Abracadbra is history: Meet the new-age magicians - Hindustan Times
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Abracadbra is history: Meet the new-age magicians

Hindustan Times | By
Jan 05, 2020 01:43 PM IST

Unlike traditional wizards, they use smartphones and tablets as props

Delhi based digital illusionist Rahul Kharbanda’s most popular act involves an iPad. As the audience in the auditorium watches with amusement, Rahul places a bottle vertically on the device. He then pushes it inside the screen to convert it into an image on the screen of the iPad. Next, he pulls the bottle back from the screen as an impressed audience breaks into applause.

Mumbai based digital illusionist Rajesh Kumar is one of the youngest in the industry.
Mumbai based digital illusionist Rajesh Kumar is one of the youngest in the industry.

Magic has undergone a transformation from what his father Ashok Kharbanda practised when he shifted base from Kolkata to Delhi in 1983. As a child, Rahul used to accompany his father for his shows to schools, colleges, NGOs and fairs. Rahul would often look after the music and props as he closely watched his father perform. “My father used to carry a lot of bags and equipment with him. With advances in technology, I don’t have to do that. This is what has changed,” says Rahul, 28.

Rahul belongs to a growing tribe of young magicians who have ditched classic Indian acts which used balls, hats and ropes for digital effects and gadgetry involving iPads, iPhones and LEDs. Apps have replaced assistants who would lie down on swords or help the magician as he pulled a rabbit out of a black hat.

To gain mastery in what he does, Rahul says it is imperative to get the fundamentals right. “In a way, I am using the same principles which my father used all his life. But I adapt them for gadgets,” says Rahul, adding that his introduction to digital magic was a video of the German magician, Simon Pierro.

“I could sense that traditional magic would go out of fashion, at least in the metros, because people could see far more exciting things online. But I didn’t know what could be done to make it contemporary. Simon’s work gave me a direction,” he said.

Rahul and his elder brother, Sumit (also a magician) collaborated with an app developer to conceptualise some tricks.

Delhi based Rahul Kharbanda puts to use the classic tricks which he acquired from his father.
Delhi based Rahul Kharbanda puts to use the classic tricks which he acquired from his father.

In the 1990s, many MNCs stared operations in India. Quite a few organisations started holding magic shows on New Year’s Eve and Diwali, among other occasions. “They wanted value for money. Run-of-the-mill tricks wouldn’t do,” says Rahul. Magicians had to up their game. They got props controlled by remote control. Thin wires or harnesses, like the ones used by actors during stunts, came into fashion. It became a one-man show,” says Rahul.

Devices such as iPhones and iPads further elevated the game. Magicians were able to appeal to the audience across generations.

As a child, Ludhiana-based Rajesh Kumar was fascinated by the TV show Criss Angel Mindfreak. He would spend hours watching the American illusionist as he hyptonised the audience, floated between skyscrapers and walked through metal doors. “This is magic. That is something worth trying,” Kumar, a science geek, would tell himself.

Based on his study of the work done by Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla, Rajesh, now 25, was able to ignite a bulb without electricity. “I developed the prototype eight years ago, but got success earlier this year,” says Kumar, 25, who started practicing five years ago at public spaces. “Again, I took a cue from magicians abroad who perform in malls and parks. It was much more interactive and relatable,” he says.

In 2015, Kumar moved to Mumbai to work as a digital magician. The same year, he was featured in the reality show India’s Got Talent. “Mumbai gave me the kind of exposure and opportunities I was looking for,” says Kumar who gets around five shows a month and charges at least 70,000 for a show.

Atul Patil started as a traditional magician and graduated to digital illusion.
Atul Patil started as a traditional magician and graduated to digital illusion.

Using technology in magic has also caught the fancy of researchers. In 2014, researchers at London’s Queen Mary University used AI (artificial intelligence) to create magic tricks. The card trick called Phoney is available at Google Play Store as an app. Per the trick, a deck of playing card is arranged and someone from the audience is asked to select a card. The person is asked some questions and based on the answers given, the selected card is revealed on a mobile screen.

“Developers have been conjuring magic apps since the iPhone 1, according to Bruce Kalver, a former president of the Society of American Magicians and author of a column about tech and magic for the society’s magazine,” noted an article in the Wall Street Journal.“Now the App Store is teeming with them. Some are virtual playing cards that will secretly tell you which one a spectator has chosen. Others use augmented reality to make a selected card materialize on the screen.”

There is a flip side too. More people learning the tricks online means more magicians and stiff competition. “There is no vanity in this profession now,” says Atul Patil who has been in the profession since 1984.

Patil has helped Bollywood actors Emran Haashmi and Bobby Deol enact magic tricks in their films Ek Thi Daayan (2013) and Players (2012).

He used to borrow a friend’s VCR to watch recordings of western magicians. Atul was content with his profession. Soon, he realised that he would be out of job if he didn’t upgrade to tablets and phones. “I will be lying if I said this was easy,” he says.

“I have to keep learning something almost every month. It is difficult to do a one-hour show on the iPad. Ideas are limited,” he says.

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