The secret sellers

 The road outside, warm and mellow in the November sun, is bustling with people. But inside his den — a godown in central Kolkata — Liakat Ali sits like Merlin. The place is crackling with wizardry, it seems. There are flickering, fluorescent lights and people busy packaging magic — flowers, feathers and other contraptions that will cross the seas and light up the stage in front of a gasping audience.
    Liakat is the proprietor of SAICO Magic, one among many setups that operate out of dingy workshops and are into the business of magic. The apparatus they manufacture — walking sticks that sprout plumes, ropes that go stiff and become coiled in a second, flowers that emerge out of trays — not only cater to a market in countries like the US, Germany, Norway and Japan but generate huge amount of foreign exchange. No one will go on record, but the annual turnover can touch 3 crore. For Liakat, though, magic didn’t happen by chance. It was family business, started by his father, Shoukat Ali. “My father was a feather artist and had a small shop around 60 years ago. PC Sorcar Sr was looking for a karigar to create customized products. He chanced upon my father and urged him to manufacture magic goods. I owe this entire business to PC Sorcar Sr,” he says. 
THE MAGICAL ASSEMBLY LINE 
Liakat’s workshop is the R&D centre for such products. “Most magic apparatus are made of wood, plastic, steel, cloth and feathers,” says Liakat, who goes on to explain the assembly line — from procurement to quality control and packing. “Feathers are required for manufacturing the plumes you see in magic shows. We use feather from hens, geese and swans. For some of our products, we import goose feathers from Japan. They are processed in villages, especially Mograhat in the South 24 Parganas. Once processed, the feathers are brought here and assembled. For plastic products, we procure raw materials from Burrabazaar. They are then sent to plastic factories where they are thrashed into shape in moulding devices. The packaging and quality control happen in our workshop,” he says. 
    Once packed, the goods are exported. Says Sunil Batra, manufacturer and wholesaler of magic apparatus, “The US is our main market. We export to a few wholesale shops. American wholesalers supply them to around 2000 retail outlets. Magicians buy from these outlets.” The margins, says Sunil, are as high as 300%. “Magic goods are expensive. We don’t just sell apparatus, we sell secrets,” he says. Most items are bought by practicing magicians. However, your regular banker and corporate guy constitutes around 40% of the buyers, who do magic as a hobby. 
MONEY MATTERS MOST 
But even in this world of magic, hard realities — like the current economic slump — have a role to play. Admits Sam Dalal, the proprietor of Funtime Magic. “Blame it on the worldwide economic disturbance. Also, other, more competitive markets like Thailand, Malaysia and China have entered the big picture.” The entry of these countries has bitten into the local traders’ pie. “Before China, India had a 50% market share when it came to manufacturing and distributing magic apparatus. Now, the slice has come down to 20%. There have been foreign buyers who’ve been telling me to sell off my goods as fast as possible, 
preferably within six months of manufacture otherwise, China would soon make copies and sell them at a lower cost,” says Sam. 
    If a local manufacturer spends 100 to create a product, China would probably spend 12. “The more number of products we sell, the more would be the revenue,” says Arun Banerjee, who works with Liakat. Arun, has been a practicing magician and now writes manuals for the manufactured goods. A lot has changed. 
    “The goods have become better. These apparatus depend on mechanism. Hinges, nuts and bolts now operate effortlessly.” The products begin from a humble 500 and can go up to as much as 15,000 per item. Innovation and development are the two pillars on which the trade stands. Liakat adds that inventors and manufacturers should constantly reinvent themselves. “I subscribe to international magazines on magic brought out by American clubs. We recently attended the All India Magic Conference in Goa. Things like these present great trading opportunities,” he says. 
    Numbers and cost pale in comparison to the most important ingredient that takes magic to its highest degree — secret. “The tricks that are shown on TV, who knows if they are genuine with camera angles and editing software coming into play,” says Arun, referring to magic shows becoming a competitive affair on the small screen. “There’s no need to unearth the secret behind every trick,” he says disapprovingly.

LIAKAT ALI MAKES A WALKING STICK DANCE IN HIS WORKSHOP
WORKERS BUSY PACKING GOODS
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