The Art of Magic… and its Power to Communicate!
By Nakul Shenoy
Note: This article is from our archives and was first posted online in late 2002.
[Nakul Shenoy is renowned for his ingenuous acts of mind reading and psychic presentations. He is an expert at performing miracles… right-under-your-nose! Holding a Master of Science degree in Communication, Nakul is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in the same.
This article is based on his research paper “Magic as a medium of communication – An experimental investigation to explore the communication potential of the art of magic,” presented in March 2000.]
What is the one thing that mystifies and enchants every human being?
What is it that never fails to entertain and appeal to each one of us?
What is it that makes the child that’s hidden in each of us alive and come to the fore?
If there is a single answer to all these questions, then surely we must be talking about the art of magic. It is only magic, among all the fine arts, that has the potential to impress and entertain a person to an extent that each individual remembers it for the rest of his or her life. Siegel (1991) says that the objects used by a magician onstage have associations – something important or aesthetic. According to him, every prop in the magic show becomes a symbol tying various realms of experience together.
The only other fine art that comes anywhere close to the true potential of magic is the other great art – the art of music. Music is an art that appeals to every living being including animals, and as Kumar (1999) contends that the art of music is as old as the first man, and as new as the first cry of a new born baby. He draws a distinction between subjects like History, Chemistry, Biology, etc. terming them as ordinary arts; while he terms music, dance, architecture, sculpture, etc. as fine arts. Kumar goes on to argue that while the ordinary arts appeal to man’s intellect, the fine arts appeal not only to the intellect but also to his emotions. He puts across his idea of how music, being universal in appeal, is a very powerful means of communication.
On the other hand, though magic appeals only to human beings, it proves to be the ultimate of all arts, for it entertains and enchants like no other. In the words of Magician P C Sorcar JR, arguably the top-most magician in India, “When a singer is great we say, ‘Your song was full of magic’; when a dancer is great we say, ‘Your dance was magical.’ … Art aspires to magic. Magic is the essence of all the arts, the highest art, pure art, art’s ultimate accomplishment (Siegel, 1991)”. These words belong not only to Sorcar, but also to most magicians who have realised the true potential of the art of magic.
Magic is to be distinguished from magick or sorcery, which refer to the alleged art and science of causing change in accordance with the will by non-physical means. Magick is associated with all kinds of supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and the occult sciences. There is a certain relationship present between magick and the art of conjuring and legerdemain though, which is explained in the Skeptic’s Dictionary located at http://skepdic.com, The article on magick in this dictionary reads:
The magic of performing magicians is related to magick in that the performers use tricks and deception to make audiences think they have done things which, if real, would require supernatural or paranormal powers, e.g., materializing objects such as rings or ashes, doves or rabbits. Some magicians have attributed their feats not to magic but to supernatural or paranormal powers, e.g., Sai Baba and Uri Geller (Caroll, 1999).
Again, magic is the most versatile of all arts. Magic can be used to entertain anybody from a lone person, to a couple, to a small crowd, to a gathering of thousands! The art of magic is so diverse that it can be performed anywhere – inside a house or in a restaurant, to a small hall for a gathering, or indoors in an amphitheatre or outdoors in a huge stadium or open ground. The trick can happen anywhere from right under the spectator’s nose, to a proper platform or stage. All this is possible because there are various facets to the art of magic like close-up tricks, parlour or platform tricks and stage illusions, to outdoor escape stunts and mega-illusions.
You may be the world’s best singer, the most accomplished dancer, or the top-most musician, but there are certain limitations when it comes to your performance. You cannot just start off into a song or dance just about anywhere. For example, if you are a singer, even if you make do without amplifiers, etc., to give a good performance you may need some musical accompaniment; if you are a dancer you will require some music to dance to; and for a musician you would surely require your musical instrument. There may also be many other limitations that will hinder an entertaining performance.
But an adept and accomplished magician can entertain anybody, anytime, and anywhere – for he or she can make use of whatever is available or at hand, at the given point in time. The magician can utilise anything from a pen to tissue papers to salt shakers. Let me not forget the magician’s favourite impromptu items in such cases being a deck of cards or some currency coins. And being as entertaining as magic is, it is the best available icebreaker anybody can utilise. If you need to make friends or impress somebody, all you need to do is go ahead and show him or her, a magic trick.
Bryan Dean talks about this very aspect of magic when he asks, “Did you know that the easiest way to meet someone is through magic?” His article A Valentine’s Magic dated February 12, 1999 in the Magic and Illusion site at http://magic.about.com, reads:
How often have you wanted to meet that person on the other side of the room and had basically nothing to say? Wouldn’t it be nice to perform a trick and “break the ice”? Magicians have been doing this for years…
The article goes on to say,
What you need are a few good “ice-breaking” tricks in your arsenal. One of the best ones is “The Travelling Ashes” because the magic happens in the spectator’s hands. It’s very personal and it sure beats, “Dya wanna dance?” (Dean, 1999)
Magicians have been known to have performed in the royal court of ancient Egypt, during the rule of the Pharaoh Cheops, who died in 2494 BC, and so the contemporary magician has a spectacular and marvellous tradition of more than 5000 years (Christopher, 1991) to draw from. Though the latest and state-of-the-art technology like lasers, electromagnets, high-tech electronic and electrical apparatus are all being utilised to a certain extent by the modern day magician, he has not forgotten the age old principles and tricks which enable him to perform wonderful effects.
Magicians still dazzle their audiences with the performances of the cups and balls, arguably the oldest known magic trick. The same goes for many other age-old tricks like the Chinese Linking Rings, Indian Basket Trick, etc. Many books and writings on magic and magicians have often claimed that the greatest performers have carried their magical secrets to their grave. This is far from the truth, for most magicians understand these techniques. What really distinguished these performers, from the contemporary magicians, was their skill, showmanship and presentation.
When Harry Houdini made an elephant vanish, or when David Devant made a painting come to life; the audience gasped in disbelief. Even today, when David Copperfield flies around the stage or vanishes the Statue of Liberty, the spectators are equally spellbound. Such effects are beyond the scope and understanding of most magicians, let alone lay men. They require split-second timing and tremendous expertise, and more importantly elaborate and expensive equipment.
Only those who are willing to devote all their time and resources to this art can hope to master such sophisticated effects. Others can still achieve startling effects like producing a rabbit out of a hat (the traditional trick of a magician); produce or vanish a lady, etc. Most magicians entertain their audience making use of simple everyday objects like coins, cards, paper, and ropes. Then there are performers who make use of special apparatus, big illusions, etc. Lamont and Wiseman (1999) say that everything that a magician ever does can be summed up in nine concepts. These are appearance, vanish, transposition, transformation, penetration, restoration, extraordinary feats, telekinesis, and extrasensory perception.
The very firm belief that the art of legerdemain entertains and impresses people across all barriers, has made the modern day magician think that he can communicate to and influence his audience in a manner unlike any other media. And true to this belief, he is always on the lookout for new ways in which to project messages and get them across to the people through his presentation skills.
Magicians have always tried to communicate to their audiences in different contexts. Whether it was a master magician like Harry Houdini, who tried to dispel superstitions by exposing so-called mediums (Gibson & Young, 1953); or our own P C Sorcar Sr (Siegel, 1991), who tried his level best to tell people that the so-called godmen like Satya Sai Baba (Kovoor, 1994), were no more supernatural than he was – an exponent of sleight of hands; magicians have always fought for different causes.
Perhaps the most famous of such crusaders today, especially in the Unites States of America and Canada is magician James Randi, who is engaged in an all-out fight with people like Uri Geller, who claim to possess supernatural powers (Randi, 1982). Randi’s counterpart in India is the equally famous anti-guru B. Premanand, who has declared a war against Sai Baba, and other godmen (Premanand, 1998). While Randi has set up the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), Premanand has the Indian Council for Scientific Investigation of the Claims Of the Paranormal (Indian CSICOP), to investigate the claims of the paranormal. Both of them have offered hefty rewards, US Dollars 1,000,000 and Indian Rupees 100,000 respectively, to anybody who can prove to possess supernatural or paranormal powers.
Truly enough, most conjurors perform at least a couple of tricks in their shows, which convey a subtle message to the audience – whether in support of family planning, to generate AIDS awareness, to propagate the pulse polio campaign, or to promote small savings in banks. The all-time favourite with magicians in India has been the theme of national integration – either by restoring two pieces of rope into one whole piece, or by transforming three different silks into the tricolour – the Indian National Flag.
Well in simple words, the art of magic has the potential to transcend all kinds of barriers and communicate the message in a manner as no other medium can hope to match. If magic happens by itself, irrespective of whether the magician is on the street, on stage, in a parlour, in a restaurant at your table, or even in your house, the art of magic retains its ultimate charm. It amazes, entertains and communicates to the audience – whether it is one person, a couple or thousand of people.
Now take the same art of magic, a medium by itself and make it part of another medium. For example, air a magic over the radio (Yes, you may be surprised, but this has been accomplished on numerous occasions, especially by mentalists!) or telecast it over the television. The art of magic does not lose its identity, and the communication is not identified with being from within the other medium. For example when a mentalist reads your mind from inside the radio or over the telephone or even from within a television screen, you will be equally amazed, if not more.
The art of magic is so versatile and diverse that it can be classified into different genres, each of which can communicate best through a certain mode. Magicians have conjuring tricks, parlour tricks, stage tricks, mega-illusions, close-up tricks, street magic tricks and illusions, and much more. Believe it or not, there are actually tricks that belong to the genre of “over the telephone” or “through the television” – magic that can happen right in the spectators or viewer’s house as he is talking over the phone, or watching television.
Whatever the trick, and whatever the mode, what you are finally watching is “magic”, and nothing else. Magic is so versatile that now you can even find it over the Internet! Many web-sites provide you with “online magic tricks” a new genre by itself, that happen again in your home, through the computer screen! Thus magic is not like the other fine arts, which are challenged with the advent of new technology, for magic is a bigger medium than all other mediums. It has the potential to utilise the new medium of technology itself and make it a part of the art of magic – like it has happened in the case of television, internet, etc. Magic has actually utilised these new mediums to the fullest extent and not lost its identity. Another important finding in this study is that the subjects associate the magic trick, the props utilised in a trick or act and also the magician, to significant in real life.
Again, the use of magic for social awareness and education campaigns, would be of much help to countries like India. Not that it should not be utilised in richer countries like USA, UK, etc., for there it is already being utilised to a certain extent, but that it has very good potential when compared to other media in less-developed countries. With a low rate of literacy and high levels of ignorance, the art of magic being able to communicate across all barriers in terms of age, sex, education, language, etc., should be fully utilised.
The art of magic has tremendous potential not only to communicate messages but also to permanently influence an individual’s life. How else would you describe the influence of the alleged godmen and psychics over the decisions of their countrymen and political leaders?
A note to magicians: Understand the power of the medium, and unleash the power of magic for the good of the society. Use magic to eradicate superstition, create social awareness, and for social education. Prevent its misuse by unscrupulous people who are taking the educated and the gullible alike for a total ride.
Bibliography / References:
- Caroll, R.T. (1999). The Skeptic Dictionary – A Guide for the New Millennium.
[Obtained from the Skeptic Dictionary Site.] (Internet)
- CHRISTOPHER, M. (1991). Magic: A Picture History.
New York: Dover Publications.
- Dean, Bryam. (1999). A Valentine’s Magic.
[Obtained from Magic & Illusion Site] (Internet)
- GIBSON, W.B. & YOUNG, M.N. (1953). Houdini on Magic.
New York: Dover Publications.
- KOVOOR, DR. A.V. (1994). Begone Godmen! – Encounters with Spiritual Frauds.
Bombay: Jaico Books.
- KUMAR, A. (1999). The Print and Other Folk Media.
New Delhi: Anmol Publications.
- LAMONT, P. & WISEMAN, R. (1999). Magic in Theory.
Seattle: Hermetic Press.
- SHENOY, N. (2000). Magic as a medium of communication – An experimental investigation to explore the communication potential of the art of magic.
Udupi: Pending Publication.
- PREMANAND, B. (1994). Science versus Miracles Vol. 1.
Podanur, India: Indian CSICOP.
- RANDI, J. (1982). Flim-Flam! – Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions.
New York: Prometheus Books.
- RANDI, J. (1982). The Truth about Uri Geller.
New York: Prometheus Books.
- SIEGEL, L. (1991). Net of Magic – wonders and deceptions in India.
London: University of Chicago Press.