Historian John Zubrzycki’s latest book Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns is a rich historical account of the history of magicians in the Indian sub-continent. It is a history going back as far as the Harappan civilisations, to the Mohenjodaro seals, through the time of the Mughals, British India till the present day. It is years of research spent in libraries across continents, interviewing people, meeting magicians and wading through archives that has enabled John Zubrzycki to put together this seminal volume. It may lack the lightness of touch as many contemporary narrative non-fiction books now have but Jadoowallahs more than makes up for it by the vast amounts of information it presents. What is truly commendable is how the author has delved through research material to create a narrative that is empathetic to the community of
magicians as a whole ( irrespective of their religious beliefs) and as far as possible the narrative is presented based on the empirical evidence he has garnered. This is an incredible feat to achieve given how witness accounts, historical documentation or even official documents from a particular period of history will always be biased and/or influenced by other pressing factors of the time. So to tease out and create a balanced narrative highlighting stories of individuals as well as historical incidents that create the fascinating landscape of magicians in the subcontinent. Zubrzycki is extremely familiar with India, who apart from knowing Hindi, has worked in the
country as a foreign correspondent, diplomat and tour guide.
On Tuesday, 18 September 2018, the six-month long Australia Fest was launched in India. There are more than 75 events planned across 20 cities with over 25 projects involved. The commencement of the festival was with the official launch of Jadoowallahs at the Australian High Commissioner, H.E. Harinder Sidhu’s, residence in the presence of Rajeev Sethi, Chairman and Founder, Asian Heritage Foundation as the Chief Guest. The evening also included performances by Australian and Indian magicians Adam Mada and Raj Kumar, respectively, followed by
a performance on the lawns by another magician. It was befitting that Rajeev Sethi had been invited as the Chief Guest given his experience with the Festivals of India and his many decades of work spent working in the cultural sector. He spoke exceedingly well giving a historical perspective on how he too has met jadoowallahs who did incredible tricks but even decades ago it was a dying art. Today few magicians exist but with a diminished repertoire of tricks given the vast cultural heritage they inherited. He emphasised how as someone interested in the preservation of India’s cultural heritage and its artisans, he along with many other eminent people like the Late Kamladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar set up Sarthi to help artisans in need. Later he also helped establish Bhule Bisere Kalakar which worked with the rehabiliation of artisans relocated to Katputhli colony at the time of the Emergency.
Sadly, last year the artisans were evicted from this land last year too, as it was sold by the government to a builder for commercial development, of which a small portion has been allocated to
create “vertical slums” for the displaced people. The reason why Rajeev Sethi mentioned his long association with the artisans was that the magicians and jugglers of whom John Zubrzycki speaks of eloquently have always been considered an integral part of the artisan community. In fact many of these practising illusionists were considered to be beggars as they would perform their tricks by the roadside or at crossroads while begging for alms. It was only in early August 2018 that due to a petition filed by activist Harsh Mander that an archaic law, “Prevention of Begging Act” was upturned. ( “Begging is not a crime, Delhi High Court rules“, Reuters, 9 August 2018). Rajeev Sethi rightly concluded his speech by lauding the author for being one of the magicians biradri, community, as John Zubrzycki speaks of the magical tricks but never gives the magicians secrets away.
The evening concluded with a brief presentation by John Zubrzycki about the research he had done for this book and shared a few anecdotes that have been recounted in the book as well. One of these fabulous anecdotes was that of Motilal Nehru, father of the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, petitioning the Protector of Emigrants in Bombay to send “a party of Indians consisting of musicians, acrobats and artisans to the ensuing Paris Exhibition .” What followed was an extraordinary sequence of events where Lord Curzon had to rule whether a” a jadoowallah’s tricks constituted manual labour because they were executed by sleight of hand” or were performers. If they were deemed as manual labourers then under the Emigration Act of 1883 that prohibited emigration of Indias to specified countries. This Act was tightened after an outbreak of plague in Bombay in 1896. In 1897, the Epidemic Diseases Act (No.3) was passed leading to “a ban of all native residents leaving India through Bombay Presidency”. Pressure from mercantile groups eased the rules somewhat to permit the severe disruption of labour to Uganda and Kenya to be resumed but the ban stayed for all of Europe and England. ( Read more in Chapter 10 of the book.)
It was a memorable book launch but it is the book that will leave its mark for many years to come with its enthralling account of jadoowallahs in the sub-continent.
19 Sept 2018