Tag Archives: sorcar

Utpal Dutt and the Magician: A Tale of Two Performers ©

Utpal Dutt, before he turned into a professional actor commanding pan India fame, was a school teacher. No run of the mill teacher he was of course. Any student exposed to his teaching skills in the early days of South Point High School in Kolkata will probably affirm this. Not unlike a magician, he could make his students fall into a trance. The medium of instruction in the school was English and he taught us English literature. His English accent was immaculately British, which we admired to no end. But coming from middle class Bengali homes, as most of us did, we were fully aware of our own inabilities to pick up his brand of English. Despite Utpal Dutt’s sincere efforts, our limitations lingered.

Dutt was an amateur stage actor as well at the time and the founder of the Little Theatre Group (that later changed to People’s Little Theatre). In the interest of the students, his acting group often performed Bengali versions of Shakespeare’s plays in the school premises, translated by Dutt himself. These included plays such as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and others. Thus, he was equally at ease with Bengali and English, reserving English for the classrooms and Bengali for the stage.

He was, however, not the only entertainer we were exposed to. On special occasions, the school had its students entertained by other varieties of performing artists too. This story concerns one of those, a stage magician, and his interactions with Utpal Dutt. The school had no auditorium at the time and shows were held on make shift stages. One such was rigged up for the magician in the manner of Dutt’s own stages and the students congregated there to watch him. Utpal Dutt simply loved the students and, as was his wont, he too joined the festivity.

The magician appeared to be earning a living of sorts from his skills, while Dutt was probably dreaming at the time about a professional acting career. In a way therefore, the two were not equals as far as their earnings from stagecraft went. Of course, the magician was not particularly well-known in his profession either and was almost certainly struggling to establish himself. He never found the success he sought, or so it would seem, for his name hasn’t survived the tides of time. No Houdini, or Sorcar, or Gilli Gilli Gogia Pasha he was therefore, or even remotely managed to turn into. As noted, Utpal Dutt too was then relatively unknown and neither performer knew the other personally. However, Dutt was destined to climb great heights in later life. The magician, therefore, had little idea about the great actor to be that he was facing on that long lost evening.

The conjurer kept us enthralled with a series of tricks and, encouraged by Dutt, we clapped thunderously at the end of each item presented. Quite unexpectedly though, one of those tricks caught Utpal Dutt on the wrong foot. The trick appears in hindsight to have been reserved for Utpal Dutt and him alone. It commenced with the magician stepping down from the stage and approaching the audience with a pack of playing cards. His eyes searched for the right face and landed quite randomly on Utpal Dutt. He confronted Dutt, requesting him politely to choose a card from the pack and reveal it to everyone present, except the magician himself. Dutt did what he was told and then replaced the card in the pack. The pack was shuffled thoroughly and the magician went over to the stage to place it inside an empty drinking glass on the top of a table. Following this, he turned back towards the audience looking directly at Utpal Dutt. And it was then that the fun began.

“Now Sir, why don’t you request your card not to hide inside the pack any longer?” began the magician. “After all, I am not acquainted with it. Can’t you ask it to show us its face?” The magician was speaking mostly in Bengali, which the students understood quite well. Utpal Dutt was visibly embarrassed by the idea of speaking to his chosen card, though the actor in him could well have done a great job of such conversation. However, he avoided that course of action and remained seated amongst the audience and simply smiled sheepishly.

The magician though insisted doggedly, which is when the English language invaded all of a sudden, for Dutt was asked to address his card in English with two simple words — “get up”. Simple yes, for he could well have used more sophisticated expressions like “reveal thyself” or, “come out of hiding, will you?” But it is unlikely that his acquaintance with the English language went that far. Worse, he was as ignorant of his own shortcomings vis-a-vis that language, as he was of Dutt’s outstanding command over it. Dutt could hardly refuse, for a room full of students were staring at him expectantly. He followed the magician’s advice therefore and came out with his version of the “get up” order in what sounded like trochaic meter, delivered in an Othello like booming bass.

Like any other magician, the one facing us possessed rudimentary acting skills too. He used them to his advantage now and almost collapsed on the stage in feigned fear as soon as he heard Dutt’s voice. Then, wearing a scandalised look on his face, he reprimanded Utpal Dutt in chaste Bengali. “If you scare the card this way, how will it even manage to peep out of the pack? Please don’t scold it so loudly, will you? Be polite, be nice to it? You are forcing it to remain in hiding!”

Then he went on to demonstrate the way he needed our teacher to utter the two fateful words. What he said sounded like a request alright and a passionate one at that. But there was a problem. The “get up” he insisted upon was somewhat songful in nature and spoken in a manner that made the words sound more Bengali than English. His tone bore a close resemblance to that of a doting Bengali mother urging her pampered brat of a child not to throw garbage on the heads of unwary passersby.

In short, his English was as far removed from Dutt’s as a tropical rain forest could have been from the Sahara desert. We, who were closely familiar with Utpal Dutt’s diction roared out in laughter, though our own pronunciation was doubtlessly far closer to the magician’s than Dutt’s. Yet the goings on appeared hilarious in our eyes, because we doubted that the teacher could reproduce the magician’s version of “get up” without distorting what he taught in his classes. The magician of course little knew why the students were laughing. He merely believed I suppose that he had excelled in his job. He responded with a wide grin.

Now, more than half a century later, I cannot fail to note a paradox of sorts surrounding the event. There is little doubt that no native English speaker could have understood what the magician had said to Utpal Dutt. Any such person would probably have expressed his incomprehension by merely scratching his head. But the thunderous manner in which we reacted amounted to jeering at the magician for his lack of speech wise sophistication. Quite obviously, we had developed into a bunch of snobs under Utpal Dutt’s tutelage, even though he had never intended things to happen that way. The paradox lay in the fact that Utpal Dutt ended up directing many a stage actor to speak the magician’s “Bengalified” English, purely for its comic effect. He must have spoken it himself too if the role demanded it. But on this day, Dutt the teacher refused to imitate the magician’s accent, which he could have done effortlessly. In fact, if he did imitate, his students would have gone back home with the impression that he had demeaned the man, not for being an incompetent magician, but for a reason totally unrelated to his trade. His fault would lie in the fact that he spoke his mother tongue more freely than he spoke a foreign language.

None of us would have reacted the way we did if the magician could have come up with Utpal Dutt’s English. This, however, was quite impossible, for the school he had gone to had almost surely not employed a Shakespearean actor to teach English. Unlike the students he was facing, he had probably studied in a school where English was not the medium of instruction. Most likely, even his English teacher taught the language in Bengali. Consequently, he was not familiar with the niceties of English accent. He could not speak King’s English. Nor could we.

Utpal Dutt probably realised the nature of the paradox the way I myself do today, having graduated out of my teenage asininity. Instead of mimicking the magician, he spoke the words in the manner of a boy soprano. Moreover, in doing so, he demonstrated his magnificent acting skill as far as voice control went. We heard open mouthed the range his voice could travel, from bass to treble. This did not quite satisfy the magician’s demand though, but he decided it was not as fearsome as Othello preparing to strangle Desdemona. He did not insist any further and much to everyone’s delight, the card in question did in fact climb out of the pack by itself and allowed us to verify its identity. Utpal Dutt came out with an earth shattering bravo and the rest of us clapped cheerfully.

A few days later, some of us came across the magician one more time. He was waiting near the school office, to collect his compensation for the performance. We began to chat with him and he turned out to be a friendly person. As all young people do on such occasions, we started enquiring about the secrets of his tricks. He told us vaguely about the art of magic and ended up at one point asking us to request the school authorities to start a magic course for the students. This was certainly unheard of. No school on earth meant for general studies offered a course in sorcery. Even at that young age, we concluded that the man needed a steady income, an income that would let him peacefully concentrate on his art without having to depend on a hand to mouth existence, which is what his stray performances ensured at best. We knew that his proposal was absurd and the matter ended there.

The magician’s own future could not have been clearly visible to him either, but one suspects that he in his turn too had undergone a professional change sooner or later and vanished, unlike Mr. Dutt, inside a dark alley of anonymity. Yet, one cannot help wondering, what could have happened if he was offered a chance to teach some subject or the other, say Geography or Mathematics, in the school for a regular salary. He would then have enjoyed the position of Utpal Dutt himself. Dutt was able to pursue his dream career, which could not have produced a dependable flow of income at that stage of his life. This did not pose a problem, probably on account of his regular income as a teacher of the English language. The magician’s academic qualifications did not measure up to Dutt’s, or even lesser teachers’ in the school. Not merely the school where Dutt taught, but elsewhere too. Besides, he was probably not inclined towards teaching either. He must have ended up in some lonely island or the other to earn his living and whatever work this might have involved, it could not have lent much support to his performer’s hopes. Also, who can tell? Unlike Utpal Dutt, who was able to walk miles to achieve his dream, the magician may not have possessed the grit to struggle against the unavoidable odds faced by a creative artist. It is a cruel world we live in.

The Man Who Would Be Magician

I have caught this nagging infection that makes me travel backwards in time. Unlike Benjamin Button or Barnaby Fulton, it doesn’t make me any younger mind you. (In case you haven’t heard of Barnaby Fulton, you will be well-advised to watch Monkey Business on YouTube. It was made in 1952, when most of you were still to be born. I was there of course, not to speak of Cary Grant, Ginger Roberts, Marilyn Monroe and a few other inconsequential people.) The infection reared up its head, I suspect, since the day I cogitated about Kamala Bastralaya around three years ago. That was a tailor shop, let me remind you, at the crossing of Manohar Pukur Road and Rashbehari Avenue in erstwhile Calcutta. The shop has evaporated now having fallen victim to the ravages of time and the prime location is occupied by Asian Paints, which, paradoxically enough, gloats over its anti-ageing formula. But it is not Asian Paints that drags me back to my foggy past today.

Instead, I wish to dwell upon Rashbehari Avenue alone and a little man who once lived on an offshoot of that street called Jamir Lane. The busy road stretches from east to west, a road that is uncompromisingly straight compared to Manohar Pukur Road. The latter never fails to remind me of a rippling river winding its way along the plains. It is full of feminine curves as it were, charmingly illusive through rain and shine. Not so Rashbehari Avenue. As you walk westwards along it, you go past Deshapriya Park (recently redecorated), Kamla Vilas (the well-known hideout for South Indians of yore), Lake Market (which still sells the best fish in South Kolkata), Melody (a widely visited music shop that, unlike Kamala Bastralaya, has kept Asian Paints at bay) and then finally take a sharp left turn to reach the Keoratala crematorium with military precision. That’s the point of no return. Sunset land.

But return we must though today, for our time machine is driving in reverse gear. Let’s walk eastwards therefore to the other end of the avenue. Somewhat in the spirit of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, however, the road, like universe itself, appears to curve back on itself at its eastern fringe and begin to traverse back west. The secret of the trick lies in the almost unnoticed Jamir Lane that connects the eastern and western flanks of Rashbehari Avenue. It lends to Rashbehari Avenue a magical quality, making you believe that you are moving east, when in fact Jamir Lane deceives you back to the westward stretch.

Magic, yes, uniquely magical it is, this eastern end of Rashbehari Avenue. No wonder therefore that it is exactly here, where west swallows up east, stands Indrajaal. Indrajaal was a mansion of sorts constructed by TW’s GM as a residence. Though palatial during its early youth, it has assumed a somewhat stunted appearance now, facing as it does a gigantic shopping mall on the opposite side of the street.

TW’s GM was an acronym used by an American Magazine to refer to P.C. Sorcar, who had performed in the US, advertising himself as The World’s Greatest Magician. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the name of that magazine any longer. He was probably the most successful magician that India produced during his lifetime, which ended abruptly and far too early with a heart attack sustained during a performance in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, Japan. P.C. Sorcar’s passing away created a void for a while in India’s presence in the world of magic, till he was replaced by his equally capable son, known as P.C. Sorcar, Jr and the latter too held the world in awe for several decades.

I should have been a schoolboy then, and so was my younger cousin Rana. And we had a common ambition, to turn into master magicians. TW’s GM was still alive and kicking and we were avid readers of the books he wrote for youngsters, but we knew only too well that they could never lead us to the Holy Grail of sorcery. We needed a teacher and Sorcar Senior, given his eminence, was unreachable. Hence, we set out on a search mission for a Guru if you will.

The search led us to another name, a magician called A.K. Sarkar. Quite obviously, P.C. Sorcar was born Sarkar too and had changed his family name to Sorcar, to draw people’s attention to his link with sorcery. A.K. Sarkar held magic shows as well, but unlike Sorcar who performed in the best known auditoriums, Sarkar probably never went beyond the confines of make shift stages occupying pavements during seasonal festivities. And once in a while, he wrote in magazines for young people like us. Consequently, he was not a street juggler either, like Maganlal Magicwallah.

It didn’t take Rana and me too long to discover that A.K. Sarkar was related to P.C. Sorcar, though the exact nature of the relationship remains obscure. I assumed they were cousins, whether near or distant I have no idea. And for all I know, they need not have been cousins at all.

Even at that young age, we were shrewd enough to guess that a man with limited fame was likely to be more approachable than a famous person. We discussed the matter in depth therefore and then hatched a plan. Rana used his contacts and discovered that A.K. Sarkar’s residence was no different from P.C. Sorcar’s. They both lived in Indrajaal. The building was not far from our own homes, but we were not sure if we could gain admission into the premises, given that we were both teenagers. Nor did we have any idea about the plea we needed to forge to begin a conversation with Sarkar.
An adult was required to accompany us we decided. We were too young to attract attention.

In this connection, help arrived in the shape of Moni Kaka (Moni is a name and Kaka means paternal uncle in Bengali). Rana was Moni Kaka’s only son and despite his busy lawyer’s work schedule, Moni Kaka was never a spoil sport, especially when young people approached him with bizarre proposals. The proposal in this case was that he chaperone us to A.K. Sarkar, without any appointment whatsoever. Moni Kaka, Rana’s doting father and my doting uncle readily agreed and one fine evening drove us down eastwards along Rashbehari Avenue in his shiny black Ambassador (or, was it Landmaster?) and parked it in front of the imposing gate of the mansion. The gate was tightly closed. Even though we didn’t notice a No Admission sign, there was a stern looking gateman posted there with that telltale message radiating from his eyes.

Moni Kaka led us to this obviously unsympathetic man and struck up a conversation.

“Can we see Mr. A.K. Sarkar please?” asked Moni Kaka as casually as possible.

The watchman, who was eying us suspiciously, grew even more so. I tend to believe now in my old age that his overly suspicious behaviour had a solid foundation. Given Sorcar’s international recognition, he was probably used to dealing with autograph seeking tramps waiting for chance encounters with the master. He knew how to send them away. We, on the other hand, could well have belonged to the minority who ever sought an audience with A.K. Sarkar and he needed to assess our nuisance value. In the absence of Moni Kaka, the two cousins were sure to have been sent back immediately. But Moni Kaka being an adult and exquisitely well dressed in a dark suit, the man was on the horns of a dilemma.

“Who — umm — are you?” asked the man, somewhat heistantly.

“I told you I wanted to see Mr. A.K. Sarkar,” said Moni Kaka. “I have important business with him.”

The gatekeeper’s unbelieving eyes shifted from Moni Kaka to us and then back to Moni Kaka. Even if Moni Kaka could possibly have important business with Sarkar, what were these youngsters doing with him? But Moni Kaka too had his lawyer like looks and he used them to his advantage. The two of them kept staring hard at one another till the gatekeeper finally gave in.

“You wait here, I will go and inquire,” said the man and disappeared behind the gate, locking it from inside as we waited outside on the pavement. But Moni Kaka smiled back at us.

“Battle won,” his eyes whispered.

We were waiting for around ten minutes I think, before the gate reopened a chink or so and the guard signalled us to enter. We stepped inside gleefully, but were somewhat disenchanted to discover that we were not being invited inside the building. We had to stand unceremoniously on the courtyard in the gatekeeper’s company. A short flight of stairs led up to a ground floor balcony along which were located a set of rooms. Out of one of these a gentleman came rushing out, happily excited. He was frail and shortish, in his mid-thrties probably, if memory serves me right, dressed rather plainly. A Bengali style pyjama possibly and a loosely hanging un-pressed shirt. We could see his face clearly, since the balcony was well lit. He stared at us, as the gateman had done, but not with grim suspicion. Instead, a hopeful smile lingered across his lips.

“I am A.K. Sarkar. Are you looking for me?” he asked Moni Kaka, his face still glittering in excitement.

“Oh yes, Mr. Sarkar, we have come here to see you,” said Moni Kaka smiling brightly in turn.

“Which club do you represent Sir,” said Mr. Sarkar with endless naiveté.

“Club?” It was Moni Kaka’s turn now to lose his poise. He quickly recovered though and continued with remarkable grace. “I am not representing any club now, though I am a life member of several in the city. Today however, I am not seeing you on behalf of a club. I am here,” he explained further, “with a request on behalf of these two boys. My brother’s son and mine. They are deeply interested in the art of magic. I have brought them over to find out if you might agree to help them train.”

The expression on Sarkar’s face went through a series of transformations upon receipt of the message. The elation travelled downwards and ended up in a dark chasm of despondency. He was completely taken aback to hear what Moni Kaka had to say and kept gazing at Rana and me, totally befuddled. He was at a loss for words.

But then, suddenly, a trace of hope leaped out of the Pandora’s Box we had opened up for him.

“How did you find out about me?” he said in a voice that could remind you of a dying man catching at a straw. There was pathos in the air. I smelled it even at that immature age. Sarkar was not a sought after person as Rana and I had correctly guessed. Unfortunately, the magician had not learnt the most important trick of all. He didn’t know how to hide his emotions, suggesting to me what his status probably was in the family with which he resided. It was Sorcar who was known the world over. But here were people who had come looking for Sarkar! Was there a glimmer of hope in the horizon finally? Had Lady Luck herself wielded the magic wand?

It was my turn to speak out now, since I knew that Moni Kaka didn’t know the answer to the question Sarkar had asked, and Rana, being younger to me, was a little shy to speak up.

“We are familiar with the stuff you write for magazines. We learnt several tricks reading your articles.” I quickly responded.

My response resulted in a painful bursting of his temporary bubble of hope. I had driven in the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Hope gave place to gloom almost instantaneously. Seeing Moni Kaka’s smart attire, Sarkar had probably taken for granted that a wealthy party had arrived to hire him for a magic show in a carefully chosen venue. But that was not the case. He was being actually asked to tutor two juveniles in the art of magic! We were standing face to face with a monumental sigh.

I don’t think the conversation proceeded too far beyond this point and he found a way of getting rid of us without sounding too rude. I have forgotten how he excused himself or how, for that matter, the gatekeeper showed us out. Nor can I remember what Moni Kaka told us on our way back home.

Moni Kaka continued to flourish as a lawyer and Rana made a name for himself in adult age as the first person to run a private news channel in Bengali. Even though he didn’t turn into a great magician, hprobably taken for granted that a wealthy party had arrived to hire him for a magic show in a carefully chosen venue. Instead, he was being asked to tutor two juveniles in the art of magic! We were standing face to face before a monumental sigh.
I don’t think the conversation proceeded too far beyond this point and he found a way of getting rid of us without sounding too rude. I have forgotten how he excused himself or how, for that matter, the gatekeeper showed us out. Nor can I remember what Moni Kaka told us on our way back home.

Moni Kaka continued to flourish as a lawyer and Rana made quite a name for himself in adult age as the first person to run a private news channel in Bengali. Even though he didn’t turn into a great magician, he is well-known in India and abroad in the television show business. I managed to survive as well in my own small way.

What life did to Sarkar though continues to be a mystery. Soon after the senior Sorcar passed away, his son, Sorcar, Jr, took a prodigious leap into the world of magic. And while this phenomenal transition from senior to junior was in progress, Sarkar probably took a curtain call unaccompanied by encores.

Rashbehari Avenue may well know which way he went in the meantime. I suspect myself that he slowly crawled westward and never came back. But the avenue now, with its shopping malls, restaurants and traffic jams, is hopelessly uncommunicative about that last journey.