Nakul Shenoy has arresting hands. They jut out from the sleeves of his black blazer, with bony wrists and long, slender fingers that perform a calculated repertoire of gestures. Palms down, palms open, palms rubbed together in anticipation of the next trick.
These are certainly a magician’s hands. But they are not busy making a luscious assistant disappear. They don’t tie any blindfolds, play with ropes or produce a rasagulla from a sticky secret pocket.
Instead, these hands are busy building rapport with tonight’s audience—a gathering of mostly middle-aged members of the Rotary Club of Bangalore. The act is dubbed “Beyond Magic,” showcasing a variety of skills linked to body language, behavioural psychology, persuasion, and hypnosis. Palms facing the audience signal Shenoy’s openness to the energy in the room. Palms turned down assert dominance over the willing volunteers.
Training his sights on a smiling plump woman in purple, Shenoy asks her to think of a destination and write it down on a tiny piece of paper. He remains on stage, while she stands toward the back of the auditorium. With a dramatic twirl of a sketchpad, Shenoy displays the word “Singapore.” Is it correct? “Absolutely!” she chirps. The Rotarians seem baffled.
An elaborate card trick draws a cascade of applause. “Let’s go to Macau,” yells one gentleman.
Shenoy doesn’t get everything right. In another routine he predicts the Queen of Diamonds, rather than the Nine of Diamonds. Still, there is fierce demand for the 35-year-old magician’s business card when he steps down from the stage, along with a stream of questions.
Some can’t get Singapore out of their heads. “If she had written ‘Uttarahalli,’ what would have happened?” asks one Rotarian. “I live near there, so that would have been easy!” Shenoy quips. “What exactly am I thinking about you?” asks an elderly woman wrapped in a green sari. “I will not get into that, ma’am,” he replies. (While the slim, boyish magician might appear to be an appealing son-in-law candidate, he is already a father of three young sons.)
Yet one observer seems a bit disappointed. “A lot of friends said you would give us tips about how to read our wives’ minds,” he grouses.
As Shenoy explains in an interview, people have been bombarded with media messages about a gender communication gulf. “Somewhere we have been brainwashed into thinking that women are unpredictable,” he notes. He must constantly ward off teasing questions as to whether he reads his wife’s mind. Stock reply: he must be wary of her reading his mind. (For her part, Vishakha Dey-Shenoy says that she enjoys her husband’s act because she finds him “unpredictable.”)
Shenoy practices a genre of magic known as mentalism. It’s a wildly popular genre in places like Las Vegas and London, and some of the biggest stars manage to land their own TV shows or seize the spotlight along with US late-night host Jay Leno. In India, however, mentalism remains a relative novelty, with only a handful of practitioners like Shenoy on the scene.
Of course, India has a long legacy of astrologers, godmen and others who have sought to impress supplicants with their ability to read minds. The country also has numerous skeptics, fed up with stuff they consider mumbo-jumbo.
“People will come and say, “Do you meditate? Do you do yoga?” Shenoy recounts. But he makes a point of disavowing any yogic or supernatural powers. Instead, he laces his stage patter with references to pop psychologists and Western academics, and stresses the importance of a trained memory and a sharp eye. He advises fans to dip into bestsellers, including “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely, “The Invisible Gorilla” by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, and “The Definitive Guide to Body Language” by Allan and Barbara Pease.
Meanwhile, Shenoy prefers to distance himself from the loud, kitschy brand of magic popularized by PC Sorcar Jr. and his lookalike successors. Shenoy never hits the stage in a glittering turban or maharaja gear, preferring a plain black suit.
“He has grown into quite a polished performer,” notes 67-year-old Sam Dalal, managing partner of Funtime Innovations, a Calcutta-based supplier of magical apparatus and popular destination for generations of Indian magicians. “His whole approach is far more sophisticated.”
Shenoy didn’t always have such style. As a jittery amateur magician growing up in Udupi, Shenoy developed an act full of rope tricks and standard illusions like cutting people in half. He entertained crowds in local temples, and asked jugglers to help liven up his stage shows.
But as the product of English-medium schools, Shenoy always felt more comfortable performing in English. Even his closest friends told him that he wasn’t really clicking with the masses.
The turning point came about a decade ago, when he surrendered to chicken pox and shut himself up at home for a month. While surfing the Net, he got hooked on the videos of Max Maven, a celebrated American mentalist with a strangely bifurcated goatee. That led to increasing fascination with other performers like James Randi and Derren Brown, a prodigious reading list, and trips abroad to catch his favorite mentalists in action.
In many of these overseas acts, there appears to be a blurry line between mind-reading and mind-control—or in other words, between extraction and persuasion. “It’s a tight mixture of the two,” Shenoy says.
In a memorable performance recorded on video, Shenoy asks a bookstore owner to pull out a paperback from a shelf and open a random page. The magician proceeds to cite the exact page number and pinpoint a sentence. His method? Such queries draw the gentle rebuff, “It’s a magical technicality.”
What’s clear is Shenoy’s talent for conjuring up corporate clients. His roster includes big names like Cisco, Apple, Wipro, Microsoft, Infosys, Samsung and IBM, with additional shows organized for doctors, lawyers, and military personnel. Based in Bangalore, Shenoy also performs in other major cities around India and overseas in places like San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur and London.
Why has Shenoy managed to grab the attention of so many corporate big shots and their employees? The answer lies in layers, much like mentalism itself.
First, there is some compulsion to entertain. Corporate conferences, product launches, and talk-heavy conventions always need something to lighten up the proceedings and keep participants happy and alert. It can be soothing, like a saxophonist playing jazz standards. It can be titillating, like a Russian belly-dancer. Or it can be mystifying, like a magic act. Novelty is always a plus, and anything that requires audience participation gets extra points.
In pitching his show “Beyond Magic,” however, Shenoy is not just selling his skills as a niche entertainer. He has planted the notion that this is “edu-tainment”--that a relatively brief magic routine running between 45 minutes and one hour can convey both subtle and explicit lessons to impressionable employees, managers and customers.
Get volunteers up on stage, do a little routine with disappearing marbles, and show them how their body language can be altered to be more pleasing. Don’t grab the marbles and cross your arms defensively in front of your chest. Don’t point your feet out the door, as though you can’t wait to leave the room. Don’t blink too much, tipping off the magician (or someone sitting in a board room) that you don’t really have the black marble in your hand.
This is not exactly the same as corporate training, a rather lucrative sideline in India. For that, Shenoy is drawing up a more elaborate series of two-day workshops, slated to begin later this year. These will be studded with lectures on improving rapport, building confidence, using persuasion to achieve company goals—and simply how to project oneself as more “likeable.” (Yes, some people need special lessons.)
In contrast, a magic act can be seen as more symbolic. It can play on the mind in more subtle ways. It aims to transcend the ordinary. “At some level, both the conscious and the subconscious, you’re talking about achieving the impossible,” observes Kanchan Mukherjee, a behavioral scientist who teaches at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. “It’s probably going to inject some ambition into the employees, and give this sense of stretched targets. The first step is to think big.”
Back in Calcutta, magic entrepreneur Dalal concurs. “It’s more entertaining than a drab lecture,” he says, contrasting Shenoy’s act with the usual stream of corporate gurus who natter on about “positive thinking.” “He’s spicing it up with physical demonstrations. He is helping to create a fraternity.”
While Shenoy says that he never works with a fixed script, he does make it a point to sit down with human resource or marketing personnel beforehand and find out what “takeaways” they are looking for.
It is all part of the high-stakes search to find new ways to motivate employees and sell products. Nurturing cohesion is perceived as key to stemming the alarming tide in employee turnover, particular in the IT industry. Witness all those exercises in team building, from constructing giant Lego towers to boating excursions, yoga sessions, drumming workshops and jungle walks.
As for external relations, people in the business world are already lapping up books like “How to Mind-Read Your Customers,” or “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” Some researchers in India are already treading the new frontiers of “neuro-marketing,” which measures brainwaves to gauge consumers’ reactions to advertisements. One day soon, it will be possible to know whether more neurons light up when a starlet gets a Nescafe mustache or a Bollywood muscleman bites into a Dark Fantasy cookie.
In this context, Shenoy’s popularity can be easily fathomed. “CxOs and CIOs believe that anything to do with mind-reading is more intriguing, compared to a trick or an illusion that one can see on TV,” explains Kiran Subbarao, country marketing manager for IBM/South India, which has invited Shenoy to perform at a handful of customer events.
Subbarao has seen executives eagerly chatting up the mentalist after his appearances. “He’s not seen as another artist. He’s seen as a professional who knows his trade—a very unique trade,” Subbarao adds.
Marketing specialist Jessie Paul says that event participants are particularly interested in “the art of choosing and persuasion.” For example, when Shenoy explains how he selects a certain volunteer in the audience for his magic shows, that knowledge is seen as transferable to a real-life business context.
It is also interesting to note India’s growing number of workshops in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a highly controversial Western method of healing old psychic wounds and inviting success. The method employs specific words and phrases to elicit the desired response.
For example, NLP trainer Fiona Campbell is heading to Bangalore in November, for a workshop pitched at businesspeople who want to motivate their staff and pinpoint leadership talent in the ranks. Her video reveals a similar focus on body language: palms open to viewers, and an occasional clenched fist. Deliberate diction animates the pitch. Shenoy has taken a few workshops in NLP, and considers it an effective tool for entertainment.
In brief: the notion of mind control has become commercially acceptable, and even politically correct.
Yet there is also a side to “Beyond Magic” that could be read as slightly subversive.
Consider that Shenoy likes to recruit senior executives as volunteers. He believes that this boosts the credibility of his act, by showing everyone that even the top brass can be swayed by hypnosis.
While he avoids “humiliating” any volunteer, Shenoy says that he can make a CEO freeze in one spot, find his hand glued to his head, or watch a few cards stick to his hand no matter how hard he tries to let go.
When this happens, the audience tends to “laugh more than normal, and clap more than normal,” Shenoy reports.
It’s not hard to understand why employees would get a kick out of this. For once, the big boss is not having his own way.
For the senior executive, this can also be a humanizing moment, bringing him down to the level of his subordinates.
But the moment passes. Shenoy winds up his act. Back at the office, the usual power hierarchy reasserts itself. And once again, employees chase the monthly magic of a guaranteed paycheck.
After a show, Shenoy occasionally gets offers to sit in on business negotiations or observe job interviews, and later provide notes on personality and behavior. Such offers appear to be common in the world of international magic. For example, in a 2012 autobiography titled “Mind Reader,” Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard brags of his experiences “from corporate ice-breaker to corporate detective,” and offers his intuition for hire without hesitation.
But Shenoy says he would not accept incognito assignments. “Morally, I don’t think it’s right,” he demurs. In this context, he believes in full disclosure. Job candidates should have a right to know that a mentalist is sitting in the room.
He can still remember his own job interviews. After earning a masters’ degree in communications at Manipal University, Shenoy spent the next ten years in the IT industry, mainly working on User Experience (UX) teams that tested apps and other software products for usability. His resume includes stints at PlanetAsia, Yantra and SAP.
The salary subsidized his interest in magic, allowing him to travel abroad, buy books, meet other mentalists and purchase performing rights to certain tricks. He still accepts some part-time tech assignments to augment his income.
The mind-reading act has also provided Shenoy with an entrée into more elite circles. Social barriers tumble as top executives come to him with personal problems, hoping for a novel solution. At a convention in Malaysia, he was invited to hang out with executives who were poking fun at each other and wanted the mentalist to pinpoint who was the most outrageous liar. “You suddenly become one of them,” Shenoy marvels.
That surge of intimacy is not unusual. For Kaushik Bhaduri, a Microsoft engineer who is also honing his skills as a mentalist, nothing works better for business than a quick mind-reading demonstration. “It really opens doors, and makes people more comfortable,” he attests.
It also makes them think, and think again. “Magic is largely seen as a performance art in many countries abroad,” observes Shenoy. “In India, it’s seen as a puzzle that you’re supposed to solve.”
Margot Cohen is a writer from New York. Her interest in India follows previous reporting stints in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.