Ramo Samee, capable of extraordinary feats of dexterity, balance and daring, took Indian magic to Britain and America. John Zubrzycki tells his strange, wondrous story
A snake charmer on a fabric label
On A Sultry Madras evening in 1797, an East India Company surgeon watched as one of the garrison town’s famed jugglers prepared for his performance. Dressed in a dhoti and seated on the bare earth, the juggler opened a small phial of oil and with one of his fingers rubbed some of it over the surface of a 20-inch-long sword. Throwing his head back, he held the sword in both hands and carefully inserted it into his mouth until only the handle was visible. He then motioned to the surgeon to feel the point of the blade between his breast and navel, bending his back to make it easier to locate. The surgeon asked that the feat be repeated and, satisfied beyond all doubt as to its authenticity, made the juggler a proposal:If he would go with the surgeon to Europe, he would be given “one thousand pagodas on the spot, a like sum on his arrival in England, with the expenses there and all other advantages.” A tenth of that amount would have represented a fortune and guaranteed a comfortable life for the man and his family. But, to the disappointment of the surgeon, the juggler refused, citing his caste as an insuperable barrier to boarding a ship and crossing the ocean.
“The whole tribe of sleight-of-hand Men in Europe are mere bunglers, when compared with the Jugglers of India,” the writer who witnessed the encounter between the surgeon and the sword-swallower, declared. “Their deceptions are so admirably executed, and some of their performances of such a strange nature, that the ignorant and superstitious natives, believing as they do all the enchantments described in such books as The Arabian Nights Entertainments, may well ascribe them necromantic powers.”
Jugglers, tumblers, magicians, mountebanks and acrobats could be found all over the subcontinent, but none rivalled the skills of those of the Coromandel Coast. “The Madras jugglers perform nearly all our legerdemain tricks: they moreover astonish Europeans by swallowing swords; leaping through hot irons and pointed instruments; poising men on long poles resting on their breasts, chins and noses; tumbling and vaulting on the tight rope; swinging and balancing on the slack rope so that many of them would excite surprise even after the wonders and deceptions of London and Paris,” Robert Grenville Wallace wrote in his memoir Forty Years in the World; or, Sketches and Tales of a Soldier’s Life, published in 1825.
Another early traveller to Madras described the lithe and supple bodies of jugglers as resembling those of serpents rather than men. The most accomplished could leap over an enormous elephant or five camels placed abreast. Their feats were “beyond the reach of human power,” the region’s Catholic missionaries proclaimed, and were proof, if any were needed, of their dealings with the devil.
With the majority of the British public unable to see Indian magicians at first hand it was only a matter of time before an entrepreneurial employee of the East India Company realised there were vast profits to be made from bringing them to England. In 1812, Peter Campbell, the captain of Her Majesty’s Ship Lord Keith, succeeded where the surgeon had failed 15 years earlier. While on a visit to Government House in Calcutta, Campbell witnessed a performance by a troupe of South Indian jugglers. On a whim he offered them a passage to England. Although the terms of the contract were said to be “very much… to the gallant captain’s advantage”, they agreed. Breaking the taboos of caste they sailed to England.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the chief juggler in the troupe recruited by Campbell was a man known as Ramo Samee. In 1809, the writer Delme Radcliffe saw the juggler, whose name was probably a corruption of Ramaswamy, and two others from Madras, performing at Government House in Colombo. After “reaping a tolerably good harvest” from their performances, they sailed to Calcutta where they were seen by Campbell.
A group of Indian jugglers, featured in The Penny Magazine
What is certain is that Samee would become a celebrity in England and a highly successful performer who toured all over England, the east coast of America and Europe, appearing on stage both on his own and as part of variety shows. Though other Indian jugglers who came from India in the 1810s achieved considerable popularity, it was Samee’s name that became synonymous with Indian magic. Now largely forgotten in the land of his birth, he was the most famous Indian magician of the 19th century.
In early July, 1813 playbills started circulating in London advertising the appearance of a troupe of “Indian jugglers”. The headline act was “Swallowing a Sword”. This, the handbill promised, was just one of a “‘great variety’ of tricks, all of them perfectly novel in this Country” and guaranteed to “strike every beholder with astonishment”.
For a ship’s captain Campbell had a knack for garnering the maximum amount of publicity for his unusual and very productive cargo. Before allowing the public to see the jugglers, he arranged a performance before the Prince Regent and members of Parliament. By displaying them before the establishment he was not only underlining their exoticism, he was also presenting them as a respectable alternative to the carnival jugglers who frequented popular fairgrounds. To see the jugglers’ show was to get a glimpse into the mysterious core of Indian culture.
Campbell leased a commodious room at No 37 Pall Mall where the troupe performed four times a day. Tickets cost three shillings each. Within a few weeks of their first appearance, the troupe was attracting sellout crowds. “Their house in Piccadilly is beset from morning to night with carriages of the Nobility and Gentry; and it is supposed they do not take less than 150 (shillings) per day,” one newspaper reported. According to The Times, “nearly all the families of distinction” in London had visited their venue. “The swallowing of the sword, and the novelty of other performances, has attracted the public’s attention beyond anything that has appeared in the metropolis for many years past,” the newspaper added.
In August 1813, The Satirist published a detailed account of the troupe’s performance in Pall Mall. The accompanying illustration showed two performers and an assistant seated on a raised platform, wearing matching pants, white blouses and turbans. The main juggler is twirling rings on the ends of his toes while balancing what looks like a parasol on his nose. The second performer is about to swallow a sword, while the assistant is playing a small drum. It was the first comprehensive description of Indian magic being performed on the Western stage.
The performance began with the cups and balls trick, which though similar to that performed by European conjurers was executed with superior skill. According to The Satirist: “The cups seem enchanted; the balls fly; they increase in number; they diminish; now one, now two, now three, now none under the cup: and now the serpent, the cobra de cappella, usurps the place of a small globule of cork, and winds its snaky folds as if from under the puny vessel.” The second trick consisted of breaking a length of cotton into tiny pieces and making it whole again. This was followed by making sand change colour by rubbing it between the performer’s fingers. Then came the juggling of four hollow brass balls the size of oranges. “His power over these is almost miraculous,” The Satirist’s reviewer remarked. “He causes them to describe every possible circle: horizontally, perpendicularly, obliquely, transversely, round his legs, under his arms, about his head, in small and in large circumferences, with wondrous rapidity and keeping the whole number in motion at the same time.” After several other remarkable tricks, which included tossing a 14-pound ball the size and shape of a Dutch cheese around the juggler’s body as if it weighed nothing, the performance concluded with a demonstration of sword- swallowing. In September, Campbell took the troupe to Liverpool before exhibiting them in Scotland and Ireland.
“Brahmin of the Air”, 1832, Madras, featured in Saturday Magazine
Samee’s success owed much to the Georgian public’s fascination with India and the East in general. Exposure to the subcontinent had grown exponentially in the late 18th century. Descriptive accounts written by travellers, servants of the East India Company, merchants, missionaries and soldiers appeared in books, newspapers and popular journals. Fanning the smouldering exoticism of these encounters were accounts of wonder-workers, yogis, fakirs, mendicants and other mysterious figures and their supposedly magical or inexplicable feats. Visualisations of Indian landscapes, people and historical scenes were being widely reproduced in graphics, paintings, prints, dioramas and panoramas. On stage, Britain’s changing and often contradictory concerns in India were being explored in melodrama, pantomime, ballet and opera. The Eastern extravagance of Samee’s performances tapped into this many-faceted Orientalist fantasy.
Four years after arriving in England, Samee parted ways with Campbell and the other jugglers in his troupe and boarded a Moses Brown ship at Liverpool. He arrived in New York on 15 November, 1817 with nothing but a couple of metal trunks containing a few clothes and his props. He had little idea of how to break into the American entertainment circuit. His shows were poorly attended and he lacked the experience and the resources to generate publicity. A writer for Washington’s Republican Chronicle, who followed Samee’s career in America, noted that although he had “astonished the princes, nobles and literati of enlightened Britain…he had yet to learn that in this country, a bladder of wind outweighs a globe of gold.”
After a disappointing season in New York, Samee travelled to Washington and Philadelphia, changing his name to Sena Sama, perhaps in the belief it would roll on the American tongue more easily. He also expanded his repertoire. Audiences in Philadelphia were promised a set of seemingly impossible feats: “He will balance an artificial tree on his forehead, on the boughs of which are placed eleven birds—and with a tube and balls he will shoot them off with his breath… He will balance the skeleton of a Chinese Castle on his nose and complete the building without any other aid than his mouth.” The makeover, coupled with word-of-mouth endorsements, seemed to work. The public realised they “had a treasure among them”, the Chronicle noted. “His houses are now filled to overflowing—beauty, taste and fashion, flock to his exhibition, and the ‘white turban’d East Indian’ is all the go.”
From Philadelphia, Samee travelled south, arriving in Richmond, Virginia, in the early spring of 1818. There he caught the eye of the portrait painter James Warrell. His portrait of the Indian juggler, which hangs in the Valentine Museum in Richmond, shows Samee looking more like a prince than a conjurer. He has shoulder-length hair and a pencil-thin, carefully manicured moustache that curls around his full lips. He wears a white turban and blouse, red waistcoat and blue shawl. Hanging from a pearl necklace is a medallion that appears to contain a large ruby surrounded by emeralds and possibly diamonds.
In November, 1821 Samee was back in London playing to sellout houses. An etching from March, 1822 shows him on an elevated platform at the Royal Coburg Theatre, dwarfed by its sumptuous scale. The theatre’s “looking-glass curtain” acts as a kind of mirror reflecting the overflowing galleries and stalls, making the interior seem circular. Contemporary writers describe him as good looking, with an excellent command of English. He evokes laughter from the audience as he jokes about having to swallow his sword for supper when he would prefer to be eating “mutton chop” and that the stone he is swallowing is indeed a stone and not a “mosh potato”. He also married an Englishwoman.
An etching of Ramo Samee performing at London’s Royal Coburg Theatre, March 1822
Samee continued performing throughout the 1820s and 1830s, his playbills presenting him as the “original”, the “celebrated” and only “true Indian juggler”—an artist who appealed to the “Nobility, the Gentry and the Public”. That Samee’s popularity cut across class lines is evident in the range of venues he appeared at. When not playing at popular theatres such as Coburg, the Adelphi and the Olympic, he could be found at the more gentried Vauxhall Gardens where he performed alongside the greatest magicians, ventriloquists, acrobats, stilt dancers and tightrope walkers of the era. With little competition from other Indian magicians, he was reputedly earning between £25 and £30 a week, whereas a normal juggler was lucky to be making £1 a week.
In 1833 he appeared in Hull, alongside a “real Mermaid and Merman caught Alive by a Scotch Fisherman, near the Isle of Sandy, one of the Orkney Islands.” Sharing the same bill as these freaks of nature, said to be three feet in length, with curly hair, large fish-like scales, gills and fins, was “the Grand Cabernet of Performing Lilliputians” and “The Italian Scaramouch, Grimaldi, the noted Clown”. In August, 1841 he featured at Vauxhall Gardens, juggling balls and swallowing swords between “Mr Green’s Last Ascent But One in the Nassau Balloon” and an orchestral concert featuring the Overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini.
But by the 1840s Samee’s deteriorating health was affecting his ability to perform and he was sliding into debt. In early 1849, his son died from internal injuries after attempting the sword-swallowing trick. The tragedy came as a shock to the ailing Samee. In early August, 1850 he accepted an offer to perform in Paris but was taken ill and returned to London where he died on 21 August.
A few days later Bell’s Life in London launched an appeal for donations for his funeral and for the maintenance of his wife Ellen and her two daughters. “There are thousands who have witnessed his performances who would now, I am sure, kindly give a trifle to assist in procuring him a coffin, which we are unable to do,” Ellen wrote in a letter published in the newspaper. Her husband’s death had left the family “without the slightest means of procuring him burial, our all being expended for his illness, and he from the nature of his performances being inadmissible to any theatrical club.”
But the donations were slow in coming. By 1 September, the day of his funeral and burial at St Pancras Churchyard, the newspaper had received just £1 from William Cooke of the Circus Royal, ten shillings a well-wisher had collected from neighbours in High Holburn, five shillings from “Two Jews”, one shilling from “a Bishop” and a “trifle” from passing the hat around the editorial office. “Surely the managers of theatres and other establishments, who have derived so much advantage from the talents of the deceased, ought to contribute to lift his widow, a most respectable woman, from the severe grip of poverty,” the newspaper’s editor pleaded. But his entreaties fell on deaf ears. In 1871 it was reported that Ellen and her and daughters had been reduced to “a state of complete destitution”.
Samee’s undignified passing belies the glory of his career. The jadoowallah from Madras had done what no other magician had achieved before, taking traditional Indian street magic to the Western stage and becoming a celebrity. His legacy would have a profound impact on the evolution of popular culture in the West. His talents and those of other Indian wonder-workers who came to England at the time would ensure that by the end of the 19th-century jugglers and conjurors would come to be presented as “one of the greatest sights of India…almost a trademark of Hindustan.”
This article is part of the Jan-Mar 2017 issue, the theme of which is Family.
In the same issue Jai Arjun Singh writes about caring and communicating with an ill mother he is exceptionally close to, Jerry Pinto ponders over familial bonds and what lies at the heart of the family. Paro Anand examines the changing nature of the family in the books she has written for children. Akshai Jain looks at the increasing number of genetics companies in India and questions the worth of the diagnoses being offered. Mandakini Dubey reflects on the nature of family ties, particularly hers with her grandmother and children. In her graphic story, Priya Kuriyan prises open the family closet to let the skeletons tumble out.