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Rise and fall of the Indian rope trick

The magician who mesmerised the world has been reduced to performing in a fast-food joint as his country embraces the ways of the West

By any standard, Ishamuddin Khan is a man of remarkable talents. Back in 1995, this traditional Indian magician or madari, completed the first successful outdoor performance of a trick that had been whispered about for centuries but that no one before had mastered. When, before an amazed audience on the southern edge of Delhi, Ishamuddin managed a convincing rendition of the legendary Indian rope trick, it made headlines around the world that ought to have secured his place in the history of magic and won him lasting recognition at home.

Yet that has not happened. Almost 15 years after he performed a trick that many experts believed to be impossible – in 1934 the Magic Circle in London offered a prize of 500 guineas to anyone who could do it – Ishamuddin is struggling, not only for recognition but simply to get by. While he has toured Britain, Europe and Japan to display his mesmerising skills, he says that India is increasingly turning its back on traditional performers such as himself in its race to become all things modern. To supplement his job devising magic tricks to encourage school children to learn science, he sometimes works as a conjurer at McDonald's.

"Every capital city around the world that I have been in has an area for street performers," said the 42-year-old, who lives in a crowded cluster of tiny homes in west Delhi known as the Kathputli – or puppeteers' – colony: an area rich with the skills of performers, musicians and craftsmen but sorely lacking in facilities. "But rich people in India are offended if you talk about street performing. They are only interested in computers or software. I am poor but I am suffering not so much from poverty as I am from the attitude of the Indian government. I am happy in my poverty but I would like people to respect me as I am. I would like recognition."

For centuries, stories have been told in India and beyond about a magic trick in which an ordinary rope is made to rise upwards before a young boy climbs up and disappears into the sky. The spellbinding story may have been partly inspired by the fairy tales of King Bhoja, who throws a thread into the sky and then ascends. Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century Moroccan explorer and scholar, also wrote of seeing such a trick performed in China, while mention of the deed in India was made by the 17th-century Indian emperor Jahangir, whose memoirs were first translated in 1829.

In the version of the rope-trick story most commonly told, after the young boy ascends the rope, the magician calls after the boy and, receiving no response, angrily climbs the rope himself. After he too vanishes, pieces of severed limb fall to the floor. The magician then climbs down the rope, places the flesh into his basket, puts on the lid and – after a moment's pause for maximum dramatic effect – the young boy climbs out, unharmed.

Yet the evidence of the trick ever being performed was almost certainly fabricated. In his book, The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History, Dr Peter Lamont, himself a magician, reveals that stories of the trick started receiving international attention only after 1890 when a report appeared in the Chicago Tribune by a reporter who claimed to have seen the trick performed.

The story was entirely invented and, several months later, the newspaper printed a retraction. But by then it was too late: the trick had gained a life of its own. "There are lots of very old stories from all over the world [about such a trick]," said Dr Lamont, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, "but we say that the modern legend came to be because of the article in the Chicago Tribune."

Ishamuddin said that when he was a boy he heard stories about the rope trick but that no one knew how to do it. While he learned from his father how to master favourites such as the Indian basket trick (in which a boy disappears and then reappears in a basket), the mango tree (in which a mango seed turns into a small fruit tree) and sleight-of-hand tricks, it was clear that the rope trick was not part of the traditional repertoire.

Ishamuddin said his interest in mastering the trick was sparked in the late 1980s by one of several visits to the Kathputli colony by US academic Lee Siegel who was researching a book on Indian magic. Mr Siegel, of the University of Honolulu, disputes that he told the young man that rewards were still available for anyone who mastered the rope trick, but either way the street magician decided to try to crack the mystery.

At that point, while some magicians had managed the trick on a stage (with the assumed assistance of hanging wires or some other help) no one had done it outdoors. "I decided I would do the trick to get the money," said Ishamuddin, who has six children. "I spent six years to figure out how to do it. I read the books, I spoke to the elders, and then in 1995 I did it for the first time."

While his performance in 1995 outside Qutub Minar, a 12th-century minaret in south Delhi, may have been significant, a repeat of the trick two years later on the coast at Udupi in southern India became famous. Video recordings of the event are posted on the internet. Dr Lamont, who was among the 30,000 spectators that saw it, said: "Ishamuddin has a version of this trick and it's a good version. He did more than anyone had done before. It's the best version and I am happy to say that I don't know how he does it."

Another Indian magician, Tejaswi Shankar, whose father, also a performer, organised the 1997 event, lamented that the skills of Ishamuddin and others who performed at Udupi had not been better recognised. With events such as the Commonwealth Games to be hosted next year in Delhi, some have wondered why India has not done more to promote its traditional performers. No rewards have ever been paid to Ishamuddin, despite him being generally recognised as the first performer of the rope trick.

"I saw him in 1997," said Mr Shankar, who goes by the name Shankar Junior. "There are many other performers but Ishamuddin is the closest you can ever get to the legendary Indian rope trick."

At his small but spotless home amid the narrow, dank alleyways, Ishamuddin took a video from a metal cupboard and pushed it into the player. As his wife served cups of hot milky tea and a plate of raisins, Ishamuddin narrated over the performance of himself conjuring the rope from a basket and watching it rise 20ft into the air. On the video he then helps a young boy grip the rope and the boy climbs, maybe to a height of about eight or nine feet. The boy then climbs down and the rope, wondrously, loses its stiffness and falls to the floor.

Understandably, the magician would give no clue as to how he performed the trick, and for a repeat performance he asks for four days' preparation time and 50,000 Indian rupees (about £650). He was happy, however, to allow his magic rope – or at least one of them – to be inspected. To the inexpert eye it offered no clues.

Ishamuddin said that, just as he did, his sons were learning the traditional tricks, while his daughters were studying in school. His eldest son, 14-year-old Altmash, has even accompanied him on a tour of Japan. "I like all of the tricks. If I can do magic I will do, but I also want to be an engineer," said the teenager, keeping his options open. "When I was in Japan I saw lots of engineers."

For my next trick... A history of magic

* Murals on the walls of crypts in the village of Beni Hassan, outside Cairo, appear to show a conjuror bamboozling a spectator with a demonstration of balls vanishing from underneath cups. A similar trick was described by Seneca the Younger in the first century AD.

* Another trick of equal age involves the decapitation of birds and animals, which a magician called Dedi performed before Cheops, the builder of the pyramid of Giza, around 2600BC. He "severed the head of a goose, duck and ox," according to a magic website called Miracle Factory, "subsequently restoring the slaughtered beasts to their living states, none the worse for wear".

* Other ancient tricks include the feats of escapology perfected by Harry Houdini, the Pepper's Ghost illusion, which used mirrors and projection to conjure a ghost, mind-reading and the old favourite – a variant of the decapitation trick enjoyed by Cheops – in which a magician saws his assistant in half.