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The Great Swami
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In my youth my father often used to take me to the famous Glasgow Empire music hall (vaudeville) theatre. The audience there were reputed to be so hostile to visiting English comedians that one victim sagely noted “If they liked you, they let you live”. Certainly the Saturday night crowd of beery Glaswegians, most with cigarettes alight, created a steamy atmosphere of high-spirited good humour which surged in anticipation when a putative comedian from South of the Border nervously trod the boards. One of the rare exceptions to the disrespect afforded to English comedy performers came on the night in the early 1950’s when I saw the great Stan Laurel appear there, with Oliver Hardy, in one of their last appearances together. The audience’s taste generally ran more to lachrymose Scottish musical ballads involving bonnie lassies, purple heather and so on, sometimes also including the deployment of bagpipes. But personally I always preferred the “speciality acts”: the man who would fill the stage with flags concealed about his person, the plate spinners, the contortionists, the unicycle riders, and many other bizarre turns.

 

By far my favourite, who I saw three times, was a performer billed as “The Great Swami”. He was a large bearded Indian gentleman with a suspiciously Scottish accent who dressed in flowing white robes and (improbably) a red fez. He performed a mind-reading act, guessing playing cards selected by audience members and so on - entertaining but fairly routine material. But in a unique close to his act he would ask someone to secretly write a six digit number on a card and then, dramatically, call on “The One True Smoke Spirit” to reveal the numbers.  

 

At this point the stage lights dimmed and a large glass box, about four foot on each side and with only the lower face open, was lowered from the flies and suspended about six foot above the stage. The Great Swami then fired-up a large hookah pipe which had adorned his stage set, placed it under the box, and puffed on it mightily so that great billows of smoke rose upwards and filled the glass box. Then came the moment I loved: The Great Swami stood beneath the box, raised his arms heavenwards and began swirling the smoke with his hands while incanting “I invoke The One True Smoke Spirit – REVEAL YOURSELF !”. Suddenly there was a huge cymbal crash and blinding spotlights illuminated the box from the wings of the stage and from above, and there in the box appeared, indubitably, a man’s head, large and grey, apparently solid but made of smoke whorling in the light. The mouth opened and a booming voice intoned the numbers on the card. Then the stage lights came on and the box collapsed leaving only a pall of smoke drifting upwards. This marvellous spectacle made a great impression on me.

 

Many years later while drinking in an old-style wood-panelled bar in Kelvinbridge I saw, sitting in a corner smoking a mighty cigar and drinking a pint of heavy with a man-sized whisky chaser, none other than The Great Swami himself ! Though older and fez-less he was still instantly recognisable. I went over and introduced myself and complimented him on his act. It seemed that following the demise of the music hall circuit after the popularisation of television he had retired to Glasgow from Dundee where he had been brought up as plain Mo Das by parents who had immigrated from Calcutta (as part of the jute trade) – his many appearances at the Glasgow Empire and on the Scottish circuit had won him many friends in the area. After yarning for a while I raised the question I was burning to ask “How was the smoke head effect created ?”. Mr. Das replied:

 

“Well Mr. Woodley, according to convention I should not disclose how any trick was performed, but as it was many years ago I suppose I can give a few details. The spotlights we used had templates over them to shape the beams, and the glass itself was not clear except at the front and back – on the sides and top it was etched and slightly ground-out to concentrate or diffuse the light, so when the beams crossed they illuminated only a rough head-shaped volume of smoke in the centre of the box – your imagination did the rest ! – of course moulding the smoke with my hands was pure showmanship, it would have been impossible to shape the smoke in that way”.  I must admit that, illogically, I was a little disappointed at this prosaic explanation and felt that something of my childhood had been lost.

 

After talking a bit more it was time for me to leave, I shook Mr. Das’ hand and he graciously said it had been a pleasure reminiscing about the old times and he took up his pint and cigar again with (I thought) a small tear in his eye. As I reached the door I glanced back at him – there in the air in front of him, quite clear and unmistakable, was the head of The One True Smoke Spirit, smaller than before but grey and solid. As I watched, the head drifted slowly upwards as the smoke curled away and dissipated into the air. The Great Swami winked at me and took a sip of whisky.

 

Happy Days,

 

Many thanks,

 

Ted Woodley

 

 

Many Thanks, Ted Woodley