Albright professor earns second Fulbright Fellowship

Shreeyash Palshikar, Ph.D., assistant professor of historical past at Albright School, has gained a Fulbright-Nehru Educational and Skilled Excellence Fellowship from the U.S. India Instructional Foundation to do analysis in India over the subsequent two summers.

For his undertaking, “Vanishing Acts: Preserving the Dying Art of Traditional Indian Magic,” Palshikar might be researching the historical past of Indian magic via oral histories of the final remaining traditional Indian magicians and a few of the trendy magicians, in addition to archival history of recent magic creation in India.

In addition to including new materials to his common Albright School magic historical past class, this venture builds on a 2003 Fulbright-Hays DDRA fellowship, for which Palshikar studied the formation of Indian linguistic states and analyzed media, id politics and state formation across the breakup of Bombay state and formation of the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat (within the 1950s).

“Winning a Fulbright fellowship for a second time is a great honor,” stated Palshikar. “I am grateful, humbled and excited to start work on this project documenting an important, popular and quickly dying performance tradition in India.”

Palshikar hopes to personally join with performers in an effort to achieve a higher understanding of the ways that modernity affects conventional performance types in India.

“I need to report oral histories and performances of the final traditional road magicians, and learn how they are making an attempt to adapt to speedy modifications in international media.

Read proposal for “Vanishing Acts: Preserving the Dying Art of Traditional Indian Magic”

“I propose to study the history and culture of Indian magic using qualitative methods of performance analysis, oral history, and archival research. First, I will collect oral histories, and document the performances of traditional magicians. I will also read and analyze archival sources including pamphlets, newspapers, promotional materials, magic society publications and portrayals of magic in Indian films. Finally, I will analyze how this folk tradition is changing in a global context.
India has a long history of magic performance that has fascinated people worldwide for centuries and shaped popular imaginations of the region as a ‘land of magic.’ Indian magic has been depicted in ancient Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit plays, Mughal court records, and in the accounts of foreign travellers from the 1300s until today. Indian magicians began performing in the west in the early 1800s, as troupes were brought to Europe and the UK by impresarios; some of the enterprising performers made their way to the US. From the 19th century, many western magicians and mystical seekers wrote about Indian magic to praise it, or to debunk it. Until recently, scholars largely ignored this folk tradition, with a single academic book on the topic published up to 1991. Two books in the last two years have started to build a theoretical framework to analyze Indian magic, and opened up avenues for future research; this project will build on that excellent work. To date, here has been no systematic documentation of traditional magic performances and life stories of the performers, and this will only be possible for a few more years as the last remaining performers are retiring and dying without passing the art to the next generation. Indian magic is quickly changing due to local and international pressures.
Until a generation ago, it was common to see traditional Indian magicians plying their trade at village fairs and festivals, on crowded street corners and in parks in large cities. Traditional magic was passed down from generation to generation within families by mentorship of sons by their fathers. This tradition is now rapidly vanishing, influenced by international styles and changing public tastes. Today it is rare to see traditional magicians, as many have given up the profession due to the hardships associated with their itinerant life and the dwindling audience interest. Yet India remains filled with magicians who appear on popular television talent competitions, at parties, trade shows, in theaters, and several recent Bollywood movies have focused on Indian magicians. The contemporary Indian magic scene is filled with magicians performing in a modern western style with little connection to traditional Indian styles. Modern Indian magicians from very different class and caste backgrounds as traditional magicians learn tricks and performance styles from the same DVDs and youtube tutorials as their peers worldwide and have little contact with traditional magic. The different types of performers occasionally meet at Indian magic conventions, yet social barriers remain that have contributed to the lack of documentation of this venerable folk performance tradition. I experienced this first-hand when my uncle, a modern Indian magician, discouraged me from learning traditional Indian magic, and when I attended an Indian magic convention including both traditional and modern magicians.
My academic and professional training, experience, and personal background have uniquely prepared me for this project. My scholarship has engaged in diverse investigations of magic, both as a culturally significant art form, and in the context of broader concepts like illusion, performance, and deception. I have examined how the practice of magic has mediated relationships between Asia and the West, and also the powerful artifices constructed by nationalism and identity politics in India. At the University of Chicago, under the direction of Wendy Doniger and Lee Siegel, I wrote a doctoral qualifying paper on Indian magic, and created original practice-based performance pieces that draw on Indian magic and broader narratives on East/West dynamics. I have presented the results of this research at conferences in the US, UK and India, and continue to collaborate across disciplines to investigate magic. I am studying how magic is changing in modern India, a project that will result in both a monograph and a documentary.
For two decades, magic performance has also played a continuous role in my work. My performing career has taken me across the US, and to India, London, and Dubai, and given me a global perspective. I have performed in museums, colleges, and theaters worldwide including the Smithsonian, Harvard and Yale. As a second generation Indian-American magician, I first connected with Indian magicians while studying languages in India. By performing alongside the traditional magicians, I established personal connections with them and learned how to elicit their stories and perspectives. I was invited to lecture and perform at Indian magic training centers and conventions. As such, I have developed a network of relationships with practitioners who will help me complete this project. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale University, I created an original 3-person theater show directed by the multiple Emmy winning Alexander ‘Sandy’ Marshall that had its premiere in New Haven. Many of my performances have been at academic conferences and I also deliver academic talks on magic. In 2017, I collaborated with a director and two performers to co-create a show using magic and storytelling to address questions of race, identity, and masculinity. This year, I am continuing to connect with the world’s top western magicians who lecture in Philadelphia.
This project will analyze a popular Indian folk performance art form that has long been ignored, is quickly changing, and has had a profound effect on the ways that India is perceived internationally. For centuries, traditional magic performances were a regular part of Indian cultural life, yet it is hard to find them today. Indian magicians entertained at royal courts and village fairs, and were the first Indian performers to travel abroad. As such, they contributed to western impressions of India and were among the first Asian performers to travel internationally. Magic was an important site of the colonial encounter, as European magicians reacted to and were inspired by Indian magic and images of India as a ‘land of magic.’ In the 20th century, Indian magicians began to create a new modern performing style.
As global media and Bollywood have become popular, traditional performance forms such as magic have adapted or died out. Today, traditional magic is rare, suppressed by state authorities, neglected by audiences, and abandoned by all but the most dedicated performers. Traditional Indian magicians do not want their children growing up to be magicians so have stopped teaching them the art. Since there is little documentation of this largely oral tradition, it will die with them unless it is soon recorded. The demolition of the performers’ colony in Delhi as part of ‘slum rehabilitation’ and threats to similar colonies in other cities has made the lives of traditional magicians difficult and further threaten the art. Contemporary Indian magic is also influenced by western performing styles as modern Indian magicians with access to global media learn the same magic as magicians in other parts of the world. This project will document the performances of the last remaining traditional practitioners of Indian magic, and collect oral histories of their lives while it is still possible to do so.
The TATA Institute for Social Sciences would be an ideal partner for this project, as would the Academy of Theatre Arts at the University of Mumbai or the Centre for Performing Arts at the University of Pune. I have made contact with these institutions and found willing potential collaborators. The Indian host institution will gain an experience of documenting and analyzing a popular Indian performance art that has not been previously documented, and I will connect the host institution to an international network of scholars and practitioners of this art. This project will enrich the disciplines of History, Asian Studies and Performance or Theatre studies by documenting a hidden and threatened art and creating a new archive that will be useful for future researchers. I will gain rare insights into the traditions of Indian magic that will enrich my teaching, scholarship, and performances by grounding them in the most up to date information. My home institution will benefit from an improved magic history course, arts programming, and the recognition that comes with the publications and performances that I will create. Magic is a popular global art form that appeals to people of all backgrounds through aesthetic experiences of enchantment and wonder. Magic has connected India and the US in subtle ways for two centuries: Ramo Samee performed in the US in the early 1800s, Houdini and others performed dressed as Indians in the late 1800s, and P. C. Sorcar was a hit in the US in the 1950s. Conversely, Samri Baldwin performed in India in the late 1800s, Howard Thurston performed there in the early 1900s, and Penn & Teller visited India for a TV special in the 2003. This project will use magic to build bridges between institutions, disciplines, and scholars and practitioners in India and America.
I will carry out this project in two phases of archival research and fieldwork. In the summer of 2019, I will visit India for two months to carry out archival research, contact local magicians for fieldwork, begin to collect oral histories and document the performances of the oldest magicians. In addition to the public archives such as the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai and National Archives in Delhi, the private T. R. Srinivasan and N. Sanjiva Rao, IPS Memorial collection in Mumbai contains material on Indian magicians that other scholars have not previously considered and the curator of that archive Dr. Shekhar Krishnan has offered to assist my work. Magicians I have known personally for years, including both traditional and modern magicians in many parts of India will assist me as they are also keen to see the traditional art documented before it totally vanishes. My contacts include Prof. Shankar in Udupi and Raj Kumar in Delhi, who for years have maintained connections with traditional itinerant Indian magicians who are otherwise difficult to contact, and have helped other scholars in their work. After analyzing the data gathered in the first trip, I will visit India again in the summer of 2020 for three months to answer questions that came up during the initial data analysis, collect the remaining oral histories, and document the remaining performances. I will continue to analyze the data and create scholarly and popular written work, and practice-based performance pieces based on my research.
This project is feasible because it builds on previous research, is focused in scope, and my long association with the art and artists makes me uniquely prepared to carry it out. My language skills, experience with research in India, and network of contacts will enable me to prepare long before I arrive, begin immediately, and make efficient use of my time in country. Dividing the research into two phases will allow me to assess results of the first phase, write about what I learned, and refine my process as I prepare for the second phase.
Traditional Indian magicians reside exclusively in India and primarily perform there, so I must visit the country to interview them and document their performances. India is also home to many excellent organizations dedicated to documenting and preserving its performing arts. The National Center for the Performing Arts in Mumbai is the premiere institution dedicated to preserving India’s performing artistic heritage and will likely assist me in this work. The state, national and personal archives that I will consult contain material not available in the west such as files related to the troupes of Indian magicians who performed abroad in the 19th century and advertisements for magic performances. If needed, I will supplement my in-country archival work with research in the extensive South Asia collection at the University of Pennsylvania, where I have an affiliation. This is a performance history project on a relatively ignored art that is not politically sensitive, so political issues will not impact my work.
I will disseminate results of my work in several ways to reach the broadest audience in India and the US. One way is through publications in academic journals such as the Asian Theatre Journal and Public Culture and by presentations at academic conferences in India and the US as I have done in the past. I will also write popular articles based on my research, and create original performance pieces to share in both countries. I will present performance pieces in venues such as the performing arts departments of the Universities of Mumbai and Pune and the National Center for performing Arts in India and the Asian Arts Initiative, and Asian theater conferences in the US. I will also collaborate with a filmmaker to create a documentary showcasing the performances and interviews that I will record. My many years of being a cultural ambassador between India and the US in different capacities will enable me to use magic to build new bridges between India and the US that will benefit both countries by recording and preserving a vanishing art.”