In early October 1901, newspapers in London reported the appearance of a mysterious potentate known only as ‘prince Ranjit of Baluchistan’. Accompanied by a retinue of twenty-eight servants including cooks, pages, musicians and a dancing girl, the prince booked two dozen rooms in St Ermin’s Hotel, where he stayed for a fortnight ‘in all the splendour of oriental opulence’.
“He is a man of fine physique, dark skinned and handsome,” one newspaper reported. “All his food was prepared in accordance with the strictest oriental usages, by his own servants, who wore gorgeous robes and were nightly marshalled by a major-domo for exercise in an adjoining park.”
The prince’s unannounced arrival did not escape the notice of the India office, which cabled Shimla for clarification as to his antecedents. The inquiry drew a blank. It was only after Ranjit paid his hotel bill in gold bullion, left for Liverpool and then sailed to Montreal on October 26 that the penny dropped.
“It seems that he holds the position of curry cook at a New York restaurant and went to India to hire assistants,” William Curzon Wyllie, the political aide-de-camp to Lord Curzon noted after receiving advice from Scotland Yard. “In England, Mr Ranjit played the part of a native prince and found people only too ready to believe him.”
His real name, Curzon Wyllie discovered, was ‘Joe Ranji Smile’. Despite claiming to have ‘a family tree as endless as the rope the Hindu fakir throws into the air with no visible means of support’, Smile would always deny he had deliberately set out to deceive anyone. His parents chose Prince as his first name, he later explained, because they thought it would ‘look good on their young hopeful’s visiting card’. Smile, it transpired, was a corruption of Ishmael.
Their appetites whetted by Smile’s adventures in London, the American press was tracking his every movement. “We shall now wait patiently for the printed and advertised invitations to visit the oriental prince’s restaurant on Fifth Avenue and may smack our lips in delightful anticipation of the piquant curry and delicious rice that may be had there for a few dollars per plate,” quipped one reporter.
Not surprisingly Smile turned out to be more of a con artist than a cook. His claims to have been a chef at Cecil’s in London, to have invented the ‘Omar Khayam cocktail’ and to have devised a range of special curries guaranteed to add lustre to the “eyes, complexion and figure” of any woman who ate them, had about as much substance as a plate of boiled basmati rice.
There was no restaurant and the majority of the almost three dozen Indians in his entourage suddenly found themselves facing a long winter with no shelter or means of support. One of those abandoned on the bitterly cold streets of Manhattan in 1901 was 17-year-old Amar Nath Dutt.
On the first floor of the Magic Circle, a century-old, members-only institution hidden behind a heavy blue door on Stephenson Way near London’s Euston Station, hangs a full-length poster of Dutt as ‘Linga Singh, the Hindoo sorcerer’.
The poster shows the corpulent, moustached Punjabi arrayed in a red-tasselled turban, topped with white plumage and a heavy maroon and gold robe worn over a blue silk sherwani. He is wrestling six cobras simultaneously, all the while remaining cool and composed. The scene comes from one of Dutt’s signature acts, ‘sacred living fire snakes’, first presented in 1911.
Dutt’s journey from a fabulist prince’s servant to the London stage was tempestuous. After cutting his ties with Smile, he managed to find work as a cook for a lady who rented out her rooms to lodgers on Remsen Street in Queens, where he stood out for his ‘colourful appearance and his fakir-like trickery’.
Claiming to belong to an esoteric Buddhist cult, he entertained street kids by sitting on the steps of his brownstone building and disappearing in a cloud of cigarette smoke. “He was there one second with his bright eyes and his red and white clothes and the next second there was nothing but the smoke cloud,” the local paper reported. “He tossed things in the air, which did not come down. Sometimes he would find things, tops, marbles, knives and the like in boys’ mouths and ears.”
In May 1902, Dutt and some of the other Indians abandoned by Smile decided to take the pseudo-prince to court for breach of contract. By doing so, however, they attracted the attention of the immigration authorities and were deported to England. His party was taken to the strangers’ home, where the India office offered to pay for their passage home.
Most took up the offer, but Dutt decided to return to New York arriving on Ellis Island in September 1902 with $30 in this pocket. He placed an ad in the local paper posing as a former employee of the maharajah of Bikaner and offering to work as a curry cook for $35 a month.
In 1905, Dutt was back in London and spent the next two years in and out of the strangers’ home. In a letter to the India office in July 1906, the home noted that ‘he was not a sea-faring man – he was a conjuror and acrobat – an adventurer who had tried various trades in America’. It applied for funds for his maintenance, but the request was turned down.
Penniless and out of work, Dutt fell back on his conjuring skills, assembling a small troupe of jugglers and touring England and Europe. But his career was cut short in 1907, when he was recruited by India House, a London-based revolutionary group bent on the violent overthrow of British rule.
His designated mission was to go to America to learn about guns and bomb-making. He joined the firearm manufacturing firm of Iver Johnson & Co. in New Haven, Connecticut, but was recalled to Paris after just one month for reasons unknown.
Led by the fiery Madam Cama, a Bombay-born Parsi who some of her followers believed was an incarnation of the goddess Kali, the Paris cell of the revolutionary movement had developed close links with Russian communists and was under constant surveillance by British intelligence.
Dutt’s dealings with Madame Cama were anything but harmonious. When she ordered him to travel to India as an emissary, he refused, earning an expulsion from the cell. Believing he knew enough about the group’s secrets, he attempted to blackmail one of its members, G.A. Bhawsar, a Bombay pearl merchant, for the sum of £40.
Bhawsar called his bluff and Dutt was arrested by French police and spent six months in prison. On his release, he travelled to Argentina where he again worked as a magician. In 1909, he was marching in a May Day parade through the streets of Buenos Aires when police opened fire, killing more than eighty people.
As bullets whistled overhead, he dragged a French woman to safety. Her name was Charlotte Aubert and they married soon afterwards. Two years later, the couple returned to London where Dutt relaunched his magic career as ‘Rambhuj, the necromancer of the Himalayas’.
By adopting the persona of Rambhuj, Dutt was playing an orientalist card, not a nationalist one. The ex-revolutionary recognised a gap in the market. While jadoowallahs could be found by the dozens arrayed in their breech cloths and turbans, charming snakes and making mango trees grow out of the bare earth at world fairs and exhibitions, the curtain had yet to rise on an authentic Indian spectacle complete with sophisticated props, costumes and scenery. According to one reviewer, Dutt’s first season at the Croydon Empire in August 1910 delivered just that.
With a ‘brilliant spectacular palace, resplendent in carved and gilded elephants with upraised trunks’ as the backdrop, Dutt paced the stage directing a contraption described as a cross between ‘a sedan-chair and a jin-ricksha’.
A fountain that symbolised the waters of the Ganges spouted from a coconut shell into a series of urns. His assistants changed gender, vanished and reappeared from paper-covered boxes and cabinets. In the most spectacular scene of all, a maiden emerged unscathed after being burnt alive inside a cremation oven.
For all its splendour, the show was not a commercial success. Dutt’s biggest drawback was his lack of experience. He had been living in the West for almost a decade, much of it spent dodging deportation orders or plotting the overthrow of the British Raj.
In November 1911, he repackaged his show as ‘Linga Singh, the Mysterious Hindoo Sorcerer’. The exotic stage settings were largely the same, but the number of Eastern marvels had multiplied and now included the temple of Buddha, the bride of the Ganges, the sacred living fire snakes, Indian sands and his highly popular burnt and restored turban. His chef d’oeuvre, however, was pulling a four-wheeled carriage across the stage using his hypnotic powers.
Dutt’s last great act was suspending his assistant over a scimitar, which he performed at the Trocadero restaurant in London within a few feet of diners. On November 22, 1937, he started feeling ill while performing at the Theatre Royal in West Bromwich. Ignoring his doctor’s advice, he refused to cancel subsequent shows. A few days later, he collapsed in the middle of a performance and was taken to hospital. He died of pneumonia, complicated by diabetes on November 26, 1937 aged fifty-four, and was cremated with full Hindu ceremonies at Golders Green cemetery. His final request was that all his stage equipment be piled up and burned.
Despite his multiple setbacks, Dutt became the most famous Indian illusionist to perform in the West since Ramo Samee a century earlier. Although he never achieved the same status as Harry Houdini or Howard Thurston, he set the bar for presenting Indian magic at a new high that would not be matched until P.C. Sorcar’s shows in the 1950s.
Excerpted with permission from Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns by John Zubrzycki, Pan Macmillan India.
John Zubrzycki is a Sydney-based author and researcher who is writing a history of Indian magic. He previous books are The Last Nizam: The Rise and Fall of India’s Largest Princely State, The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy and Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic.