IT’SA KIND OF MAGIC!

He’s won the Os­car of magic, can make an ele­phant van­ish into thin air and has al­most died per­form­ing dan­ger­ous tricks but Gopinath Muthukad is still wow­ing au­di­ences around the world. Anand Raj OK meets him

Friday - - PEOPLE -

Surely Gopinath Muthukad can do bet­ter. I’ve just ar­ranged to meet him for an in­ter­view and he’s ask­ing for my phone num­ber so we can ar­range a venue.

But this is the world-fa­mous ma­gi­cian who suc­cess­fully pre­dicted the head­lines of 10 news­pa­pers in nine In­dian cities three days in ad­vance last year. Too late, I’d al­ready sent him an SMS – I’d just have to test his in­cred­i­ble skills face-to-face over lunch in Karama, while he was re­lax­ing af­ter per­form­ing in Shar­jah the night be­fore.

Dressed in a soft blue shirt and jeans, Gopinath, 50, with a ’tash to match mine, is eas­ily recog­nis­able, al­though there’s no sign of a top hat from which to pull a rab­bit.

“Let’s talk over food. A good meal is al­ways the best ice breaker,” says the il­lu­sion­ist who bagged the Mer­lin Award, con­sid­ered the Os­car of magic, in 2011. Past win­ners in­clude David Cop­per­field and Harry Black­stone.

As we wait for the food to ar­rive, he fishes out three coins from his pocket and places them on the ta­ble. Then he takes two of them, puts them in his left palm and closes it.

“How many coins are there in my palm now?” he asks. “Two,” I an­swer. “OK, the third I’ll keep in my pocket,” he says, and does so. He then opens his left palm and amaz­ingly all three coins are in it. “Wow,” I say, grin­ning. “OK, now I’ll place all three coins in my pocket,” he says, clearly show­ing me them as he slips them into his pocket. “So how many coins should there be in my palm?” None,

I say. He opens his clenched right palm and in it are three coins.

Two of the wait­ers who have been watch­ing the im­promptu magic show stare wide-eyed, im­pressed.

Mak­ing coins dis­ap­pear is surely small change for a man who once made an ele­phant van­ish on stage. “That was dur­ing a show in Ker­ala a decade ago,” he says. “But one of my most pop­u­lar acts was when I made a lo­cal govern­ment min­is­ter van­ish. There were at least a few people in the au­di­ence who were clap­ping and cheer­ing wildly.”

M agic has been Gopinath’s pas­sion since he was a child. “I grew up in Kavala­mukkatta, a vil­lage in Nil­am­bur in the south­ern In­dian state of Ker­ala. My fa­ther Kun­junni Nair was a farmer and a fan­tas­tic racon­teur. He’d tell me bed­time sto­ries about leg­endary lo­cal ma­gi­cian Vaza­kun­nam Nam­bood­iri and the tricks he per­formed.”

So fas­ci­nated was lit­tle Gopinath by the mag­i­cal tales that by the time he started school, he’d de­cided to be­come a ma­gi­cian. “I wanted to amaze my friends by mag­i­cally turn­ing stones into sweets or mak­ing a very strict teacher dis­ap­pear,” he laughs. “That would have made me so pop­u­lar.”

Con­stantly look­ing for ways to learn magic, Gopinath was seven when he came across a street ma­gi­cian per­form­ing in his vil­lage. “It was fas­ci­nat­ing to see him con­vert a 10 ru­pee note into a 100 ru­pee one or cre­ate a bou­quet of flow­ers from thin air, so af­ter the show I begged him to teach me a few tricks,” he says. “And the man im­me­di­ately agreed – if I paid him 25 ru­pees.

“As I didn’t have any pocket money, I de­cided to do some­thing I still re­gret – take some money from my fa­ther’s wal­let with­out telling him. It was wrong but I was a kid and I was des­per­ate to learn magic...”

Gopinath handed over the notes but this time it was the ma­gi­cian who dis­ap­peared with his money.

“Of course, I got a sound thrash­ing for steal­ing,” he says.

This didn’t quash his dreams of be­com­ing a ma­gi­cian, how­ever. “I de­cided to read up as much as I could on magic and learn from who­ever was will­ing to teach me,” he says.

A few years later, aged 10, Gopinath de­buted at a vil­lage fair. His first show was a com­plete flop. So up­set was Gopinath that he went home sob­bing. “But my fa­ther was very kind and con­soled me, telling me fail­ure was a step­ping stone to suc­cess. ‘Prac­tise more and you’ll be able to per­form bet­ter’, he said. I be­gan prac­tis­ing night and day and af­ter per­fect­ing my acts re­turned to the stage a few months later.” This time Gopinath amazed spec­ta­tors by pulling out rab­bits and pi­geons from hats, and pro­duc­ing flow­ers and shawls from thin air. “The ap­plause was amaz­ing and I en­joyed be­ing the star,” he says. “One of the great­est lessons I learnt was the im­por­tance of prac­tis­ing un­til an act is per­fect.”

Soon Gopinath be­gan putting on shows in his vil­lage and neigh­bour­ing ar­eas. “I was in­vited to per­form in schools and col­leges and I be­came pretty pop­u­lar.”

His fa­ther was not im­pressed. “While he had ini­tially en­cour­aged me, think­ing magic was just a hobby, he re­alised that I was spend­ing all my time with magic and my stud­ies were suf­fer­ing. His dream was to see me as a lawyer and not as a ma­gi­cian,

‘I wanted to amaze all my friends by mag­i­cally mak­ing a very strict teacher dis­ap­pear’

which he felt was not a real job.” Keen to set him on track for a ca­reer in the courts, Gopinath’s fa­ther en­rolled him for a de­gree in law but he left a year later and stud­ied maths in­stead.

In his spare time Gopinath con­tin­ued to study magic, read­ing up on the sub­ject and train­ing un­der well known lo­cal ma­gi­cians such as RK Malay­ath, PC Sor­car Jr and K Lal. He also read books on the great il­lu­sion­ist Harry Hou­dini, which in­spired him to start do­ing some dan­ger­ous magic acts.

“The more I read about Hou­dini, the more I wanted to be­come a fa­mous il­lu­sion­ist and ma­gi­cian like him,” he says.

A fter grad­u­at­ing, Gopinath in­vested all the sav­ings he’d made from his shows, along with a huge loan he’d taken from a lo­cal money­len­der, and bought a ram­shackle bus. “I thought it would make us look more pro­fes­sional,” he says and to­gether with a crew of 12 as­sis­tants he trav­elled across Ker­ala per­form­ing in schools and col­leges.

“But the in­come was mea­gre and when I missed a few re­pay­ments, the loan sharks came call­ing,” he says. He had to bor­row money from his fa­ther – “this time I asked him,” he laughs – to pay off debts and get his bus on the road again so he could make a liv­ing.

“My fa­ther tried hard to make me change my mind and get a proper job but I didn’t re­lent. I was op­ti­mistic that one day I would make it big.”

The budding ma­gi­cian got his first ma­jor break when, at the age of 22, he per­formed at a func­tion at­tended by sev­eral state dig­ni­taries in Ker­ala’s cap­i­tal Thiruvananthapuram.

“It was a state af­fair and there was a crowd of around 3,000 people. I put on a show per­form­ing some ex­tremely dif­fi­cult acts in­clud­ing an un­der­wa­ter es­cape trick.”

This trick in­volved be­ing put in a strait­jacket, hand­cuffed and pad­locked and dropped into a tank filled with wa­ter. He had to open the six locks, undo the strait­jacket and emerge from the wa­ter – all the while hold­ing his breath – in about a minute.

“I re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion at the end,” he says. He hasn’t looked back since.

Over the past nearly three decades, the award-win­ning ma­gi­cian has been wow­ing au­di­ences across the world – from Rus­sia and Malaysia to the US and the UAE. “I’ve per­formed in 46 coun­tries, most re­cently in Aus­tralia,” he says. “And wher­ever I’ve gone, people have been so wel­com­ing. In­dian magic with its cos­tume, amaz­ing acts and nov­el­ties is al­ways a source of won­der and awe to people.”

S o is there an el­e­ment of dan­ger in some acts? “Oh yes,” he says. “Some, like the fire-es­cape act and un­der­wa­ter es­cape act, have a 50 per cent chance of death or se­ri­ous disability for the per­former, which is why I make it a point to tell spec­ta­tors, par­tic­u­larly chil­dren, never ever to at­tempt such things.” Gopinath is one of the few ma­gi­cians any­where in the world to have repli­cated Hou­dini’s amaz­ing fire-es­cape feat, which the leg­endary il­lu­sion­ist is said to have per­formed in the early 1900s. Gopinath was 32 when he did this in Ker­ala.

“I’d stud­ied many books on it and prac­tised the act sev­eral times be­fore at­tempt­ing it but there is al­ways the chance of er­ror.” On the sched­uled day, with emer­gency ser­vices on standby, Gopinath was hand­cuffed, bound in chains with around half a dozen locks and low­ered us­ing a crane into a pile of hay, which was doused with petrol and set alight.

Even as spec­ta­tors watched spell­bound, Gopinath emerged un­shack­led from the burn­ing pyre in less than 60 sec­onds.

“It was not an easy one but I’d prac­tised well and was sure I could do it,’’ he says. He re­fuses to di­vulge se­crets on how he did it while re­it­er­at­ing “no­body should ever try it”.

This per­for­mance helped him bag the pres­ti­gious Ker­ala Sahitya Academy Award – usu­ally re­served for those in the field of fine arts. “It was the first time a state govern­ment had recog­nised magic as an art form and I was the first ma­gi­cian in In­dia to get the award,” he says.

But the act that nearly cost him his life was the one he per­formed in Kozhikode, Ker­ala, in 2001.

“It’s called the wa­ter tor­ture es­cape act where I am hand­cuffed and bound in chains, then placed in a plas­tic box and dropped into a glass tank filled with wa­ter. Elec­tric­ity is then passed into the wa­ter. I have

‘The fire-es­cape act and un­der­wa­ter es­cape act have 50 per cent chance of death or disability’

just 60 sec­onds to un­cuff my­self, emerge from the box and swim to safety be­cause at ex­actly the 60th sec­ond, a large metal spear weigh­ing around 30kg that is hang­ing above the box would drop down and crush me. It was a trick that I de­vel­oped.

“The trick in­volves an as­sis­tant, un­known to the au­di­ence, cut­ting off the elec­tric­ity sup­ply about 10 sec­onds into the act and this is in­di­cated to me by a blue bulb that goes on near the tank.

“But on that day, the as­sis­tant got dis­tracted and failed to turn off the power sup­ply. So there I was, hav­ing un­cuffed my­self ready to emerge from the safety of the plas­tic box but un­able to be­cause the blue bulb had not come on, which meant I would be elec­tro­cuted if I emerged from the box.

“Sec­onds ticked by and the bulb was still off, which meant there was elec­tric­ity in the wa­ter; 45 sec­onds sur­prise in Malay­alam). “I live and breathe magic,” he says. “In fact, there is not a sin­gle day when I do not think of tricks or new ideas for my shows.”

U nlike many per­form­ers who only en­ter­tain, Gopinath be­lieves in us­ing magic as a ve­hi­cle to ed­u­cate people as well. To that end, he utilises magic tricks to raise aware­ness of is­sues such as il­lit­er­acy, hy­giene, pro­tect­ing the girl child, fight­ing drug and tobacco use and other such is­sues.

“It’s amaz­ing how people seem to grasp a so­cial mes­sage bet­ter when it’s told to them through magic,” he says.

One act was cre­ated to prop­a­gate a so­cial mes­sage about in­still­ing pa­tri­o­tism in chil­dren. It in­volved bring­ing to life a statue of Ma­hatma Gandhi who would speak to the young­sters then re­turn to be­ing a statue. It was a huge suc­cess, he says.

Gopinath is also in­volved in sev­eral char­ity ini­tia­tives.

To pro­mote the art of magic and to en­sure the art of street magic in In­dia does not die out, in 1996 Gopinath set up a magic academy where street ma­gi­cians are given venues to per­form.

“Street ma­gi­cians are truly tal­ented and some of them know tricks that even sea­soned pro­fes­sional con­jurors find dif­fi­cult to per­form,” he says. “But many of them suf­fer be­cause they earn very lit­tle and live a tough life. It’s im­por­tant we pre­serve their tricks for pos­ter­ity.”

It was with this in mind that Gopinath built the In­ter­na­tional Magic Academy in Ker­ala. The Rs 100 mil­lion (about Dh6.12 mil­lion) academy in Thiruvananthapuram has an au­dio-vis­ual li­brary, com­plete with

‘I live and breathe magic. There is not a sin­gle day when I do not think of new tricks formy show’

elapsed, then 50 then 55. I had just five sec­onds be­fore the spear would drop down and im­pale me. At that point an­other as­sis­tant luck­ily no­ticed the power was still on. He rushed and snapped the cord and in three sec­onds I opened the box and swam out be­fore the spear came crash­ing down.

“That was the day I truly came face to face with death and be­lieve me, it’s not a pleas­ant feel­ing.”

So did he con­sider quit­ting magic af­ter that?

“No never,” he says. “Magic is in my blood, it’s a part of me.”

It’s clear that magic is his pas­sion be­cause he even named his son Vis­may (which means won­der or books and an ex­haus­tive collection of au­dio and video cas­settes on magic. Cour­ses in magic are also of­fered.

“It will also house Magic Planet, a one-of-a-kind edu­tain­ment cen­tre that will of­fer chil­dren the op­por­tu­nity to learn sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy through the medium of magic,” says Gopinath.

“The idea of set­ting this up came up when I had a talk with David Cop­per­field, one of the world’s most renowned ma­gi­cians. It is my dream project. I want to bring magic into ev­ery­one’s life. He was all praise when I men­tioned I was do­ing this to bring magic closer to chil­dren and help them learn through magic.”

To cel­e­brate 25 ex­cit­ing years of his as­so­ci­a­tion with magic, the ma­gi­cian also pro­duced a CD doc­u­ment­ing the se­crets of 15 rare mag­i­cal acts, which he buried in a time cap­sule in Ker­ala to be opened a century later.

“Most an­cient tricks, like the Great In­dian Rope Trick, van­ished be­cause they weren’t doc­u­mented. I want to pre­serve my acts and tricks for pos­ter­ity. A large plaque iden­ti­fy­ing the cap­sule is placed in a prom­i­nent place in Magic Academy,” says Gopinath, whose wife and son live in Ker­ala.

Would he want Vis­may to fol­low his foot­steps? “I would not force him to, but yes, at the mo­ment, like all kids, he is very in­ter­ested in magic.”

Now the ma­gi­cian has a ma­jor ini­tia­tive sched­uled for Oc­to­ber 31. “I am plan­ning an in­ter­na­tional magic sum­mit called Magic Planet. It is a three-day af­fair start­ing from Oc­to­ber 31 [known as Hou­dini Day]. Scores of ma­gi­cians are go­ing to be per­form­ing in Ker­ala and it will be a truly mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says.

As Gopinath pre­pares to tuck into his dessert, I ask him how he man­ages to look and act so young. He laughs. “You can put it down to magic,” he says. “Also, I’ve never smoked or had liquor in my life. And ex­cept when I am on stage per­form­ing, I never lie.”

As a waiter comes to clear the ta­ble, Gopinath beck­ons him closer.

“Here’s a lit­tle trick,” he says. He takes a white tis­sue from the box on the ta­ble and places it in his palm then squeezes it. When he opens his palm, in­stead of the tis­sue there is a piece of red cloth. “Like that?” he asks us. Even as we are look­ing on, he rubs the piece of red silk and mag­i­cally it be­comes a white hand­ker­chief.

“I’m ac­tu­ally still hun­gry,” he says and pops the hand­ker­chief in his mouth. He then opens his mouth and he has seem­ingly swal­lowed it.

“That’s magic,” he laughs.

Look, no hands! Gopinath has a woman float­ing on air

Magic Planet in Ker­ala will help chil­dren learn sci­ence through magic

Gopinath pre­pares for an­other death-de­fy­ing un­der­wa­ter act

Gopinath and his wife, Kavitha, named their seven-year-old son Vis­may, which means won­der

With the Os­car of magic, the Mer­lin Award

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