Mind games: Inside the mysterious world of the mentalists
Meet the ‘mystic men’ who are popularising mentalism as a performing art in India
A one-on-one conversation with Karan Singh can be quite an unsettling experience. As you speak, sitting before him, he looks intently at you -- too intently, in fact, for your comfort. Singh, a mentalist, is trying to read your expressions and body language to play tricks of the mind on you.
Dressed in jeans and a casual navy blue shirt, sporting a stubble beard and a ponytail, Singh looks every bit like a modern mystic. He asks you to think about things happening in your life, say some numbers and letters aloud in your mind. And, in no time, as if he has peeped into your mind, he tells you your birthday, your ATM pin, your favourite city, even the exact thought that crossed your mind at that instant. In fact, revealing phone password and ATM pin is his signature trick. He says he recently stunned Shah Rukh Khan by disclosing his ATM pin at a New-Year party at Aamir Khan’s house.
“What goes on in your mind comes out in your body language. I don’t have any psychic powers. Mentalism is an acquired skill,” says Singh, 26, one of India’s most famous mentalists. “How you sit, how you rest your feet, how you breathe, how you purse your lips, all give away several intimate facts of your life – including whether you are happy in your marriage, relationship, or job.”
Singh’s house in Faridabad is like a little museum of mentalism: there are posters of Sherlock Holmes, of magician Harry Houdini, mentalist Derren Brown, and one from The Prestige, a mystery movie in which two friends and fellow magicians become bitter enemies. Then there is an assortment of dices, Harry Potter replica wands and dozens of books on psychology and mentalism.
While mentalism as a performing art-- where the mentalist demonstrates highly evolved mental abilities or paranormal effects-- has been quite popular in the West, it is fast picking up in India, all because of a new breed of young, suave mentalists.
They specialise in what they call ‘psychological illusion’, and claim to a blend psychology, hypnosis, suggestion, cold reading, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), misdirection, and other subtle skills of observation to create the illusion of a sixth sense. “A combination of this enables me to accomplish mind reading, psychokinesis and telepathy,” says Singh, who dropped out of college to pursue his passion for mentalism.
And unlike magicians, who use props and sleight of hand, mentalists use their audience as their props and perform tricks of the mind such as reading your thought, planting a thought in your mind, even making you forget your name.“When we talk to someone, 60 per cent communication happens through body language, 30 per cent through the tone of what we are saying, and only 10 per cent through the actual words being spoken,” says Mohit Rao, 39, who was a marketer before he became a mentalist. “What I do is undertake a journey into your mind using my inherent skills and a range of different sciences as tools.”
Rao performs a show called ‘The Wolf of Dalal Street’ for his corporate clients, which involves mind reading, telepathy, hypnosis, walking on broken glass and predicting the exact closing of Sensex on the day of the event, his signature trick. “Mentalism as an art form is all about mystery, amazement, and unforgettable entertainment. Hypnosis can also be a great tool of meditation and relaxation,” he says.
Rao got interested in mentalism after an interaction with a psychologist in 2010. “He said think of an elephant; then he said don’t think of two elephants, and then he said don’t think of two elephants that are pink in colour. I was stunned by how he was trying to manipulate my thoughts. I was exactly thinking what he was asking me not to think,” says Rao, who did four years of intense research before he performed his first show. “I even took a month’s off from my job to study the sciences behind this art. That one month changed the course of my life,” says Rao. “When I quit my job seven years back to become a mentalist, everyone thought I had lost my mind.”
Nakul Shenoy, 40, another well-known mentalist, says that as a child he was inspired by the comic series, Mandrake The Magician, who hypnotically could make people see what he wanted them to see. “ I consider myself a mystery entertainer,” says Shenoy, who is a member of the Psychic Entertainers Association (USA) and the British Society of Psychic Entertainers (UK).
Mentalism, he says, falls in the larger realm of magic. While magic makes the impossible possible, mentalism makes the improbable happen. “A magician’s skills lie in producing something out of nothing, performing vanishes, transformations, transpositions, or levitations, while a mentalist can read people’s mind through verbal manipulation, demonstrate telepathy or clairvoyance,” says Shenoy, who was a ‘user experience’ (UX) professional before
he became a mentalist. “It is not about rare powers, it is about acquiring and honing skills. During my shows, I keep telling people to be wary of godmen, who use nothing but mentalism and magic to fool people.”
Shenoy’s signature tricks include reading people’s minds, demonstrating ‘superhuman memory’ and predicting people’s choices and actions on stage. “My most favourite effects are those where I am performing direct mind reading of my volunteers on stage,” he says.
Singh, who also studied theatre in London, does both theatre and corporate shows. In 2016, he performed Merchant of Menace, a theatre show in eight cities across the country. “In the entire 90-minute show, the audience are the actors—they come on stage, become part of the story of my childhood. I play tricks of memory and hypnosis on them.”
Most of these mentalists are psychology buffs, master communicators and performers, have delivered several Tedx talks, and derive their inspiration from the likes of Derren Brown and Robert Beno Cialdini, a social psychologist. Interestingly, all of them are avid fans of The Mentalist, an American TV series in which Patrick Jane (played by Simon Baker), an independent consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI), uses his skills from his former career as a successful, yet admittedly fraudulent, psychic to help a team of CBI agents to solve murders.
“I have watched the series many times over, and I love it. In fact, I get some good ideas from it for my shows,” says Singh, laughing. But given the opportunity, would he want to play Patrick Jane in real life? “When I watched it the first time in my teens, I was fascinated and wondered if I too could do it for a living. But mentalism is not an exact science and I can be wrong. So, I would not want to venture into crime investigation,” he says.
Mentalists are much sought after by corporate house these days not just as entertainers, but also as a friend, philosopher and guide for their employees. Their shows, mentalists say, combine knowledge sharing while delivering shock and awe. In Shenoy’s words, “It is cerebral entertainment”. To tell you why, he cites the books of Robert Cialdini, who has written many bestselling books such as Influence: ‘Psychology of Persuasion’, and more recently, ‘Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade’.
“His work brings out how we are persuaded and can persuade others through words and actions. I also deliver lessons in the art of persuasion in a way which is interactive, amazing and entertaining,” he says. “Companies expect us to both enthral and motivate their employees. My shows are structured to have a story with a message. The idea is to help them understand and unleash the power of the mind.”
A mentalist, Shenoy says, has to worry about both the mechanics and performance part of his show. “Performance is very important. When I do a show, I have to be very careful about who I invite on the stage. It is not a random selection, despite it appearing to be. These people are carefully chosen”.
So do mentalists have to practice their craft? “Yes. They have to keep innovating and coming up with new tricks, otherwise they run the risk of being irrelevant,” Singh says. “I make videos of my families and friends to study similarities and differences in their expressions. Body language, as I said, is the key to figuring out what is going on in someone’s mind.”