The Illusionist

Hyderabad’s teacher of the magical arts

Samala Venu has established himself as a leading Indian illusionist, teaching children at his own Magicians Academy as well as older students in a university diploma course. noah seelam / afp / getty images
01 October, 2017

Fourteen-year-old Manideep Reddy stood at the centre of a well-lit hall in a building in Secunderabad, surrounded by a crowd of children. It was a morning in mid August, and Reddy, wearing a black suit and red bow tie, was the oldest child present. The other children and I watched as he took out a piece of rope from his pocket, held it up at both ends and showed it around.

Reddy then turned to me—the unsuspecting adult he had chosen to help him—and asked me to examine the rope closely. “Let’s cut it into two equal halves,” he said, folding it at the centre and passing me a pair of scissors. I cut the rope at the folded end.

When Reddy unfolded it, however, he showed us that one of the parts I had cut was much longer than the other. Jovially offering me another chance, he held out the longer piece and asked me to cut it in half. But sure enough, after I had snipped the rope, he unraveled it to show the crowd that I had again split it into uneven pieces. As the young audience laughed, Reddy feigned a hapless look at me, the useless adult who could not even perform this simple task.

Many of the children watching, I realised, could probably perform Reddy’s rope trick. They were students at Magicians Academy, which Samala Venu, a 50-year-old illusionist and a leader in Hyderabad’s magic community, founded 15 years ago. Venu has established himself as the area’s real-life Dumbledore—a man who is making the art of magic, and practical instruction on how to perform magic tricks, more accessible to aspiring illusionists.

The Magicians Academy’s course, in which Venu instructs students on discipline, concentration and a few basic tricks, runs for a year and costs Rs 3,000. Classes are held every second Sunday each month, in the room where Reddy performed his trick—a large hall with wooden floors and one completely mirrored wall. The space belongs to a friend of Venu’s, who runs a dance and yoga school there. The academy, which is currently teaching about 30 students, is open to children under age 17—and is at the moment teaching pupils as young as five years old.

“Each aspiring magician who strives to make a career out of this hobby has to work hard in a lot of areas: showmanship, performance and acting, confidence, costumes, language and pronunciation, wit and humour, concentration, interpersonal skills, and not to talk of the core skill—the science and art of presenting tricks,” Venu told me when he met me in his office, a tiny room adjacent to the hall.

As a child Venu was eager to learn about magic, but it was very difficult for him to find someone willing to teach him. “If you are willing, you can learn many other trades easily, but not magic,” he told me. “In general, if you are extremely passionate and want to learn, you have to attach yourself to an established professional for a long time as an apprentice.” Or, he added, you must have a family member who is an illusionist. At his academy, Venu seeks to provide basic instruction to children who do not have such personal connections.

When Venu started learning magic tricks, as a child in the eighth standard, he hid the pursuit from his parents. He began studying them openly before starting college, however—he won admission to a bachelor’s course in the arts, he claimed, by virtue of his being a magic enthusiast. When he was 19 years old, Venu travelled from his home in Hyderabad to Kolkata, to attend a conference organised by the famous illusionist K Lal. Several times after that, around once every six months, Venu travelled to Kolkata to meet with Lal. “I would sleep in the waiting room at the Howrah station in the nights, while, during the day, I tried to absorb what I could from the late Mr Lal,” Venu said. “He was such a simple, genuine person, with real love for illusions, and would forget to eat his meals when I was there picking his brains.” The famous illusionist PC Sorkar Junior, who also lived in Kolkata, occasionally met with Venu as well.

Venu regularly performs solo shows around Hyderabad. He is the only Indian illusionist to have won two Merlin awards—prestigious honours awarded by the International Magicians Society. Venu also delivers talks about how magic tricks are performed through sleight of hand, trying to dispel commonly held superstitions about the existence of “black magic.” He is also working to pass a bill in Telangana that would prosecute people who use such beliefs to harm people and society.

A few years ago, Venu began teaching older pupils as well as children. In 2014, he launched a diploma course in magic at Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University in Hyderabad, in which he conducts theoretical and practical sessions on topics such as stage magic, street magic, communication skills and personality development. Venu said that the course, in its fourth session now, receives more applications than there are seats.

Starting the programme, however, was not easy. “At every step we faced hurdles because the art and science of wizardry is not a recognised one; people in general have no idea that this is a subject to be learned and practised and that this can lead to a fantastic career,” he said. “I had been going around with it time and again at the university and had a hard time explaining the need for such a course. Finally, after performing at an event in the governor’s house, I desperately requested the governor of Andhra Pradesh to intervene. That set the ball rolling.”

The course, which is open to students who have passed at least the tenth standard, meets for two hours in the evenings, six days a week, for six months. At the end of the six months, students are tested on the theory and practice of tricks they have learned. They must also present a trick of their own invention.

Many of Venu’s students have become successful performers. Venu introduced me to Ramu Kodipalli, a 25-year-old whom he taught in the diploma course’s first session. Kodipalli told me he was scheduled to perform three times that day. Illusionists in Hyderabad, Venu said, generally earn between Rs 4,000 and Rs 6,000 per hour for their performances.

Venu does not worry that he might be creating excess competition among local illusionists. “Hyderabad needs at least 2,000 more magicians to plug the gap between demand and supply,” he said. “There’s an upward trend in organising magic shows in various formal and informal events these days. … One of my students, who completed his course a year back, earns Rs 60,000 a month from various shows.”

To judge which students should be admitted to the university course, Venu conducts a rigorous screening process that involves a written application and an interview. “At the time of admission, we receive candidates willing to learn magic to earn money and impress their girlfriends,” he said. But he is not willing to teach people who want to learn magic only for such self-serving reasons.

“If we have a teacher amid the candidates, we immediately offer him a seat because we understand that he would go back to his students and show a few tricks, and use the learnings fruitfully,” he added. “That’ll be good for all of us.”