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Double Act

Assistant history professor Shreeyash Palshikar, Ph.D., is an expert on South Asia and spent several years as a government analyst. He’s also a magician and infuses his act with tricks derived from his Indian heritage.

By Hilary Bentman

photoAlbright assistant professor of history Shreeyash Palshikar, Ph.D., (center), performs Indian fusion magic. (Photo: Jennifer Hatler)

At a recent campus event, Albright College’s newest history professor swallowed a sword.

That’s not some euphemism. He literally swallowed a blade, only to pull it out again, unscathed, to the applause of a crowd of students.

Assistant history professor Shreeyash Palshikar arrived at Albright last fall with an interesting bag of tricks, one that includes magic rope, a deck of cards, a doctorate in South Asian Languages and Civilizations, teaching experience at Yale University and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and a four-year stint as a government analyst.

“It may sound like an unusual career path,” acknowledges Palshikar. “But I have been passionate about Indian history, and magic and deception, since childhood, and have been lucky to find different ways to creatively pursue and combine my interests over the years.”

Palshikar has certainly traversed an unusual career path, one that could easily have ended on the Las Vegas strip next to his magical mentors, Penn & Teller.

Instead, the South Asian expert’s weekly audience is a classroom of Albright students. But not one to abandon his magical proclivities, he continues to perform on the side, and has incorporated the craft into a new course.

During the spring semester, Palshikar co-taught the synthesis course Religion, Magic and Witchcraft with Samira Mehta, Ph.D., assistant professor of religious studies. The class employed both historical and religious studies methods to explore how society applies the definitions of “magic” and “religion,” and the impact of those terms.

Palshikar’s brand of magic is Indian fusion, combining Eastern and Western elements. That’s also an accurate description of his own life. His American mother met his Indian father while in the Peace Corps. Although Palshikar grew up in Oregon, his childhood was infused with Indian culture, and he has lived in India on and off. He speaks several Indian languages, including Hindi, Urdu and Marathi, and focused his academic pursuits on the subcontinent.

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(Photo: Jennifer Hatler)

Inspired by his paternal uncle, a magician in India, Palshikar began doing magic at a young age, performing in talent shows, juggling and spending his hard-earned allowance in magic shops. But it wasn’t until graduate school at the University of Chicago that he realized he could support himself as an entertainer.

“Magic gigs paid better than a job at the campus library,” he says.

While in Chicago, Palshikar did his first Indian-style show, donning turban and other traditional cloth, and introducing his audiences to Indian jadoo, or magic. He had found his niche.

Since then, he has performed in Europe and Asia and across the United States in various venues, from nightclubs and exclusive private parties to a Smithsonian museum.

There are significant style and substance differences between Western and Indian magic. The latter, for instance, often includes allusions to sacrifice and religious imagery.

“There was no large-scale, organized witch-hunting in India as in the United States,” explains Palshikar. “So magicians were not forced to make a clear distinction between religion and magic.”

Ultimately, Palshikar opted to forgo a fulltime career in magic for more traditional scholarly pursuits. He did a post-doctorate at Yale and lectured at Quinnipiac University before going to work for the government as a South Asia analyst.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Palshikar felt a “moral obligation to serve” his country in some way, much like his American grandfather, who retired as a lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Army. And Palshikar’s research area of South Asia was becoming increasingly more important in global affairs, particularly with India’s economic emergence.

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As a government analyst, Palshikar conducted research and briefed policymakers, tapping into his historical knowledge of the region to help inform present and future decisions.

“It was a way, outside the academic world, to help people understand South Asia. I wanted to contribute to the conversation,” he says.

But Palshikar “missed the interactions with students” and returned to the classroom. He joined Albright’s faculty in fall 2015.

Through the Religion, Magic and Witchcraft course, Palshikar has found a way to combine his interests.

The course explores how people distinguish between religion and magic, and students consider questions of reality, belief, power and performance. Palshikar and Mehta, who also recently completed her first year at Albright, present issues through the context of geography (East-West dichotomy), history (Salem witch trials, Victorian Era séances), and religious studies (Vodou, Santeria, etc.).

“People in power get to call what they do religion and other things magic, and that denigrates it,” says Mehta.

Mehta calls Palshikar a great collaborator: “We challenge each other in ways that are productive in class.”

But Mehta is still waiting for Palshikar to offer to saw her in half.

Recent Albright graduate Ellie Smith, who studied history and religious studies, says the class was “unlike anything I’ve taken at Albright before. It’s an interesting interdisciplinary combination and creates an environment fruitful for discussion.”

Palshikar’s next great act is a book on South Asia in the 1950s, examining the geopolitical choices India made to carve out the world’s largest democracy in a multi-ethnic region, and how it avoided some of the trouble that has plagued neighboring nations.

Eventually, he also hopes to pen a book on the history of Indian magic.

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