Bringing the Indian rope trick down to earth
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.