Try as he might, magician James Randi could not make the milling crowds or the festive traffic clogging the streets outside Dadar station ‘disappear’ with a bit of magic. The 84-year-old magician or skeptic as he is known, was in the city recently to talk to other magicians and those interested in different streams of magic about his life, his art and how he exposes swindlers and deceivers who make money off gullible and sometimes desperate people looking for solace and some hope. He is a skeptic and true to his label has a questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions and beliefs stated as facts. He doubts claims that are often taken for granted.
Hall of Tricks
Randi’s talk took place at the newly minted Magic Academy Hall in Dadar (W). The Academy Hall is tucked away behind a labyrinth of tiny streets, including that of a sugarcane vendor, which directly leads up to the Hall. It is a meeting place for magicians and youngsters, who want to learn about magic, hold workshops, exchange ideas and buy tricks. Academy founder Bhupesh Dave said, “I am a magician. I use magic for my corporate training sessions. I thought the magician fraternity in the city and even beyond – in India, needs a place to congregate, exchange ideas, information and also host visiting magicians.
It is also a place where magicians can buy tricks,” said Dave pointing to glass shelves stocked with magic paraphernalia, the traditional black hat worn by magicians, decks of playing cards, a colourful fan, something that looked like a saw and other gizmos that seemed to blink at one, cheekily, saying: it’s a trick you can’t figure out.
Art of branding
For those who dismiss magic as a lot of mumbo-jumbo, Dave says, “Magic can help you increase your memory power. Our Indian magicians are at par with the best. They can compete at international level but they need to be able to market themselves and the art well, too, they have to know have to become a brand.” explains Dave who says he is a mentalist. Mentalism is the art of reading the minds of the people. Dave signs off saying magic has great scope as a profession and career and the Academy, “Is a small step in bringing resources to established and aspiring magicians in the city.”
Essentially an artiste
Somebody who embodies Dave’s belief in magic as a ‘career with great scope’ is Randi, who spoke at the Academy Hall. This feisty old man with a twinkle in his eye, labelled Mumbai’s traffic as “interesting” before holding the audience of mentalists, rationalists and established magicians in thrall as he spoke about his career, “I work on TV and in shows nearly all over the world, in fact, I am essentially a TV artiste,” said Randi, who says basically as a magician he is an “actor” and an “entertainer”.
This US-based, Florida native, he lives in Fort Lauderdale, was born in Canada but became a US citizen. “As the US gave me better opportunities,” had some choice words for so-called godmen and those who make paranormal claims and pseudo-sciences. “It is time for the truth,” said Randi with all the force of his 84 years. “It is time they stopped swindling others.”
Talk to dead
Even though this was his first visit to India, Randi knew about India’s propensity to veer towards godmen, swallow a number of dubious supernatural claims and generally tend to believe individuals peddling all kinds of self-proclaimed cures and indulging in chicanery. This entertainer lived up to his ‘e’ tag (e is for entertainer) by giving a very lively slide presentation of some magic tricks.
He also spoke about how he had punctured hollow claims in the USA too, of a woman called S Browne who claimed to talk to the dead, “When I threw her a challenge she claimed that she could not find my telephone number in the phone book. I said, you can talk to the dead and cannot find me in a phone book/” said Randi to shouts of laughter.
Media gets bashed
The media came in for a bashing as Randi told this reporter, “I blame the media too for encouraging these fakes with their rubbish claims. All the media wants is a sensational story, good and exciting news, that is what they care about. They do not bother to double check anything at all, and this is not a personal attack on you,” said Randi. Randi says there is only one way of exposing fakes. “Tell people just how they are being fooled and how these tricks are being done,” he said, “so that they are not swindled of large sums of money.” Randi lumped a number of godmen in the fake category, and claimed that adoring adherents and the fact that industrialists and politicians follow them does not mean they have credibility. “Politicians are seen mixing with these types because they believe being seen with a perceived ‘holy’ man is attractive for their image. They also have no problem selling their integrity,” said Randi, who added that people turn to these swindlers at vulnerable times in their life – death of a loved one, financial crunches, loss of something valuable and so these people peddling rubbish are able to take advantage of people at their lowest ebb mentally.
Not a cynic
Randi emphasised though that he was a skeptic and not a cynic. “I demand proof,” said the Randi smiling above his snowy Santa Claus beard. “Many people think they have psychic abilities because they mistake coincidence for evidence. When tested, their powers disappear,” he explained. Randi, in his 1.5-hour talk to his audience showed them various magic tricks. Several magicians smiled knowingly as they may have fathomed how the trick was done. D J Grothe, president of the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF), said Randi’s, “Moral, righteous indignation along with compassion come together to make him an unmoveable force.’
No pulling punches
Force Randi was, from his humour-spiked presentation, “I bet you didn’t think I was this good-looking” he said to his bemused audience, to his no punches pulled comments on those who dupe the gullible. Randi was, above all an actor and a very good one. “We magicians work in funny ways,’ he said as eager-beaver listeners queued up for his autograph.
Mr. Snowy Beard who looked like a Santa Claus who has been on a diet, will continue puncturing the bubble of falsehood of so many deceivers. In an age, where puffed up reputations, posturing and blatant lies too are part of what is called ‘marketing’, James (Bond) Randi, believes he has a license to kill – corny claims by cons.