Inside India’s Hogwarts: magic schools hidden in plain sight
You probably wish you could make some of your colleagues disappear. But there’s only one place where you get to actually do that kind of thing (legally, at least).
At India’s Hogwarts — institutes that specialise in teaching magic — you learn to make a classmate disappear, transform one coin into two (another useful trick), or at the very least make a card levitate at will.
“We don’t use mumbo-jumbo, capes or spells. We use technology and specialised equipment to create illusions,” says Gopinath Muthukad, executive director of Magic Academy in Thiruvananthapuram.
They also teach you how to be the consummate performer. “Because magic involves elements of ventriloquism, comedy, drama,” says A Sarkar, founder of Magic World, Kolkata. “We also teach students how to handle hecklers — people googling how tricks are performed during a show is a big problem, these days — and how to laugh at yourself when things go wrong.”
A typical classroom session, then, is a mix of wild demonstrations and ancient knowledge.
Institutes like Magic World, Magic Academy, the Delhi School of Magic (DSM), International Academy of Illusion and Magic (IAIM), also in Delhi, and the Institute of Magic And Allied Arts (IMAA) in Bengaluru offer year-long courses for the serious practitioner.
But by far the most popular are the weekend certificate courses for the hobbyist looking to impress her friends or add zing to an Instagram page. These students include bankers, doctors, engineers, college students, homemakers and government employees. Cardio-diabetologist from Kolkata Manna Saikat, 32, did a year-long weekend course where he mastered 52 tricks.
“Now I perform regularly at parties and even did a show as part of the Indian Medical Association,” he says. “My most popular trick is when I cut an apple in half, on a man’s head, blindfolded.”
SPELLING IT OUT
Many of the aspiring Harry Potters are chasing a thrill they first experienced in childhood. “I used to make spoons bend with my hands… people thought it was magic but it was mostly the spoon,” says Saikat, laughing. “But when I grew up, settled down and began my career as a doctor, I decided to pursue magic, for real.”
Also in the classroom are teachers who want to make their curriculum fun, and hotel receptionists who want to turn handing you the room keys into a memorable trick.
For Anamitra Banerjee, 39, who works with the government of West Bengal, magic is a break from the mundane — and earns him a tidy sum.
“Doing coin tricks had been a hobby for years, so I signed up and started learning magic nine months ago,” he says. “I now perform, mainly at birthday parties and sometimes at corporate events. The course also groomed me so I stand apart like a magician and get better offers.”
He charges Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000 depending on the nature of the event. “I have also learned origami online so I offer you more than just magic tricks,” Banerjee says.
If you plan to do magic full-time, the same institutes offer courses that include modules on the history of magic in India and around the world; mentalism; rope tricks; personal branding; as well as ‘general knowledge’ classes on the greatest illusionists, their greatest tricks, and unsolved mysteries from the world of magic.
At the end of the course, there are theory exams, practicals, and internships (with established magicians) for the top-ranking students.
“The testing is actually quite intensive,” says Yash Makhija, 19, a college student from Delhi who did a comprehensive course at the Sangeeta School of Magic and now teaches there too. “Every alternate class is a test. You cannot start learning the next trick until you master the previous one. That’s also the best way to avoid mishaps on stage.”
From DSM and IAIM to Magic World, Sangeeta School of Magic in Delhi, Magic Academy, and IMAA in Bengaluru, they all began offering courses for beginners between one and three years ago. “We realised there was a lot of demand from hobbyists,” says Sarkar of Magic World. “The main different between the courses for beginners and for professionals is the types of tricks we teach. Also, for professionals, there are sessions on voice modulation, body language, marketing, video-making, audience management etc.”
For Mahua Nath, 26, a full-time magician with a team of 15 who does stage shows and corporate gigs for a living, it was the lessons in presentation and distraction that were most helpful. “We learnt that one person needs to do the anchoring to keep the audience engaged, some corners of the stage need to be left dark, music must be used to create drama,” she says.
Casting a spell
The institutes are run on trade licences issued by municipal corporations and have no affiliations to educational institutes. The certificates are props, in a sense. It’s the inside view — the peek behind the velvet curtain, as it were — being offered by experienced magicians that is the real draw.
They also help you dress up your magic CV. “The institutes give you photos and videos of yourself performing tricks, which you can then share on social media to help you get gigs,” says Nath.
There are some trick you learn that you likely wouldn’t ever find online. For Nath, that was the box-to-motorbike trick that is now her specialty. “I have always been fascinated by stories of fairies that make people and things disappear and reappear. I can finally do that with the use of some science and technology,” she says, laughing. “It took me a few months to master it and now I charge a premium to perform it on stage. The trick goes like this — I am handcuffed, tied in a sack and locked in a box. The box is then covered with a sheet. My assistant chants Alakazam and, boom, I appear from behind the stage on a bike. I have been performing this trick for a long time and people have still not been able to figure out how it’s done.”
It’s also just fun to be in the classroom. “Someone will be looking in the mirror to perfect their body language, someone else solving a Rubik’s cube to hone concentration, or getting together to design new props in the breaks,” says Anup Jha, 20, a student at Magic Academy in Thiruvananthapuram. “We are taught to moderate our ego and work as a team. You learn very quickly that you may be waving the wand, but everyone has to play their role for the trick to work.”