When Tradition Translates As Luxury
While the west sets the standards, India originally pioneered the eclectic tradition of fragrant luxury over five thousand years ago, unravel Kishore Iyengar and Smita Iyengar
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An afternoon of hors d’ouvres and champagne, a suave and sexy ‘nose’ explaining the nuances of fragrance notes and human personality traits with a heavy French accent in swank mauve environs of a European perfumery…sounds like quintessential 21st century luxury. But there was a time when the sillages of soul-stirring natural scents cast a spell on the sprawling opulence of ancient Indian palaces. Towering monarchs reveled in unindustrialised, pure fragrance extracts that captivated the olfactory and charmed the soul.
Long before the west elevated fragrance to the level of luxury, the several millennia-old gilt-edged grandeur of India’s heritage fragrances spelt class, eclecticism and sophistication. The exalted excellence of Indian fragrance tradition has been preserved by generations of experts and connoisseurs.
It is believed that the art and science of distilling natural fragrant materials like flowers and woods began during the Indus Valley Civilization. Interestingly, India’s rich treasure house of flowers, woods, herbs and spices has been unparalleled anywhere in the world.
The traditional distillation process of deg-bhapka’, which involves massive copper chambers called deg is still practiced in historic fragrance Meccas like Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh to extract attar or floral extracts over a pure sandalwood base and rooh ( Arabic for soul), which is pure extract minus the sandalwood.
Defying the hegemony of western brands that define luxury in the international market, these pure Indian extracts stand as symbols of the world’s oldest living luxury fragrances. Right since the birth of Ayurveda, Ashtagandha and other classical texts like the Bruhad Samhita, the mysticism of these natural fragrances has been illustrated not just for medicinal uses but also for sensual and spiritual pleasures.
“Synthetic fragrance oils began emerging over the years. With the evolution of chemistry, synthetic alternatives to almost all fragrances are widely available today. There was a time when we sold only pure fragrances. We still continue to house the same age-old repertoire of attars and roohs extracted in the very same untainted traditional method,” explains Mukul Gundhi, seventh generation torchbearer of old Delhi’s legendary 19th century Gulabsingh Johrimal Heritage house of perfume.
Gundhi is acknowledged as one of India’s finest traditional perfumers and distillers whose pure fragrances are sought after the world over by dignitaries, diplomats and celebrities alike. His great grandfather Lala Banarasi Dasji was a legendary perfumer of his time. With the indulgent nawabs and the crème de la crème as his clients, his attars and roohs were ideally the Chanels and Diors of his era. “In those days , our perfumery was referred to as ‘Gulab Gundhi ki dukaan’, ‘Gundhi’ meaning perfumer. We were synonymous with sublime natural fragrances which were high-end luxury indulgences for the royalty and the elite. These are highly subtle unlike the overbearing synthetic versions we have today. They were worn solely for the pleasure of the heart. Today, people believe in making an impression with intense, far-reaching sillages, which we call leher maar dena,” Gundhi says.
While today a pure attar or rooh would cost anything between Rs 2,000 to Rs 32,000 a tola ( approximately 12 ml), these were said to be more affordable back in the day.
The most expensive of all natural fragrances is the Rooh Gulab or the pure extract of the heavenly Rosa Damascena costing around Rs 28,000 a tola. History has it that the Mughal empress Noor Jahan once noticed an oil layer around the rose petals floating in her bath tub filled with warm water. The hakeem later deemed the oil Rooh Gulab or ‘soul of the rose’.
Many Indian distillers supply pure extracts as raw materials to leading perfume houses in the west. Although blends with synthetic notes offer more longevity on the skin or clothes, the inclusion of natural notes offer solace from their artificiality.
Saturated with over-marketed bespoke luxury packages by European perfumeries, we decided to persuade a reluctant Gundhi to create magic with authentic, natural Indian ingredients. He decided to test our knowledge by asking us to formulate our idea since creating custom-made fragrances can be extremely time consuming and tedious.
We spontaneously designed two of our own traditionally Indian woody-spicy blends as a mélange of pure notes —aged Mysore sandalwood, patchouli, oud, rose, vetiver and a sprinkling of spicy notes in the top and the heart.
As an answer to the much-hyped, exorbitant and ceremonious champagne and canapé bespoke ‘matinees’ and ‘soirees’ of the French perfumery culture, Gundhi finally agreed to craft two masterpieces that outshone my finest custom-made eau de parfum collection.
In the unpretentious 1816 perfumery with sturdy wooden shelves and ornate Belgian-cut perfume jars, we shared simple, tantalising masala chai, Gundhi meticulously preparing the top, heart and base notes, promising us a tola of enchantment at every stage of the fragrances maturing over time.
We decided to christen the first blend ‘Parampara’ or tradition. It opened with rich, sparkling floral and spicy notes unfolding a smooth, deep, enigmatic heart ( thanks to the vetiver note) gradually fading into a woody, ambery dry-down with exquisite patchouli, offering maturity and depth to the residual notes. We named the second blend ‘Samraat’ or monarch as a gentle but masterful touch of rose (gulab ka dum) to the dominant saffron in the opening gave it an unmistakably royal touch.
Shelves of plush European luxe fragrance boutiques blind you with the glitz of winter and summer collections by upmarket international brands. Indeed does the good old Maurer & Wirtz Cologne no.4711 cool you off, bathing you with nostalgia, or a Ralph Lauren Supreme Oud call for winter oomph with its testosteronic notes!
But the smearing of Rooh Khus (pure vetiver extract) on his royal sherwani is still evergreen reminiscence for Shahanshah-e-Tabla Ustad Ahmedjaan Thirakwa Khansaheb’s last surviving living patrons. The light, green, smooth, deeply cooling and refined aromas of the rooh, a gift from the Rampur Nawab, would charm listeners during the legend’s summer mehfils.
India pioneered the tradition of seasonal scents, natural cooling or warming materials that transformed into perfume. Attar hina is a one-of-its kind marriage of numerous Indian spices on a sandalwood base. During the freezing winters, it is said, the pleasure-loving nawabs, who were too feeble to cover themselves with heavy rugs, would smear Attar hina between the layers of lighter rugs. The attar provided them with the warmth of a heavier rug.
The Indian seasonal fragrance trend is returning as a fascinating blend of tradition and luxury. The kewda flower is indigenous only to India and its effervescent, refreshing attar is deeply cooling and preferred for summers. Attar Gil (‘perfume of the earth’ in Persian) is considered one of the most ingenious creations of Indian fragrance heritage. The moist fragrance of the otherwise parched earth after the first showers of the Indian monsoon is bottled by distilling fresh earthen pottery over sandalwood oil. The attar is literally distilled earth and has an incredibly calming and cooling effect on the mind especially as it reminds the wearer of the approaching monsoons during the peak of summer.
Rooh Motia, the pure extract of Jasmine Sambac or Arabian Jasmine with its crisp and captivating aromas along with the deep red, evocative Rooh Chameli are historic luxury monsoon scents as the flowers are harvested during the season. A few dabs on the pulse points of the hands and neck call for sophistication and sensual grace.
Indian sandalwood (santalum album) is the world’s finest, with a 95 per cent santalol content. Unfortunately, with government restrictions, sandalwood and its oil are controversial and rarely available in the purest form though used extensively in natural attars.
What we discovered was most fascinating. India boasts of the world’s richest reserves of agarwood or ‘oud’ in the forests of Assam, with Indians being the first to use oud as a fragrance. Agarwood oil or ‘Dehn Al Oud’ in Arabic is synonymous with the Gulf states. While the Arabs have infamously splurged on oud throughout history, the Bruhad Samhita is said to deem agarwood as ‘the luxury of the kind monarchs would enjoy’. Ancient India has glorified agarwood’s earthy, animalic, leathery aromas for the aphrodisiacal, medicinal and aesthetical value.
Agarwood is said to be more expensive than gold, playing a vital role in some of the world’s most exotic upper crust fragrances, western and Arabic. Agarwood chips are used as incense or ‘Bakhoor’ in the Arab world. “The Arab domination of the Indian oud market is passé. The Americas and Europe are among my top markets buying oud as a sought after spiritual indulgence. Oud is more a display of arrogance for the Arabs considering its sky-rocketing prices. The western world has a far deeper understanding of this divine gift,” says Tajul Islam Bakshi of Assam Aromas, one of India’s leading oud distillers.
Fragrance as a sensual luxury through its innate eroticism has been illustrated by sages like Varahamihira and of course Vatsyayana, author of the legendary Kamasutra, eons before western brands invented the ‘pheromonal’ and ‘sexy’ tags. Although much has been lost in history, India’s legacy of olfactory seduction continues to unveil its enigma. While agarwood smoke creates a mood for intimacy, fragrance collectors from the world over including the Chinese have lapped up Indian oud oil for its deep and mysterious sensuality.
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