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Magic, Mystery and Myth: Indian Magicians and the West, c. 1800-1850

Indian Jugglers, The Satirist, London Aug 1913, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Wednesday, February 1, 2023, 11:00 am – 1:00 pm

In my lecture I throw light on how Indian magicians were cast into a stereotype which helped the West to turn India into the proverbial magical Orient during the nineteenth century. From the early years of the century Westerners published eye-witness accounts of inexplicable feats of Indian magicians in the popular press, especially in that of Britain, in ever increasing numbers. The accounts kindled an unusual interest in Indian magicians and their art. Unlike in the West, in India the magicians were most often nameless, abjectly poor and itinerant, who performed the most puzzling tricks out in the open, in broad daylight, with very few props and often with no assistance. They displayed bodily abilities which baffled science, and while being a submissive lot, they never revealed the recipe of their tricks. The first ever troupe of Indian magicians to travel to the West, who put on shows in London in 1813 causing a sensation, squarely matched such descriptions. Ramo Samee, a magician of the troupe, went solo and became the first celebrity Indian magician in the West winning renown and rewards on both sides of the Atlantic. His mysterious magical abilities, like those of other Indian magicians who never travelled outside the country of their origin, contributed to the gradually growing myth of their possession of supernatural powers, which was propagated and contested by Westerners exclusively.

Image: Indian Jugglers, The Satirist, London Aug 1813, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0