It’s 9:45 on Sunday morning when they first start trickling in: young and old, English and Sinhala-speaking, mostly male, but some female. Many wear conspicuously mysterious garb: black suits, red vests, top hats, capes. They carry with them bulging satchels and canvas bags.
They perch on the seats in front of the stage, unpacking their wares and exchanging greetings.
By 10 o’clock the dribble has widened to a stream, as more of these shadowy characters enter the building, all the while bustling around preparing for the coming meeting. As they get ready, decks of cards and juggling balls appear seemingly out of nowhere, and tricks are performed for communal enchantment.
This is the normal routine on the last Sunday of every month, when the Sri Lanka Magic Circle, the oldest organization of performing artists in Sri Lanka and Asia’s first society of magicians, holds its general meeting.
After several chaotic minutes of preparation, order is called for, and the meeting begins with a few announcements about the Circle’s affairs.
Thereafter, Daniel, the Circle’s newest representative, takes the oath of membership wherein he promises not to disclose any of the society’s innumerable secrets. The audience roundly applauds him.
But, the 20-odd people did not travel to Mount Lavinia’s Templers Road for mere proclamations on the club’s affairs; no, they are here to see and practise magic while learning from some of the most experienced conjurors in Sri Lanka.
Up first is Lt. Col. Ronald de Alwis, a former president of the Circle and its de facto historian. After calling for two assistants to test the quality of his enchanted ropes, the former army man and current illusionist inexplicably lengthens his rope until it lies in loops on the floor.
After him, the Circle’s President, Rohan Jayasekera, makes a table bafflingly hover in the air, much to the delight of the audience. And later on, Vice-President, Training, Shelton Jayasekara, takes separate solid metal rings and effortlessly intertwines them, rendering them impossible to separate.
But, not only the experienced warlocks got to strut their stuff, several junior magic practitioners too try their hands, conjuring umbrellas out of thin air and executing impressive sleights of hand. Even Daniel, a relative amateur, pulls off an impressive card trick.
The history of magic in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the early 20th century. There are reliable reports that prestidigitators experimented with magic as far back as 1908, and ACGS Amarasekara took magic to the theatre, in 1913, performing several two hour-long shows at the Public Hall on Chatham Street.
But, magic gained popularity after Madame Twenka, a Japanese magician, performed in Colombo, in 1916. Capitalizing on the newfound enthusiasm surrounding magic, Harold Holden, himself a dabbler in sorcery and the manager of a bookstore that sold volumes on magic, organized a group of his magician friends and started holding meetings at Bambalipitiya’s long-defunct Paiva restaurant.
After spending some time comparing notes and practising together, Holden and six friends held the first general meeting of the Association of Ceylon Magicians, the organization that was later renamed, the Sri Lanka Magic Circle, on February 18, 1922.
Amarasekara, who was also a Gate Mudaliyar, was elected the first president.
While the Association continued throughout the Great Depression and Second World War, it really picked up its activities in the early 1950s, when it was renamed, the Sri Lanka Magic Circle.
During post-war years, several of its magicians, such as, HE Gonzal, TGR Gunawardene, and Vivian Abeyaratne, performed within Colombo and its suburbs.
Some went further afield, such as Linden de Alwis, Ronald’s father, who performed magic all over the island and took along his son as assistant.
For de Alwis, the late ’40s and early ’50s were the years wherein he found his love for magic: “In 1947, I gave my first public show for 500 people at St. Mary’s College in Chilaw, and in 1952, I officially joined the Magic Circle.”
“That same year, Donovan Andree, a Sri Lankan showman, conducted a magic contest for seniors and juniors at Viharamahadevi Park. My dad was the winner for the seniors, and I was the first runner up in the juniors,” he said.
Over the years, the Magic Circle set up several different competitions, such as, the magician of the year contest, the master magician contest, and those for amateur magicians and youths.
Since 2008, the Circle has been conducting its affairs at a building on 156 Templers Road, a property the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation and Urban Development Authority helped secure.
The Circle maintains a full library of magic books, some dating from the 19th century, and puts out a monthly magazine called, The Wand, that covers the happenings within the group.
The Magic Circle currently boasts 106 members, of whom 40 are professionals and 16 are youths.
The quality of the magicians is extremely high; professional members have performed all over the world, from Malaysia to France, and from the Philippines to the United States.
And, Priyantha Gamage, a member who is deaf, won a prestigious international contest for magicians with disabilities, in Leipzig, Germany, in 1991.
The Circle considers itself Sri Lanka’s “Official Guardian of Magic,” as per its motto, and the elder members take this aspect of the club’s mission very seriously.
While many magic-obsessed young people think they can learn the tricks of the trade from the Internet, the Circle’s leadership argued for the necessity of proper training.
“Sometimes, people who learn illusions on Youtube harm the art, by performing incorrectly and presenting their magic crudely. By doing this, they tarnish the image of magic as a whole, in Sri Lanka,” said R. Jayasekera.
“What the Magic Circle provides is expert training. We have professional magicians who teach not only tricks, but also the art of presentation, showmanship, stagecraft, how to build audience appeal, and how to improve patter, or speech during the routine,” said de Alwis.
“Doing a trick and doing magic are different. It is in the presentation that a trick becomes magic. You can learn a trick on Youtube, but you need a little more training to do magic,” said Executive Vice President, Devsiri Fernando.
The Circle holds free training classes for members from 2-6 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month, where S. Jayasekara teaches the attendees rope magic, card magic, white magic, and illusions.
We invite everybody, especially, the youth, to attend the free training so that they can go out and give the best possible performances,” said R. Jayasekera.
In addition, the Circle offers free English classes that focus on teaching members a magician-friendly vocabulary to use in their performances. What’s more, the Circle has, over the years, benefited from some international visitors.
“Over the years, the level of professionalism in our society has greatly increased, and this is due not only to the training we provide, but also because we get foreign specialist magicians to come over from time to time and conduct workshops here,” said de Alwis.
While the advent of the Internet has brought with it countless diversions, the senior members of the Circle maintained that magic is still relevant and useful in today’s society.
“I have met many people who had a magician at their birthday party when they were young. Fifty years on, they still remember that party because magic hits something in you that makes it memorable. It creates a long-term happy memory for you,” said Fernando.
“After the tsunami, we went to many villages and entertained the people. From this, we saw that magic can work as a way of forgetting, momentarily, the burdens and hardships people have,” said R. Jayasekera.
“So many people became happy while watching our magic, and part of our mission is giving people this simple happiness,” he added.
Fernando, for his part, also noted how special it is to be a Sri Lankan magician, as there are around 20 million Sri Lankans and only about 200 magicians.
“By being a magician, you are one in 100,000,” he exclaimed.
Though the Circle has over 100 members, those in charge want to increase, both, membership and funding. Normal members are expected to pay between three and four thousand rupees per year, and junior members pay a little less. Lifetime members pay a meagre 100 rupees per month. The society gets no money from the government and operates on revenue from subscriptions and donations.
“Our problems are, a lack of funds and a lack of people. There are many things that need to be done, that we are unable to do. Everything costs money,” Fernando said.
It does not mean, however, that the Circle’s leaders do not have lofty goals to go forward. Year 2022 will mark the club’s 100th anniversary, and those in charge want to celebrate the occasion in style.
“One of our main aims is to build an auditorium above our current building. It would also be nice to have some funds to bring more foreign magicians to train the young people,” Fernando continued.
Yet another initiative the Circle hopes to undertake is, the “1,000 miles, 1 million smiles” project that would bring magic to the masses. The leadership noted, somewhat sadly, that very few people outside of Colombo have had the pleasure of witnessing live magic, and the project hopes to change that.
“We are going to travel 1,000 miles with a mobile stage, one that folds out of a truck, and we will stop at village junctions, do a small show, and go on.
“We will take two or three magicians with us, and this will allow people outside the city to see magic,” said Fernando. The Circle is currently searching for a company that provides nationally available products or services to sponsor the venture. Other initiatives include, boosting the number of female magicians within the club’s ranks.
Though small, the Magic Circle is historic and well managed. The five years leading up to the 100th anniversary will be critical in attracting new members, bolstering fundraising, and keeping the organization on an upward trajectory, so that it can continue to enchant the people of Sri Lanka, as it has done for 95 years.