Bring­ing the In­dian rope trick down to earth

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - JOHN ZUBRZYCKI

Of all the strange tales that have come out of In­dia, none is more mar­vel­lous than the rope trick. Ac­counts of a rope be­ing thrown up­wards and of a boy climb­ing it un­til he dis­ap­pears date back to the 14th cen­tury. But with no one able to repli­cate the feat with­out hid­den props, it has re­mained the stuff of leg­end. Which is why the of­fer of see­ing the trick per­formed in a park in cen­tral Mum­bai is too tan­ta­lis­ing to refuse.

Last Novem­ber I trav­elled to In­dia with Mada’s Mar­vels and Cardis­try, a troupe of ma­gi­cians from Aus­tralia. I de­liv­ered talks on the mag­i­cal con­nec­tions be­tween the two coun­tries that go back a cen­tury and a half, while Adam Mada and his pro­teges Ash Hodgkin­son and Lu­cas Itrawan per­formed in Mum­bai and Delhi, traded tricks with tra­di­tional street ma­gi­cians and gave mas­ter­classes to slum kids.

In my talks I de­scribed how in 1934 a ma­gi­cian named Karachi came clos­est to claim­ing a 500-guinea prize of­fered by Lon­don’s Magic Cir­cle to the first per­son who could do the rope trick out in the open.

Karachi, a fit­ter and turner from Ply­mouth, whose real name was Arthur Danby, failed to get the prize be­cause his son didn’t dis­ap­pear af­ter climb­ing up the rope. But the secret of how he man­aged to make a coiled rope stand up­right would fol­low Karachi all the way to Perth, where he moved in the 1940s and per­formed the trick at side shows.

It was my retelling of Karachi’s story that prompted the in­vi­ta­tion to Shivaji Park. I was promised there would be gu­rus and their stu­dents re­viv­ing an an­cient art that has mys­ti­fied the masses for cen­turies. Shivaji Park is known as the cra­dle of In­dian cricket and even this early hour on a Sun­day morn­ing, it is a sea of would-be Sachin Ten­dulkars prac­tis­ing on postage stamp-sized pitches — ex­cept for one corner.

The Shree Sa­marth Vyayam Mandir is the home of mal­lakhamb, an in­dige­nous form of gym­nas­tics pop­u­lar in the early 19th cen­tury. When I ar­rive a class is un­der­way. A girl in a lo­tus pose ap­pears to float a cou­ple of me­tres above the ground. An­other lies side­ways as if rest­ing on thin air. A third hangs up­side down. The trick­ery lies in wrap­ping one’s limbs around a rope sus­pended from a beam be­neath the ceil­ing. It’s like bondage and yoga com­bined, ex­cept it is grace­ful and sur­real. Three­me­tre-high wooden poles are also used with gym­nasts bal­anc­ing crossed-legged on a tiny knob.

It’s not quite what I was ex­pect­ing, but I can see the con­nec­tion. Tra­di­tional In­dian street ma­gi­cians still per­form a vari­ant of mal­lakhamb where a boy scam­pers up a bam­boo pole and does som­er­saults on a tiny plat­form sev­eral me­tres above the ground. When Euro­peans first came to In­dia they con­flated the pole with a rope — and a leg­end was born.

To­day mal­lakhamb is en­joy­ing a re­vival thanks to Uday Desh­pande. The wiry 62-year-old has been prac­tis­ing since he was three, pass­ing on his skills to thou­sands of peo­ple and giv­ing demon­stra­tions in In­dia and abroad. No other sport pro­vides such all-round phys­i­cal and men­tal ben­e­fits, Desh­pande in­sists. “It boosts strength, stamina, co-or­di­na­tion, flex­i­bil­ity and breath con­trol,” he says. “And it pro­motes con­cen­tra­tion, de­ter­mi­na­tion, per­se­ver­ance, con­fi­dence and courage.”

De­ter­mined that I give it a try, Desh­pande coils a rope around my thigh, passes the end be­tween my toes and makes me lean for­ward. The sen­sa­tion is not un­like be­ing in a dinghy that’s about to cap­size. Yet some­how I am hov­er­ing. And I can see how, with a lit­tle more courage, I might even climb to the top.

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