One of the most fascinating assignments I’ve done in India was for the Independent newspaper with their award winning South Asia Correspondent Andrew Buncombe and concerned Ishamuddin Khan, a man who claims to be the only person in the world to have performed a version of The Indian Rope Trick in the outdoors. His first public performance was a small one in 1995 at Delhi’s Qutb Minar but the major debut came in 1997 on a beach in Udupi in Karnatika in front of a reported 35,000 people. This should have catapulted a man of such obvious ingenuity, showmanship and talent to worldwide fame and fortune but despite the slew of headlines that ran around the world lasting recognition has eluded him.
The trick is a Western phenomenon and little known in India itself these days. Historically the versions of the rope trick reported are, in the simplest version, the magician would hurl a rope into the air. The rope would stand erect and his boy assistant (jamoora) would climb the rope and then descend. A more elaborate version would find the magician (or his assistant) disappearing after reaching the top of the rope, then reappearing at ground level. The “classic” and much gorier version, however, was more detailed: the rope would seem to rise high into the skies, disappearing from view. The boy would climb the rope and be lost to view. The magician would call back his boy assistant, and, on hearing no response, become furious. The magician then armed himself with a knife or sword and climbed the rope and disappeared. An argument would be heard, and then limbs would start falling, presumably cut from the assistant by the magician. When all the parts of the body, including the torso, landed on the ground, the magician would climb down the rope. He would collect the limbs and put them in a basket, or collect the limbs in one place and cover them with a cape or blanket. Soon the boy would appear, restored.
What I find fascinating is that all these stories and ideas of this miraculous trick appear to have grown from a hoax report in an American newspaper and not an ancient Indian tradition at all. The idea of the trick itself was brought into being largely due to a fraudulent article in the Chicago Tribune in 1890. In a recent book on the topic (The Rise of The Indian Rope Trick), a writer called Peter Lamont exposed the trick as a hoax created by John Elbert Wilkie while working at the Chicago Tribune. Under the name “Fred S. Ellmore” (“Fred Sell More” …), Wilkie wrote of the trick in 1890, to boost the Tribune’s circulation, it worked and generated wide publicity. About four months later, the Tribune printed a retraction and proclaimed the story a hoax. However, the retraction received little attention and in the following years many claimed to remember having seen the trick as far back as the 1850s. None of these stories proved credible, but with every repetition the story became more ingrained. Lamont also notes that no reports appear before the 1890 article. Marco Polo’s supposed viewing was only offered after the article was published. Ibn Batuta did report a magic trick with a chain, not a rope, and the trick he describes is different from the classic Indian rope trick.
So in a way Ishamuddin Khan invented the trick, – as he spent 6 years working out how something that started out as fiction 121 years ago could actually be performed authentically. “ I only heard about the trick fleetingly as a boy’” he says “I came to know more only in the 1980’s and then began my serious research”. He is convinced that it is a relatively recent tradition as neither his father nor grandfather (both magicians) performed it or knew how it was done or witnessed it being done.
Uniquely, Khan performs a version of the Indian Rope Trick in the open, with an audience on all sides and no stage or sets in which to hide apparatus to lift the rope. However, Ishamuddin makes no claim to magical powers “its a combination of street magic and illusion” he says. In his version he makes a thick rope rise into the air as he plays a flute and a child is invited to climb it, then once the child has descended again the rope collapses miraculously to the ground on command. Since his debut he has performed the trick only a further 6 or 7 times in India but many more times in Europe and Japan to great acclaim. Why the imbalance? “ Rich people in India are offended if you talk about street performing. They are only interested in computers or software. I am poor but I am suffering not so much from poverty as I am from the attitude of the Indian government. I am happy in my poverty but I would like people to respect me as I am . I would like recognition.”
Ishamuddin is an Indian ‘madari’ (street performer), and a member of the “Maset” – magicians caste. “Indian magicians have been performing 15-20 tricks for around 3000 years but no new ones are being thought up as there is no living to be made in the trade.” he says ruefully. Indeed to supplement his rare performances he sometimes works as a conjurer at McDonalds. Sadly, rather than celebrating the cultural heritage of it’s performing artists India has turned it’s back on them preferring to embrace all things modern, so Ishamuddin’s undoubted skills continue to go largely unrecognised in his homeland.
For each performance of the trick Ishamuddin needs a week to prepare and a fee of around 30 – 40,000 rupees (4 – £500). Understandably the magician would not reveal the secret of the trick and though we were free to examine one of his magic ropes it steadfastly kept its secrets. Ishamuddin can be reached for bookings of the rope trick and other performances through his email address here.
Method: Nothing fancy, for the first two images: one Nikon SB900 hand-held on SC29 off-camera flash cord. Thanks to Andrew Buncombe.