The first time I read about the brothers Medua and Mooty Samme, I was looking for the obscure Chinese origin of devilsticks and one of the oldest sources I could find was an article from Mary Saucier (1) where she wrote that: “Ricky Jay, a Hollywood magician/juggler and collector of juggling information, dug up from his fills some valuable historical information on devil sticks in the West. The earliest mention he could find was an 1813 Berlin handbill hawking ‘the performance of Chinese stickplays by Medua and Mooty Samme.'”
I didn’t think much about it back then until I found this picture
It has been printed around 1820 in Prague and shows Indian Jugglers Medua Samme in red and his brother Mooty Samme in yellow playing with devilsticks. As happy as I was it didn’t help with my confusion on the origin of devilsticks so I dug even deeper. And I found a lot. The Indian Brothers Medua and Mooty Samme from Madras had been touring between Germany, France, Austria, Italy and Sweden between 1813 and 1827 and many newspaper articles from that time indicate that they were very well received.
They were not the only Indian Jugglers in Europe during that period; at the same time Ramo Samee got so popular in England that author William Hazlitt wrote a whole essay about his amazement of watching him perform (2). Other Indian performers were an equilibrist named Poloo (3), a Sword Swallower Sena Sama (4) and a magician called Kia Khan Khruse (5).
I first believed most of those performers to be related due to the name similarities between Samme, Sama, Samee… and because they performed a lot of similar feats including sword swallowing, cups and balls, and manipulation of 3 and sometimes 4 brass balls, but I was informed by a friend of Indian heritage that it was more likely that they rather belonged to the same caste and that people of one caste would usually share a common name.
I found several german sources (6) linking them to the “Shudrakaste” which was the lowest of the 4 castes in Indian society and in these there have been several subcastes or tribes specializing as acrobats, musicians, rope dancers, snake charmers, jugglers and magicans. These include the Nat-caste, the Bazigar-caste, the Dommarollo-people and probably more.
We can not know how long the juggling culture in India dates back, but Byzantine historian Nicephorus Gregoras writes in Roman History about the performances of acrobats in Constantinople as early as 1321. He claimed these performers came from Egypt but modern research believes that they migrated from India like many other gypsy tribes. (7)
When India got colonized there were very early reports about the magic wonders some Indians could perform which lead to an increased interest in the Indian performance arts especially from magician’s side. This not only lead to a mystification and Orientalisation of European magic but also in a demand for exotic performers in Europe. One of the first to bring performers from Madras (which was the biggest colonial city and harbour in India around that time) was a Captain Donald Campbell, who, according to the legend, saw Ramo Samee performing magic and jokingly asked if he wanted to see London. When Ramo Samee surprisingly said yes, he took the opportunity and travelled with him to London.
The only source linking the east indian company to the Samme Brothers is an article puplished by Richard Knill, who wrote in the Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, Volume 16 (8) that he translated some documents after Mooty Samme was arrested near the Russian border on the suspicion of being a spy: “The documents are written in the Tamul language, which language is spoken by millions of people in India. The man is an Indian juggler; his name is Mootaswamee, which is a common name among the Hindoos [sic]. His pocket-book contains the names of places which he has visited, with an account of expenses for lighting the rooms, &c. where he has performed his feats. One of his papers is a plan of route; another is a bill of fare, or daily expenses for food; another is a list of money in the hands of bankers in Edinburgh and India.”
This indicates how professional the indian jugglers worked but also gives us the original name of Mooty Samme who was luckily released soon after that incident.
Later we also find sources of a director calling himself A. Magni (9) who travelled with them and was responsible for a massive increase in newspaper coverage and distributing handbills. I believe this to be the pesudonym of their student Karl Rappo who joined them after watching a performence of them in Innsbruck and later became a succesful juggler and strongmen himself.
In performance, the Samme brother used a mix of European languages mixed with Indian language and propably some made up performance gibbersish, too. Some described it as annoying, especially in regards to the younger brother, who is in general described as the rather skillless and boring one of the brothers. While this may be true, I rather believe it to be intentional and him acting as a kind of assistant who would also add some music and may even had a little bit of a low status clown character to make his brother shine even more. There is also one source (10) claiming Medua Samme lost some of his performence abilitys after he broke his arm in an accident.
From the handbills and descriptons, we know that a typical performance would contain about 13 different acts split into 2 parts and was advertised as an Indian acadamy (indianische akademie). (11)
It seems like early in their career they would start the act with a display of traditional magic cups and balls by Medua Samme which they would later dismiss, maybe because it received negative critics or because the association with magicans or conjurers wasn’t well received around that time. A lot of German dictionaries between 1827 and 1900 mention the Samme Brothers under the article on jugglers, so one can assume that the brothers played an important role in the separation of magicians and jugglers. It may even be that the name: batalor /batalores is a reference to the “baton” / stickplay. (12)
Heres a description what there act would look like between 1924 and 1926
1. Chinese Stickplay (devilstick)
From handbills and descriptions in newspapers we know that it was always played at the beginning of their performance and sometimes performed to the beat or music but also while Mooty Samme made a sound described as “ticki tacki” which was received as rather annoying by the European audiences. It is interesting that up to today, the devilstick base pattern is sometimes referred to as tic tac or tic toc.
2. Plate Juggling
Sadly I have no information whether these were spun, tossed or both, but we know from (13) that their colleague Ramo did indeed spin plates in his act.
3. The Windmill
I couldn’t find any information about this trick at all. I believe it may have been an acrobatic element but that is a really wild guess.
4. Ball Juggling
I don´t have a good source for the Samme Brothers but I found a good description of general Indian style ball juggling:”The next feat of the jugglers is, to perform a series of evolutions with four hollow brass balls, about the bigness of oranges. His power over these is almost miraculous. He causes them to describe every possible circle almost horizon tally, perpendicularly, obliquely, transversely, round his legs, under his arms, about his head, in small and in large circumferences, and in serpentine forms, crossing each other. At times, they are all thrown into the air, one above the other; and on their return to the hand of the master, they instantly follow their former evolutions, and keeping the whole number in motion at the same time, with such wondrous rapidity, that the separate distinction of the balls are lost, and they form to the eye of the observer a zone of brass. This being the sole fruit of effort, activity, quickness of eye, and rapidity of action, no one who has not witnessed it, can form an idea of its excellence.” (14)
5. Spinning Tops
6. Spinning Top balancing on a long elastic stick
7. The hunt of Diana
An act where a treestick with attached fake birds was balanced on the face while the juggler was shooting said birds down with a blow pipe
8. An act were a tree branch with attached (hopefully fake) birds is balanced on the face while the juggler is shooting said birds down with a blow pipe
9. Knife juggling
10. Umbrella or Pagoda Trick
One description says a stick with a machine consisting of 16 other sticks and 16 balls is balanced on the nose, then the machine is build up to an umbrella and then taken down again while rotating rings around feet. This is again close to an act their student Karl rappo performed later where he would balance a ship while setting its sails.
11. Strongman Juggling with 14 pound cannon balls.
Besides that we know of an impressive feAt (15), possibly performed as a finale on the last performence before travelling to a new town where a sword was swallowed which would then launch a firework from the handle without harming the juggler.
The order of these acts changes slightly from handbill to handbill and sometimes one feature was replaced with another but this gives a good overall view on what a performance may have looked like.
The last mention I could find is from 1827 in Stockholm (16). It seems that by that point the Indian brothers had been so influential that there were several Europeans including their student Karl Rappo copying their style and disguising themselves as Indians. Karl Rappo was also the teacher of a Karl Schäffer who was the first of famous circus family which was well connected and would have a huge influence on the circus arts of the next century. (17)
Not only have some of the first juggling superstars been Indian jugglers, but it seems that the Indian juggling traditions actually had a huge influence on the general performing and circus arts of the 19th and 20th century.
(3) C. A. Bottiger’s Kleine Schriften Archaologischen und Antiquarischen Inhalts
(6) Rheinisches Conversations-Lexicon oder encyclopädisches Handwörterbuch für gebildete Stände
(8) Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, Volume 16
(9) Augsburgische Ordinari Postzeitung von Staats-, gelehrten, historisch- u. ökonomischen Neuigkeiten: 1824
(10) Iris J. Wenner, 1825
(12) Allgemeine deutsche Real-Encykopädie (Real-Encyclopädie) für die gebildeten Stände. (Conversations-Lexikon.) In 12 Bdn. 7. Originalaufl. – Leipzig, Brockhaus 1827
(14) Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum: Or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters, Volume 6