batuta has left behind an eye-witness account of a similar trick being performed in China. Still, by the early 20th century, the trick was famous throughout the West as an ‘Indian’ act. In 1907, Britain’s top magician David Devant is believed to have performed a version of the Indian Rope Trick on stage in London.
Decades later, the British Magic Circle was still billing it as the world’s ‘greatest unexplained mystery.’ It’s just that live performances had all but disappeared.
By the mid-1990s, the trick was mostly a matter of Raj-era legend. Some even called it a figment of the Raj imagination, bent on portraying India as a land of never-ending exotica. The British Magic Circle, keen to revive it, offered a princely sum of £25,000 to anyone who could perform the Indian Rope Trick. It was this prize that set Ishamuddin on the path of achieving the feat.
After practising for more than a year, the school dropout finally performed the trick in the open, on 24 July 1995, outside Delhi’s Qutab Minar. In his case, though, he made a rope tug itself out of a basket and rise eight feet high. The rope took about two minutes to reach that height. A boy then climbed up the rope.
A witness to a repeat performance of the trick, Dr Lamont gives Open his testimony: “Magicians have tried to recreate the trick before, but without a stage and overhead support, they have never even come close.”
According to the historian, while Ishamuddin did not manage to recreate the full version of the Indian rope trick (“that would be impossible”), he had gone “further than anyone else, and succeeded where others have failed”.
Ishamuddin, however, never got the prize money promised. “By the time I performed this trick, the organisations which had offered that money ceased to exist,” is his lament. But as the sole performer of the most authentic version of the famous trick, Ishamuddin did enjoy a few moments of international fame, though. He was invited to many countries, including France, Germany, Japan, Austria and the UK. Audiences were impressed.
But back in India, things remained the same. His career and fortunes have refused to look up. “No one is interested. I have realised that the NGOs who supported me earlier also had no interest other than highlighting themselves as social activists at Page-3 parties,” he says, bitterly. Managing a family is difficult. His daughter is appearing for high school exams.
NOT LOOKING UP
He hasn’t been able to pay off the loan he took for his research on the Rope Trick. “I am embarrassed to tell you this, but today, there is only Rs 500 in my savings account.”
Recognition does come now and then. In a programme produced by the UK’s Channel 4 television, Ishamuddin ranked 20th on a list of 50 top magicians and their tricks. The globally renowned American magician Franz Harary figured at the 50th rank. Struck by the Indian’s feat, Harary even came visiting Shadipur to meet Ishamuddin. “He was aghast when he saw where I lived and how,” says Ishamuddin, “he was brought to the verge of tears.”
Arran Towers, an Ireland-based magician who says he has learnt a lot from Ishamuddin, is also bewildered by the latter’s poverty. “Why has no one in India promoted Isham(uddin) and this iconic trick, and used it to benefit India’s image and its tourism industry?” he asks.
Ishamuddin, meanwhile, is not as bitter about his penury as he is about apathy towards the Indian Rope Trick. “I don’t want it to die with me. I am ready to create modules which would enable anyone interested in magic to learn this trick. But no one has approached me so far,” he says.
So, how does he make ends meet? “I perform at small parties. Yesterday, I was asked to perform at a birthday party at McDonald’s. While I performed, the guests kept eating and talking,” he recounts, saddened by the experience.
Back in his humble house, the conversation is broken by a loud argument outside, with two women showering each other with expletives commonly heard in the neighbourhood. It’s no illusion, the noise he lives amid. Ishamuddin patiently waits for them to calm down. “I still haven’t used the money I got from the McDonald’s party,” he says, “I don’t feel like it.”