Monday, June 28, 2010

Hocus pocus!

Kerala’s leading magician, R.K. Malayath, has been enthralling audiences for the past 44 years. He also trains aspiring godmen from Tamil Nadu and other states on how to produce vibhuti (saced ash) by sleight of hand

By Shevlin Sebastian

Magician R.K. Malayath asks me for an Rs 100 note. When I give it to him, he stretches it out, asks me to hold one end, while he holds another. Then he takes out a ballpoint pen and plunges it into the note. The pen comes out from the other side. Malayath is saying something, but I am in shock. ‘My Rs 100 note has a big hole in it,’ I say to myself. ‘I won’t be able to use it any more. How could he do this to me?’

Malayath continues to murmur something and suddenly he withdraws the pen and the note is whole again. It is an optical illusion. Sitting two feet away, I could not detect it. Before I can ask him anything, Malayath raises his hand and says, “I am sorry it is a trade secret. I cannot reveal how it is done.”

Malayath, who turned 60 on May 26, is one of Kerala’s leading magicians. In a 44-year career, he has conducted over 10,000 shows. His wife, Nirmala, and son, Rakin, help him, along with 22 assistants.

For a show, his props fill up two trucks and weigh three tonnes. He takes about eight hours to set up everything at the concert venue, before the two-hour performance gets underway. Malayath charges between Rs 75,000 to Rs 1 lakh per event, and has performed all over India and in the Middle East.

When Malayath speaks about magic, he has an excited look on his face. This passion was engendered in him in his childhood. Malayath would watch street magicians perform their tricks – a small rock would turn into a bird -- in the town of Nilambur, where he grew up and would wonder how they did it. When he approached the magicians to teach him, he was rebuffed.

After completing his Class ten examinations, in 1964, Malayath became a member of the Manaludi Arts and Sports Club in his town. For a fund-raiser, held during a festival, they decided to hold a magic show to be conducted by one of the members, Vijayan. Unfortunately, he performed poorly, and the audience heckled the youngster.

After the show was over, a man came to the stage and did a few tricks. “It was obvious that he was a good magician,” says Malayath. But he vanished soon after.

But by making some frantic enquiries, Malayath was able to find out that the man’s name was Ali Khan and lived near a hospital in Manjeri, 25 kms from Nilambur. The next morning, Malayath travelled to Manjeri and met Ali.

After some reluctance, Ali agreed to teach the youngster. “I began a guru-shikshya discipline for the next three years,” says Malayath. Ali told him to drop in to his home on weekends. In those days there were no phone links. Sometimes, when Malayath arrived, Ali Khan would be out performing magic shows in different places.

“I had to wait for hours,” he says. “Sometimes, he would teach for half an hour, then for one or two hours. Sometimes, I would get half a day, and if I was lucky he would teach me for the whole day.” The guru provided tea and lunch, and took no fees.

Malayath learnt basic techniques like materialising something from nothing, making things disappear and ‘palming’ – hiding small objects between the fingers. Other methods included removing a thing from one place and placing it in another. Then there was levitation and mental magic: doing magic through mind power.

“I used sleight of hand and others forms of trickery, but there are also underlying scientific principles,” says Malayath. “Step by step, Ali taught me the trade.”

Ali used to perform with Vazhakunnam Neelakandan Namboothiri, who is known as the father of magic in Kerala. Soon, Malayath was invited to assist with them. Then he got a chance to do his first solo show.

This was in the Government High School at Azhchavattom, Kozhikode. Malayath performed various tricks for an hour for children aged between six and eight. “If you can perform successfully in front of children, then you have passed the stiffest test possible,” he says. “Children are curious, inquisitive and sharp. They can easily spot mistakes.”

After the show, the children took out a collection and gave Rs 15 to Malayath. He began to earn between Rs 2 and Rs 25, doing shows in different places. “A meal would only cost 60 paise in those days,” he says. “So it was a good income for me.”

Malayath would pay his college fees -- he was doing his B.Com course in Guruayyapan College, Kozhikode -- and buy a good shirt now and then. “Slowly, I became popular,” he says.

In his shows, Malayath tries to give a social message. One of the most common items is to cut a thread or a ribbon, and join it together. This is known as ‘cut and restore’. Instead of using an ordinary ribbon, Malayath used the colours of the national flag: saffron, white and green.

He would cut off one small piece and say it is Pakistan. Other pieces included Khalistan, Kashmir, Bodoland, and Gorkhaland. Malayath would rejoin all the pieces together through magic, and say, “It is only when we are together that we can overcome the divisive forces.”

He has also done magic shows on Aids awareness, literacy propagation, computer literacy, and mental health awareness. “They are all very popular,” he says. However, nowadays, he is concentrating on doing anti-terrorism shows.

Meanwhile, the most interesting aspect of Malayath’s profession is how he trains godmen and swamis from states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in magic. Somehow, the word spread that Nilambur is the place where many magicians reside.

So, they would come and ask people like Malayath to teach them on how to produce vibhuti (holy ash) out of nowhere. Initially, Malayath refused, because he was aware that their aim was to go back to their villages, and hoodwink the people by saying that they are saints or holy men.

“I am against people misusing magic,” says Malayath. When the premier magician said no, the aspiring godmen went in search of others. But Malayath soon discovered that his fellow magicians took enormous fees, and would not teach the proper methods.

“I realised that they were fleecing these people,” he says. “I felt very angry about it.”

So he decided he would teach them the proper methods, but in order to dissuade most people, he charged an exorbitant Rs 20,000 for three days of training. But, still, there were takers and, nowadays, Malayath teaches them the right methods.

“It is just sleight of hand,” he says, with a smile. “This is what Sai Baba has been doing for several decades, with great success.”

The father of magic

Vazhakunnam Neelakandan Namboothiri (1903-1983) is known as the father of magic in Kerala. While studying Sanskrit at Guruvayur, he happened to see a magic show by an expert named Pallatheri Nambyathan Namboodiri. Vazhakunnam got interested in the art and approached Pallatheri, who agreed to teach him.

Vazhakunnam gained further expertise when another well-known magician Bekkar also taught him some tricks. He also became adept at card inventions. But his famous ruse was to disappear completely.

Vazhakunnam would keep his stuff in a small bag and would take it with him whenever he travelled. At the request of people, he would demonstrate his act. And he must be the only magician who, after performing a stunt, would show his audience how it is done.

Most of the contemporary magicians in Kerala like Mandrake, R.K. Malayath, Joy Oliver, K P Krishnan Bhattathiripad and Gopinath Muthukad, Jr. had been trained by him.

“He was a special person with special skills,” says Gopinath. “Thanks to him, magic became popular all over Kerala.”

Other magicians

Gopinath Muthukad is perhaps the most well-known magician in Kerala today. A founder of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Magic Academy, he has been performing all over Kerala, the Middle East, Japan, Switzerland, UK, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

“I am against fake godmen and those who propagate superstitions,” he says. His most popular act is to materialise a cinema hero from the screen as a flesh-and-blood person, and return him to the screen as a shadow.

Samraj, who has been performing for the past thirty years, has done about 8000 stage shows. He is about to embark on a tour of Australia. “My specialty is horror magic,” he says. “You will be surprised to know that children are the ones who enjoy it the most.”

The chairman of the Magical Institute for Research and Development, Mavelikara, Samraj writes columns on magic for children in Malayalam newspapers and in Dubai also.

“My most popular act is to make a disappearance of the Statue of Liberty from the stage,” he says. He has also escaped after being buried in a coffin underground.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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