Some of us grew up being told that the magic word is “please.” For others, maybe it’s “abracadabra.” For Shreeyash Palshikar, the magic word is “jadoo,” which literally means “magic” in Persian and Indian languages.
Jadoo is the oldest, most mysterious performing art of India. Shreeyash has spent decades studying the dying art, and will be performing some of his “fusion magic” tricks for us along with his story in Now You See Me as part of Commonspace LIVE, a collaboration with WHYY.
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FPA: You come from a family of magical influences. What is it that inspires generations of magical practitioners to follow suit in families like yours?
SP: My family is rather unusual, and the magic and mystical influences were different for each generation. My ancestor, W. W. Davies, was a Welsh Methodist who converted to Mormonism, and then joined, and later led, a breakaway Mormon group, the Morrisites. He was charismatic and creative. He formed his own religious commune, and invented a religious doctrine. He was known for a time as “the Walla Walla Jesus.”
My Indian grandfather was born into the priestly Brahman caste, and worked as a priest performing Hindu rituals in peoples’ homes to supplement a meager pension he received after retiring from a career as a schoolteacher. His son, my uncle, was “my magician uncle,” and he was interested in Western magic. Since I grew up in the US, I only saw him a few times in my life, but he influenced my interest in magic because he motivated my father to take me to the magic shop to buy him magic.
FPA: Jadoo, or Indian magic, which you practice, is pretty different from Western magic in a number of ways. For those of us who might think of magic in terms of bunnies, hats, and wands, how is jadoo different than the kind of magic we see here in the United States?
SP: Three main ways. First, Indian magic was not persecuted historically the way Western magic was, so there is a lot more comfortable borrowing of religious imagery in traditional Indian magic shows. Second, traditional Indian magic tells powerful stories of growth, sacrifice and redemption, and is less reliant on a few technical tricks. Third, for the last two centuries, Indian magicians have been poor and itinerant, and have developed a style that travels easily and can be performed on streets.
FPA: Rather than leaning on sleight of hand or illusory techniques, you’re often using your own body in some pretty extreme ways. Can you share some of the mindsets and/or meditations you draw from to achieve these states of physical and mental endurance?
SP: I have practiced yoga in some ways for years, and I also spent many years training as a rower. I have considered retiring some of the more physically demanding parts of my show, but that would miss some of the essence of traditional Indian magic. The connections with a mystical tradition make the Indian bed of nails have a very different cultural frame than a sideshow act doing the same routine. A yogi uses the bed of nails to liberate the mind from the body. Yet I was first inspired to do bed of nails by a sideshow performer in Pennsylvania. My style includes both Eastern and Western framing of these performances.
FPA: You are also an academic, a speaker, and an author. Is there a particularly profound or unexpected way in which your practice of magic has influenced or complemented one of your other fields of work?
SP: This year, I began teaching a class on magic history at Albright College and it has been an amazing experience. The students in the class wrote and performed an original magic show at the end of the year. I have conducted some research on Indian magic in a global context particularly looking at people who are not Indian who dress up as Indian to perform magic. There are some very unexpected stories there, including African Americans and British people dressing up as Indians that I intend to examine in both a scholarly and performative way.
FPA: Magic challenges us to question what we think we know, or see, or believe. Beyond the practice of magic, what illusion or limitation do you see people taking for granted every day that you wish you could challenge them to rethink?
SP: Ideas about race, and whether it’s a given or a social construct.
FPA: You’re performing in Now You See Me as part of Commonspace LIVE on May 25, where you will be weaving stories into your magical feats. Why should someone come check out the show?
SP: Because nothing like it has ever been created before, and it won’t been seen again! It’s a unique mix of an Indian-American, African-American, and Jewish-American magician telling stories and sharing magic.
Now You See Me
DATE Thursday, May 25
TIMES 7PM Doors, 8PM Show
TICKETS $10 – or – $7 for members of WHYY, First Person Arts, and FringeArts | BUY
For one night only, three astonishing illusionists tantalize audiences with the mysteries of masculinity and race. Be mesmerized by their tricks, stunts, and stories, and leave questioning what is real, and what is really illusion.
Interview by Kathleen Lafferty, Intern
Photo credits: Jennifer Boshnack