I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
On the night of April 9, 1956, the switchboard at the British Broadcasting Corporation was jammed by people calling in a panic. They had just witnessed a magician saw a woman in half on live television. The callers were convinced something had gone terribly wrong with the trick and the Great Sorcar’s assistant had been killed.
Protul Chandra Sarkar was born in 1913 in what is now Bangladesh, but then was the Indian province of Bengal.
Six generations of his family before him had been magicians and he always wanted to carry on the ancient art of Indian illusions. He changed his name to Sorcar because it sounded like sorcerer and he began performing in circuses, theatres, and clubs.
His fame as a magician grew, but only in Bengal. He wanted a wider celebrity, so he started billing himself as The World’s Greatest Magician and took his show to Japan.
His international reputation got bigger and he was invited to display his skills in Chicago in 1950 at a convention of professional magicians. When he showed up looking like a character from the Arabian Nights, he was swarmed by the press.
Here was an exotic performer who brought to Western stages the fabled mysticism of the Far East. Could the Great Sorcar call on strange magical powers only understood by those who had studied the ancient Hindu teachers?
The Panorama Show
Panorama was one of the BBC’s highest rated shows on television, and still is. Its stock-in-trade is investigative journalism and the exposing of malfeasance in politics, business, entertainment, and anywhere else where scallywags do crooked things. The night of the Great Sorcar’s appearance was a break from the show’s usual remit. He was given the last 15 minutes to perform his magic.
In the studio stood an apparatus with a three-foot circular saw suspended over a table. Enter the beautiful 17-year-old assistant Dipty Dey. The Great Sorcar hypnotized his helper and lay her down on a table where she was secured by restraints. She was not placed in a box as is the usual way of disguising the trick.
The buzz saw was set in motion and Sorcar lowered it onto Dipty Dey’s midriff. Viewers watched in horror as the blade appeared to cut the young woman in half. It looked as though something had gone appallingly amiss. Sorcar seemed to be trying to revive his assistant from her trance but she was unresponsive.
The BBC picks up the story, “As he shook his head and covered her face with a black cloth, presenter Richard Dimbleby stepped in front of the camera and announced the programme was over.” That’s when the switchboard lit up.
Of course, it was all a very clever illusion. But later that evening, a newscast added a story to calm viewers down by pointing out that Dipty Dey was alive and well and still in one piece.
Newspaper headlines the following day shouted “Girl Cut in Half - Shock on TV” and “Sawing Sorcar Alarms Viewers.” The BBC explained it was all about timing and the broadcaster’s strict adherence to the clock. Mr. Dimbleby closed the show exactly on schedule before the Great Sorcar could revive his assistant.
There are those who suggest the illusionist timed his show to perfection, knowing the cut away would be cause a sensation. The controversy gave an enormous boost to Sorcar’s fame and slow box office sales turned into sell outs.
Indrajal or the Magic of India
The Great Sorcar toured the world with his stage show called Indrajal. The circular saw routine was usually the dramatic finale.
His show featured elaborate sets, colourful costumes, and dazzling lighting effects. He dressed in what he called his “Maharajah robe” and turban.
He performed the “Water of India” illusion in which a seemingly endless stream of water is poured out of a carafe. West Bengal’s Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told The Hindu newspaper he was mesmerized by the illusion when he was young. He said, “I don’t understand magic, but what I know is that it is based on the fundamentals of logic and science.”
The X-Ray Man trick involved reading comments written by audience members while tightly blindfolded. What’s more, he performed the obligatory levitation of assistants as well as plunging swords into them.
He also found time to write 20 books on illusions.
Against the advice of his doctor, Sorcar began a four-month tour of Japan in late 1970. As he left the stage after a show in early January 1971, he collapsed. Many in the audience thought he was performing one of his tricks. But he wasn’t. It was a massive and fatal heart attack that felled him at the age of 57.
Kalanag was the stage name of Helmut Ewald Schreiber, a man who was once the favourite magician of Adolf Hitler. In 1955, Schreiber accused the Great Sorcar of stealing his illusions. Sorcar’s pals came to his defence and pointed out that it was Kalanag who was the thief and accused him of trying to cover up his German identity by assuming an Oriental alias.
Sorcar was a huge star in India, but his fame caused an occasional problem. A little boy had been bitten by a venomous snake and his family rushed him to Sorcar believing he could heal the child. The magician persuaded them to get professional medical help for the boy. But the delay in going to a hospital proved fatal.
Magic is a family affair for the Sorcars. P.C. Sorcar Jnr. has carried on his father’s magic business, and now his daughter Maneka continues in the family trade. She is the ninth generation.
- “Pratul Chandra Sorcar.” Indian Magic and Magicians, undated.
- “PC Sorcar: India’s ‘Maharajah of Magic’ Who Terrified the UK.” John Zubrzycki, BBC, June 3, 2018.
- “Magic to Your Eyes.” Sangeeta Yadav, The Pioneer, January 14, 2018.
- “Postage Stamp on P.C. Sorcar Issued.” The Hindu, February 24, 2010.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 12, 2018:
Hello Rupert, good to know. But I have forget the name of a Yoruba Nigerian, who once perform such a trick. But the police were called in.