‘I haven’t been to school’: the superstar magician who has performed since she was six

There are stage parents, and then there are Suhani Shah’s. When Shah – at age six – told her father she wanted to be a magician, he didn’t just encourage her: he told her, go big. Don’t get stuck doing tricks for your school friends or at birthday parties, he warned: “Your vision needs to be bigger. Put together a whole show.”

Wait – he was saying this to a six-year-old? Shah, now 34, laughs. “Yes!” she says. “I’m sure I didn’t understand it. I probably said yes just so I could do it.”

It follows that when she was 14, by then a seasoned magician, her father encouraged her to write a book about her strange life. She was living out of suitcases, performing her illusionist act with two trucks’ worth of tricks and assistants, and never spent more than a few weeks in any place. “And I was like, ‘Dad, I haven’t been to school – how do I write a book when I don’t know how to read and write?’”

In the almost 30 years since her first show – in an auditorium in India, aged seven, making objects disappear, levitating, and even cutting someone in half – she has performed more than 5,000 times. These days she is a renowned mentalist who sells out stadiums in India.

Shah is notable in the magic world for being young, a woman and, indisputably, everything that the bunny-in-hat magician is not: in the videos she shares online with her millions of followers, she’s always infectiously perky, neither austere nor pompous. “Tell somebody to imagine a magician and they will picture a tall man in a top hat and a cape,” she says. “I’ve worked very hard to change that – the women who are in magic often do things like tarot or clairvoyance. I wish there were more women, but I am having more girls come up to me at shows now.”

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Early on, it was clear that her budding magic career and education were at loggerheads: Shah couldn’t get good grades while performing, and she couldn’t commit to performing enough to go pro if she was at school. Her parents pulled her out of school when she was seven. “Relatives were saying, ‘Why are you ruining her life? Who will marry her?’” Shah recalls. “I did not go to school after first grade, which I felt inferior about for a long time. I didn’t do anything other than just performing magic.

“It’s a passion but it is also a profession, and I don’t know how to differentiate between the two any more. Going on stage, for me, is like having dinner – it’s normal. I honestly don’t know how to live without it. If I’m not on stage for a few days, something feels off.”

Some might recoil from the idea of a child being taken out of school to perform, but Shah believes it was the best thing for her. Was she given opportunities to back out? She nods: “I always really loved it. I never got bored.”

She got a piecemeal education from her parents and crew, and spent train journeys between shows hitting the books. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she began to question her life: “Magic wasn’t respected in India then. It was looked down upon in some parts as a kind of street entertainment. I didn’t have a life, I was moving around cities month to month, I had no friends.”

But what she found most troubling were the people who approached her after shows, asking her to use magic to help them. “Almost every other day people would be like: ‘My brother is in a coma, can you touch his forehead?’ Or ‘my child is autistic’ or ‘my wife has this problem, can you help?’” she says.

“I’d tell them that magic isn’t actually magic, it is an art form – but they’d say I was lying, that I didn’t want to help them. It was turning my show into a counselling session and it was happening too often. I was very young.”

At 18, she decided to stop performing. How did her family react? “They didn’t, really,” she shrugs. “My parents are supportive of whatever my brother or I want to do. They took us very seriously, so we would take ourselves seriously. I am very thankful to them now.”

‘I can’t read minds. I’m creating the illusion I can read minds’ … Shah on her mentalism show. Photograph: Rising

Shah opened a hypnotherapy centre in Goa where, for nine years, she helped people with addiction and relationship problems. Magic overlapped with her new work in unexpected ways: she had a preternatural ability to read people and faces, she knew how to manipulate people into thinking what she wanted them to think.

But at 27, she realised she missed the stage. She quit her clinic in Goa and, “in the classic Indian way”, went to the Himalayas to live in silence in Dharamsala for a month, using the time to figure out what she would do next. The result was leaving behind illusions and creating her first mentalism act.

Mentalism requires a deep understanding of how humans think, behave and react for it to work – so, perfect for a magician turned informal counsellor turned therapist. “I can’t read minds. I’m creating the illusion I can read minds,” Shah says. “And it is a skill you can learn, which makes people even more interested in it.”

Does being a mentalist impact how people interact with her? “Well – I’m 34 and I’m single,” she laughs. Some people find her “scary”, she thinks, though mostly people are just interested in what she can discern about them.

Would she still choose this life, if she could go back? Shah thinks so. She has been able to catch up on the things she missed out – mainly, an education and friends, though the latter didn’t come easily. “People think I’m an extrovert because I am comfortable on stage, but put me in a one-on-one conversation and I don’t know what to say,” she says. “Until my early 20s, I had bad social anxiety. I would avoid parties, avoid people. It took me years, but I can enter a room now and be comfortable.”

It’s just like learning a magic trick, I say, and she scoffs: “Learning a magic trick is much easier.”

The Guardian