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Senate House Library

The Magical Journey of a Visiting Research Fellow


Written by
Dr Sugata Nandi, Visiting Research Fellow

Dr Sugata Nandi, Senate House Library's Visiting Research Fellow 2019, talks about his research into magic and the benefits of a Visiting Research Fellowship.

The Magical Journey of a Visiting Research Fellow

Being awarded the Senate House Library Fellowship in 2019 and the three months I spent researching the Harry Price collection was an exceptionally fulfilling time. In this short time frame, the primary and secondary sources that I found in the Harry Price Library, one of over 50 Special Collections at Senate House Library, helped me explore a hitherto unknown historical territory.

Exploring the Harry Price Collection of over 13,000 books & items on magic

A large part of the collections of the Harry Price Library is on magic and spiritualism of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. There I got the much awaited opportunity to approach the subject of history of magic from the late eighteenth century, when it started changing into a performing art for the scientifically aware, to mid twentieth century when the scientific experiments were carried out in public to find out whether Indian magic was truly supernatural. The variety of sources I used to gather information from was breathtaking.

The first set of documents I read were reports published in the popular periodicals like The Saturday Magazine and the Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal in the early nineteenth century on magical acts witnessed uniquely in India like levitation and snake charming. The second set consisted of the writings of gentleman magicians and the large body of writing on Indian magic which appeared in leading newspapers like The Times, London, and periodicals like The Leisure Hour and The Boys’ Own Paper. The third set of documents I read were by late nineteenth century Spiritualists and their detractors. The set included a large number of books by Theosophists like Blavatsky and H.S. Olcott and their followers, and those by their detractors like J.N. Maskelyne, Harry Houdini and others. The final set of documents I read at the Harry Price Library comprised of news clippings of Harry Price on the credibility of spiritualism, the possibility of the existence of spirits, Price’s own writings on the subject, a public debate on the existence of the science defying Indian Rope Trick and films and articles on fire walking by an Indian self-styled Fakir called Khuda Bux.

To date I have not been to a library which has such a vast and varied body of primary sources on magic like the Harry Price Library. The number of sources which I found there went far beyond my expectation, I came back having gathered information from a much larger number of sources than I had listed in advance of my visit. The Head of Special Collections, Dr. Maria Castrillo, and the Senate House Library staff spared no effort to ensure that I get all the primary and secondary sources I needed. For their helpfulness and warmth I have the most lavish praise. I concluded my fellowship with a public lecture hosted by the Senate House Library, during which I interacted with actual magicians on globalisation of Indian magic.

My journey and research into the world of magic

A few years back when I decided to work on a history of Indian magic little did I realise how ambitious and difficult a subject I had chosen. As I narrowed down to working on how Indian magic turned into global cultural artefact during the time of colonial rule in India, I faced a crippling dearth of primary sources. I was able to access sources for the first time when I spent three months as fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) of The University of Edinburgh in 2018. I wanted to carry my research forward and started looking for a place which would offer me the necessary resources and a fellowship. During then, the Director and the deputy Director of IASH informed me about the Senate House Library and I made up my mind to apply for its fellowship.

The Senate House Library Visiting Fellowship is an invaluable opportunity for any researcher. The endowment is magnanimous, the accommodation at the International Hall of Residence at Bloomsbury is comfortable and convenient and the resources of the Library open new vistas that make way for groundbreaking work. I express my gratitude to Senate House Library for giving me the fellowship.