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Review of Cheppum Panthum Coconut Shell Cups and Wand set

Official Review

November 28th, 2016 6:46pm
Rating:
Reviewed by Dr. J. M. Ayala de Cedoz
Well, many magicians have heard about this particular version of the Cups and Balls, others have read about it, some may have seen it in travels and others may, more likely, have seen it performed by Shankar Jr. on a television show called the Magic & Comedy Hour in 1991*. Others never knew it even existed. What is it? We shall delve into that now:

Cheppum Panthum (meaning Cups and Balls) is not only the (very appropriate) name of this product but it is the name of the long, storied version of the Indian (as in India, the country) version of the Cups and Balls as performed by the Hindu conjurors (Jadoo Wallah) using handmade balls, wands and cups made from coconut shells and performed in a cross-legged position. There is a LOT more involved in learning and performing this effect as it is written up and as it is performed in an historic context, which I will touch on later.

Having studied this particular version as much as possible for many years, I was particularly excited about this product for some specific reasons, all of which are relevant to the review here (though it may read like a bit of a short history lesson). One is that the true handling of this effect as it is performed in its indigenous homeland of Kerala was only handed down from father to son with strict expectancy of keeping the secret, NEVER revealing it to outsiders. Two, the traditional routine is said to have exactly 64 moves from beginning to end and that the amount of people on the entire planet that know all 64 can be counted on one hand. Three: Much of the previously released information did not include all of the minute, fine points to make them a complete record of the effect as it should be, including the script. Lastly because the props (the wands, the cups and the balls) that were provided in other versions were the wrong size, the wrong type, made from the wrong materials or even all of those things.

What Gary has done is a lot. He learned from a specific teacher in India and with direct, granted permission from that family, he brings you the traditionally and historically correct handling of this effect. This not only makes it available to modern performers but also helps to preserve the record which, as with many (if not most) things handed down orally, would eventually disappear.

Now, as for what you are getting with this product, it is rather bare bones for what it is but it does not need to be anything more. You get a nice drawer-style cardboard box that contains three handmade cups, which are made from select, hand-picked coconut shells that fit a specific criteria, a coconut wood wand, four coreless knit balls and a drawstring-type burlap bag to carry it all in, which is also used in the effect. You also get a piece of paper with a bit of background on the items as well as a link to download the instructional booklet.

The cups are very well made and you can see that great care went into preparing them for market. The wand is about as plain as can be (and for this, you want it to be), except it has three sets of three bands carved into it for decoration. The balls that you get will remind you of a smaller version of what you typically get with C&B sets and without a solid core. There is a reason for this which I will get to in a bit. The drawstring bag is also non-descript and is left in its natural state of color, but it is well made and the strings were knotted in a loop which will prevent the ends from disappearing into the fold over time.

Now as for the balls: They are not completely finished and ready for performance as is, but they could conceivably used as is. However, for historic accuracy and to make them look more in line with the rest of the hand-made props, you need to finish them and the instructions for doing that are in the PDF. You will have to finish all four balls and it should not take you too long to do each one, but it will not be done and over with in a few minutes.

One thing that I absolutely LOVE about this is the fact that there is no DVD. The instructions are in the form of a PDF and there are 122 pages. Why do I love this? Because it forces you to read through the text and, coupled with the photo illustrations, forces you to play out the routine in your head in your own way. If in the future you change any parts of the routine (add a step, remove one, change a way something is done or change the routine entirely), you will have to come up with your own presentation and your own ideas. Gary opens by explaining some of the history (not quite what I covered above) and how he got started with it all. He also goes into detail about the various parts of the cups and the terms for each of them, including a picture with arrows clearly pointing to the various named parts. The whole PDF is very clearly written and is illustrated very clearly with full-color photographs to match the text. He tells you the proper position in which to sit, how to set up the performance space, how to learn the sequences, (as mentioned before) how to finish the balls so they are ready for performance and much, much more.

To perform this version of the effect as written, there are a LOT of requirements as I said earlier, well-beyond digital dexterity and "misdirection". There is a clothing requirement for this, but not for the reason that you normally see clothing requirements. It also requires you to be in at least decent shape and that you be somewhat flexible (i.e. no bad knees, hips, back, etc.) and able to sit on a floor or a mat on a floor. You even need the ability to use your feet in a certain way, which I can just about guarantee is a way to use them which you never thought of before, or even heard of for that matter. This is not to say that you need to be a tip-top physical specimen to do this, but if you have bad joints/hips, a bad back or arthritis, you may find it difficult to do this. In fact, Gary even says as much in the opening of the PDF. Now, there is probably a way that you can do the majority of this effect while seated in a chair but you will not be able to do all of it that way, nor will certain moves be possible. You would really have to rethink the handling from beginning to end.

Before really delving into the handling itself, you are given a bit of philosophy behind the what and why of it all, what to wear, what not to wear, how to properly sit in performance posture and how to get into it properly. There is also a set that is necessary for one of the cups, which is explained as well. You learn the names of the sleights that are necessary as they come up in the handling and each one is broken down by a text description in steps, accompanied by photos illustrating the sleight. You are shown how to properly hold/handle the cups and he also talks about how he provides the script and how he clarifies it, which I will get to in a minute. Each phase of the effect is broken down into sequences, each comprised of a set number of moves, actions and words. This makes it easier to learn over time because you can focus on one sequence at a time.

The performance of the Cheppum Panthum as a whole is rhythmic in nature, which includes the way you recite the script. As for the script, Gary really was being accurate because he provides the script in the Dravidian language that traditionally accompanies this effect. First you see the transliterated script for that sequence, followed by each line on its own with a pronunciation guide, which also shows you in bold letters the stressed syllables. Where applicable, you then learn what each line means in English. I mentioned that this is a rhythm-based effect and the reason is because of the way you recite the words but also because when you are performing a certain action, you are reciting a specific part of the script. This is all broken down clearly in each sequence. Gary tells you what you should be saying and doing certain things in tandem and what those words/actions are. This really was very well thought out.

There are a total of 6 sequences and the instructions do not include a final load sequence of any sort, but that is up to you whether you want to add any or not and to figure out how to do that. Another thing that I have seen Indian performers do with this is a color-changing ball sequence rather than a final load. Others do the color-changing ball sequence AND a final load of sand or some other substance. At the end of the booklet there is a pronunciation spelling key as well as a short bio about Gary Kosnitzky.

The ad copy for this product, for what it is, is 100% accurate and there is no video trailer. The price point of $200/USD for this I feel is quite appropriate because nothing that you are getting is mass-produced; it is all hand made and the process of assembling and selecting the materials that meet specific criteria is long and involved, not to mention the actual manufacturing (again, by hand) of the props. Gary has found artisans in India that make the cups so that they are as authentic as possible. Further, the price point also kind of guarantees that this product will not really be an impulse-buy for someone that will toss it in the bottom of a drawer. This version of the Cups and Balls is not for everyone and if you want truly want to perform this for an audience of any sort, expect to put a seemingly insurmountable amount of time into practice and rehearsal, which is so greatly deserves. Serious collectors might also enjoy having this set of props in their collections as well.

If you have ever wanted a true, historically accurate method for the Hindu Cups and Balls (or Cheppum Panthum) and are willing to give this the dedication, the time and the practice that it deserves or if you want an authentic set of Hindu Cups and Balls for your collection, this will absolutely fit the bill and more. If this either of these is the case for you, then this product is:

VERY, VERY HIGHLY Recommended!

Suggestions from the Reviewer

You can see a clip on YouTube of Shankar Jr. performing this effect and it will give you and idea of what Gary is teaching in the PDF, inclusive of the script, but they are not the same thing exactly. Shankar Jr. added his own sequences to the traditional handling while Gary gives you a purely traditional instruction to which you have to add your own twists if you wish.

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