The beats pick up pace, the music gets catchier, and Maneka Sorcar is in the middle of a vanishing act when the lights in the hall go out. In a few seconds, one realises that this is one of Delhi’s summer power cuts and not part of the magic act. After a couple of uncomfortable minutes spent in the dark, the electricity is restored, the music and lights come back on, and Maneka, who was to reappear coiled in a box, is back on stage. She is visibly flustered, and fumbles, trying hard to smile. “And I forgot that we live in India,” she says, then switches back to her cheerful and comical avatar, reminiscent of her father PC Sorcar Junior who had left for a short tea break in the wings just before the lights went out. She hops about the stage, several assistants in tow, and tries to revive her audience’s good humour, cracking jokes just as her father would. The vanishing act is successful this time and she reappears out of a locked box amid the delighted wows of children and knowing smiles of parents who have seen this act performed earlier by Sorcar Junior and his father PC Sorcar Senior.
As the ninth inheritor of the Sorcar family legacy, Maneka continues the show, happy to fill in the moments when her father, now 67, needs a break. Her next act, however, is anything but cheerful. The stage is dark, bathed in a dreary red. Maneka walks up, this time in a dark yet shiny costume, with the gait of a ringmaster. She has four male assistants, who take commands issued by her through hand gestures and eye movements, to manoeuvre a giant fan. She starts this act with a prelude to set the tone. “I am a Sorcar, but I am also a woman—perhaps the only known female magician in India and among the few in the world,” she says, moving on to undertake the apparently perilous task of walking through the giant whirring blades of the fan. “Many told me not to attempt this, as it is very dangerous for a woman. I still did, and you will see how a woman can do it,” she says. As she slices through the blades, she gets a burst of thunderous applause from the audience.
While she celebrates 100 years of Indrajaal—a production first put up by her grandfather Protul Chandra Sorcar—with a month-long show in the capital with her father Pradip Chandra Sorcar, Maneka also has a solo show called Maya Vigyan to her credit.
The 135-minute solo production had made its debut a couple of years ago, and with parts of it gradually finding their way into Indrajaal, she seems to be finally finding space for herself in this predominantly male arena. Many of her acts during the show straddle issues of gender inequality and the commodification of women, and this appears to be part of her motivation as a stage performer. While making a statue of Venus disappear, she quips, “In India, we never appreciate the beauty in the nudity of Venus. For us, she is only nude. So I have sent her back to Rome... she belongs there.” In a city whose people are not known for their sensitivity towards women, this gets her another round of applause. Maneka bows in gratitude.
“I think there have been few women in this field as they are considered softer,” she says after the show, as she and others of her family (including PC’s wife Jayshri) sign autographs backstage and pose politely-if-wearily for photographs with fans. Most conversations are in Bengali. Gleaming in costumes studded with stones and glitter—designed by Jayshri, who made an appearance in PC’s final act in which she slices his body into two parts—the trio stick together. The eldest of PC’s three daughters, Maneka, 33, says that magic was always an inherent part of growing up. While she has an MBA from University of Ohio in the US, she says that she preferred the stage to a lucrative job offer that her degree got her. While her two sisters Mumtaz and Moubani dabbled in magic and took on careers in acting and modelling, Maneka has been assisting her father since she was a child and now as a partner in several shows. As partners, they often engage in jugalbandis, the highlights of their shows. Some of these acts involve making the Taj Mahal disappear and cycling on water. There was once a time that she would dress up as a little boy for many of her father’s shows.
Being the successor of the Sorcar tradition was a serious concern for Maneka when she married US-based engineer Sushmit Ranjan Haldar, someone she’d known since her time as a student in the US. Before the wedding last year, there were reports of the two families discussing Maneka’s future as a magician and the question of her retaining her family name. Since Maneka could not live in the US, Haldar moved to Kolkata with his family. “ I have the most supportive husband [possible],” she says.
After Maneka’s slice-through-the-fan act, Sorcar Junior appears on stage to perform his X-ray eyes trick. Before that, a few words of praise for his daughter: “This was a very dangerous act that requires great skill. I am very proud of my daughter and must say that she is a befitting successor to our legacy,” says the magician, his silk turban-with-a-feather giving him the look of Air-India’s Maharaja.
It is her mother, though, who is her inspiration, says Maneka, since she was always fascinated by the costumes she would design for her father’s shows. Jayshri joined her husband’s group when she replaced a female assistant during a show in Japan in 1972— a trip that was also their honeymoon. The hapless assistant, it seems, was way too slow in blindfolding Sorcar Junior for his X-ray eyes act.
On being asked if the aggression displayed in Maneka’s act was an attempt at having her performance stand out from his, which is friendly and cheerful, even comical, Sorcar Junior invokes Ma Durga. “Women are soft yet they can be commanding and aggressive if need be,” he says. “While my father has a combination of female and male assistants,” says Maneka, “I only have male assistants. This is to reiterate the fact that I am a woman. I am claiming my spot in a male dominated space.”
As the Sorcars pack up for the day, the wings of the stage resemble a warehouse with over a hundred assistants moving contraptions of all sorts around. A parent who has just secured an autograph of Sorcar Junior for his six-year-old daughter tells the organisers that he grew up on Sorcar’s shows and wanted his daughter to enjoy the “few remnants of innocence left in this commercial world”. Maneka, who overhears this conversation, smiles with satisfaction. While her grandfather Protul Chandra Sorcar turned the ‘k’ in their family name into a ‘c’ to make it look a little like ‘sorceror’, she says that the popular association of magic with the dark arts is wrong. “Anything that is magic today becomes science tomorrow,” Sorcar Junior chips in. He adds that the famous Sorcar act called ‘Water of India’ first found a reference in Mughal Emperor Jehangir’s Jehangirnama. “Unfortunately, magic in India was relegated to fakirs and fake gurus till my grandfather revived it as a skill and performance art to entertain the masses,” Maneka says.