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The Man Behind the Magic—Sitting Down With Shankar Junior

It is said that a magician never reveals his secrets. However, we, at The MIT Post, were fortunate enough to get a chance to pick the brain of Mr Shankar Junior, a renowned illusionist. He visited MIT to speak at the Illumine Talks, organised by the Lions Club of Manipal and the Rotaract Club of Manipal. After his talk which focused on illusions in everyday life, he shared with us his thoughts about the impact of magic on his life, teaching magic, and the joys of entertaining people. 

A lot of what you spoke about in your speech was regarding illusions and perception, do you use that a lot in your acts?

Of course. That’s what it’s all about. All the examples I gave, like making a person levitate or disappearit is all an illusion. It just happens at that moment. You feel that the person is levitating, but there has to be a hidden support. Now, we hide that support by using your perception. We try to understand and manipulate how an audience member would view a scene on the stage. If I say that I’m going to make a 2000 rupee note disappear, your attention would be focused on that since it is a big amount. These things are used by us on-stage to create illusions, or what in simple words is called the trick. Things like altering the size or the background are some of the different kinds of techniques that we use to create illusions. We basically play with psychology. When combined with hand tricks or what we call sleight of hand, it creates magic.

When you perform, how much of it is your practice and how much of it is actual talent?

It is very difficult to make that bifurcation. I’ll give you an example. Consider two different magic tricksmaking a building disappear and making a coin disappear. These are two very different scales. If you ask a layman what he thinks the most difficult part is, he would say making a building disappear is more difficult. But for a magician, it’s quite the opposite. To make a coin disappear, just the basic technique would take me at least six months of rigorous practice. But to make a building disappear, it takes me no practiceI just need a good technical team to work with me. The person finally waving his hand on the building might not even be a magician at all. He might just be someone from the crowd. In this case, it’s not the technique that matters, but the technology involved in the act.  Eventually, the question of practice versus talent depends on the type of magic you perform.

Would you say performing live magic is different from doing it for a screen?

When I’m performing for television or a camera, my focus is on just one eye. Millions of people are watching me through just that one eye, so I know what my direction of performance should be. If I need to conceal something from the audience, I just need to hide it at the angle from which they can see me. On the other hand, if I’m performing live, I’ve got thousands of eyes watching me from many different angles. Now I have to change my technique accordingly and take into account where the audience is looking. In the case of a recorded show, I just have to misdirect the cameraman.

What we do for TV and what we do for a live audience is totally different. That’s why a live magic show would not be that enjoyable when you watch the recording of it because the intention of the performer is not to be seen through a camera. As he’s performing, he’s constantly looking at how the people are reacting. He’s changing his performance as per the peoples’ reactions. When he’s performing for a camera, he has to be focused on just what the camera sees. So it’s probably easier to perform magic for the camera than doing it for a live audience.  I would never advocate for a live show being recorded on a camera as the impact on the audience is totally different. That’s probably the reason why I can never see a recorded version of my performances.

Image Credits: The Photography Club, Manipal

How has performing magic affected your perspective on life?

It has affected me very much. I have experienced each and everything that I spoke about today. In fact, I have never gone into the stage of having an argument with anyone because the moment I realise that there’s a difference of opinion, I respect what you say, and I know that there is no need for me to force my perspective on you. If you think it is right, it might be right. I have experienced this in all my daily interactions and work. I thought it might be a good idea to share these experiences with people, and so I came up with this idea for the talk.

What is your take on people asking you to reveal your secrets as a magician? 
It’s natural for people to ask me how I performed a certain trick. But there are two aspects to thisone set of people are just satisfied with knowing how it’s done, but there is also another set who truly want to understand all the details behind it. So in that sense, I understand why they ask me the question. If I know they have a good intention for knowing it, I might give away a part of the secret because I know that they respect the secret. But if I get to know that a person is just asking me to know how it’s done, then I would just give a brief explanation for it, and ask him to find out about it from YouTube.

This is what happens when I have a lot of people asking me if I teach magic. The truth is I do teach magic, but not from scratch. So if you have got no experience in magic, I would ask you to learn from videos on YouTube which will teach you how tricks work. However, YouTube will only teach you the technique, not how to perform it in front of an audience. For that, you need to have someone to guide you, and that’s where I come in. I do give lectures on magic, for people who already do practise magic. It’s called How to Make Magic More Magical. Now the advantage that I have is, the moment this person looks at the YouTube video, if he has got that real zeal for learning magic, he will practice it. This is not something that you can perfect in an instant. If his interest in learning magic was momentary, he’d let go in a few tries. Those who are really interested will work on it and will come back to me.

Have you ever had an experience where you found it very difficult to entertain an audience? If so, how did you manage in such a situation?

Yes, that has happened many times. An audience like that feels like they are being challenged by the magician. They consciously will themselves to not get misdirected. At that moment, I change my approach. I say I’m not challenging you, I’m just here to entertain you. So I do a few things to get them relaxed. This is again psychology at work. I spend the first five minutes of my show trying to bring down their point of view to what I want them to think. This is in a way interpreted as mass hypnotism. You know how people wonder, ‘How can this trick work on thousands of people, did you hypnotize everyone?’ I actually don’t need to hypnotise them. If I’m good in the first part of my show, the audience very easily gets misdirected because they have surrendered to me, they want to get entertained.

Now bringing them to this stage takes time and differs from show to show. I just need to look at them, so that the audience, and understand how they are feeling. When I go for a show, if it’s for half an hour, I go prepared for a one-hour show. I’ll get twice the amount of equipment I need, so I can make any changes depending on the response of the audience. That’s where most artists will failthey don’t understand what the audience wants. One way is to give them what they want, and the other way is to make them love what you have to show. So that’s how the illusion works, it’s all about manipulating your thoughts.

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Have you been influenced by any particular artist in your career?

I have been influenced by almost every art which surrounds magic. I’ve learnt dance, I’ve learnt Bharatanatyam, I’ve taken piano classes, I’ve learnt music, I do craft and art, I do carpentry, all kinds of arts fascinate me and I try to learn them. I have something to learn from all artists and even street performers. For example, I can learn good presentation from a musician. I can try to understand why his performance is so effective and use that in my magic show. Also, if they had a bad performance, I learn what not to do as well. So there’s no limit for learning.

How is performing with your family, different from performing individually?

Well, it’s amazing. The entire family goes around the country together. Each show is like a family outing, so you don’t feel homesick when you’re with your entire family. And then there’s this understanding, this bonding. We don’t have to say anything; everyone understands what the need of the moment is. That’s the best perk of performing as a family.

How did the magical community react to you performing at such a young age?

I’m not very sure because I was very young, but the kind of magic I used to do and the way of presentation were different from the beginning. At least, that’s what my dad used to say since he was the one who trained me. I think it just came to my naturally as I watched both my parents perform. People felt that this boy is doing something different from the others. That’s why I used to get that attention. An important advantage was my age because you would never expect a boy that young to perform on stage. Last month I was in Kolkata, and there was one person who narrated his experience of seeing me perform for the first time when I was just ten years old. He said this young child was about to walk on stage, and I tried to pull him back thinking that he is some naughty boy loitering around. But then someone told him that he is the next performer!

If you hadn’t become a magician, what career do you think you would have taken up?

A teacher. I love sharing knowledge. Even now if I get an opportunity to be a teacher I would love to be one. But now magic takes up most of my time, of course. I still share the knowledge that I have, but not as a professional teacher.

Is there any element of risk in your performances?

Yes, but not in the way the audience thinks. I’ve performed tricks like catching a bullet fired from a gun. The amount of planning we do for acts like these is so perfect that there is almost zero chance of failure. But it is acts like these that the audience thinks are risky. However, the chance of failure when I vanish a coin is more, because I’ve got so many eyes just focused on my hands. The one advantage we have in magic is that we never tell you what’s going to happen next, so you would not know even if a trick goes wrong because you’ll think it’s part of the show. So many people have died on stage—the performer would collapse on stage and the audience would still be applauding because they believed it’s part of the show.

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What do you feel is the most rewarding part of your job?

Well, it’s when I make people happy. When people are entertained, that wow moment, the feeling which comes out when the magic happens, that’s the most rewarding part. I do this trick where I have three unequal ropes, which appear to become equal during the course of the trick. It’s a very common trick, you’ll even find it in a child’s magic kit. I’ve been doing this for the past 20-25 years in every show, and each time I do it, I think this is the last time I’m going to perform it. Then my mom always says this—just look at the faces of the people. When I come to the climax of it, I have everyone literally sitting on the edge of their seat waiting to see what is going to happen next. It’s not just three ropes becoming equal, it’s that feeling, it’s that emotion attached to it. The moment I get to the climax, the audience’s response is almost like a standing ovation. People burst out with emotion and clap with such joy. That’s the feeling you take home.

I am not a full time performing magician, I only do it occasionally, when I think the environment is right. I just had a call two days ago, asking me to perform for kids. They told me that the children will be seated on the stairs, and I had to say that I can’t commit to it. If I perform for say a thousand people standing on the floor, they won’t be able to see anything. I would need to increase my space in that situation so that everyone would be able to enjoy watching the show. Now had magic been my bread-earner, I would have taken that show, but I would not get a good night’s sleep because I would know that I haven’t done justice to my art. Since magic is not my profession, I can be in a position to say no if I’m not satisfied with the environment. That’s also why I don’t do parties where people are drinking or otherwise distracted. I would only do a show where people are attentive and sitting and watching. I do birthday parties, but only when there are no other events happening at the same time. Now, even if I do only ten shows a year, I get a good night’s sleep because I know I have been true to my art.

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