by Ted Young (Summer 2011 intern)
If I relied on nothing else other than popular culture to inform me about Indians and Indian Americans I would think that they all have mystical powers somehow related to their religious beliefs… Oh yeah, also they love to dance. Until this summer, when I started doing research for HomeSpun, I never really questioned where these images came from. I am a little ashamed to admit it, but as critical as I am as a Chinese American of the representation of my own ethnic group in the media, I really did not question the ones I saw of Indian Americans. I just accepted that all Indians and Indian Americans had some form of superpower.
Interning here at the Smithsonian APA Program and doing research for the HomeSpun project has opened my eyes to just how ingrained these mystic Indian ideas were in my mind. While researching a range of topics for HomeSpun, from the history of the American circus to the Microsoft Cricket Club, I have been completely fascinated by how India has captured the American imagination.
Indians have long been associated with a certain level of mysticism and magic. Apparently, Indians were considered naturally mystical because 19th century American magicians could not figure out the “Indian Rope Trick” where you can watch here. Though accounts of this trick vary, the basic trick is when the magician makes a rope go up vertically and has a boy climb it. The more outrageous versions of the story have the magician climbing the rope after the boy, cutting him up, and then putting him back together. Despite the numerous published accounts of this trick, audiences have traveled to India to observe it themselves, and huge monetary offers made to learn the secret, American magicians could not figure out how the trick was done. Some tried to explain it as hypnotism while others went as far to claim the trick did not even exist! While the part about the boy disappearing or being cut up and put together is clearly a stretch, to put it mildly, the basic trick of making the rope stand up straight is not. While American magicians could not figure out how this trick was done, they still brushed the trick off as amateur. However, this never stopped them from pursuing ways of imitating it in the United States. The elusiveness of the trick’s secret just increased the trick’s mysticism and the sense of magic and mystery of India.
The mystery and magic associated with India is as embedded in America as deeply as apple pie. From Johnny Quest to Johnny Carson, American cultural icons have been able to tap into the realm of magic by associating with Indians. Jonny Quest had his Hadji, Carson had his Carnac, and even today Homer Simpson has his Apu. The relation between Indians and mysticism transcends generations. Apparently, secrets remain in India that they just won’t share with the rest of us. It allows them to make rope grow into the air, grants them psychic powers, and as any devote Simpsons fan will tell you, allows them to succeed in the realms of small business.
The frustration of not being able to figure out one magic trick is just a small glimpse of the legacy of Indian mysticism in American culture. Personally, I do not even think that the trick is all that impressive, but that could be because I have grown up in an age of computer generated special effects. Seeing a rope stand up by itself does not hold a candle to giant transforming robots fighting each other or Robert Downey Jr. flying around and blowing stuff up or even my smart phone for that matter. Still, the impact of this one trick on American popular culture is astounding. Besides, I still cannot figure out how it’s done.
“Sim Sim Salabim” is what Hadji would say to do magic on the Jonny Quest television show. It has no real meaning or ties to any language.
Ted Young is an African American Studies Major and Sociology Minor at Oberlin College.