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
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