When your nose is your only guide

When your nose is your only guide

Perfumer Jahnvi is reviving the Indian perfumery tradition

What is your first memory of smell? That was the question Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan, Indo-French perfumer, asked as she began her perfumery workshop at the Bengaluru ByDesign festival on Saturday. The workshop was interactive, fun and experiential.

Jahnvi began by talking about the unique challenges perfumers face. “Perfumers maintain extensive diaries, where everything we smell is written down, because unlike designers, architects or even musicians, who can write or draw their art forms, we have no annotation. A smell is only in the mind and can’t be noted down. For us, memories are annotations and we use it in very specific ways to construct fragrances.’ She read a couple of pages from her diary.

Not many know that India is the finest grower of fragrance raw materials in the world. However, after the ban of sandalwood and musk between 1920 and 1940, the traditional perfumers, the ‘attar’ makers, disappeared.

Jhanvi was seven when she happened to smell the ‘kasturi’ musk. That scent, she says, stayed in her mind.

“While I was training to be an architect in Japan, I was also training to be a perfumer. I thought that was a great combination—space and abstraction. When I smelt the musk for the first time, I couldn’t believe that an organ of an animal could smell so beautiful. I made it my life’s journey to follow smell,” she explains.

After working on the ‘Skinn’ perfume brand by Titan till 2013, Jahnvi launched her own brand, The Perfume Library, which she describes as India’s first contemporary perfumery. “I started it to recreate the lost tradition of Indian perfumery,” she adds.

“I have been a perfumer for over a decade. I did not know I would be able to create scents, until my mentor in my perfumery school asked me to recreate Chanel No 5. The final product smelt nothing like perfume. I lost my confidence and I wanted to quit. There are only 200 perfumery students in the world. However, it was the moment when I created the smell of rose without using the real flower that motivated me tremendously,” Jahnvi recalls.  

Sharing her story, she made participants smell the perfumes she made: organic rose, jasmine, sandalwood and one she made with ‘bhaang.’ She asked participants to compare them to perfumes made by Titan.

Talking about why perfumes are so personal, she says people choose a fragrance when they see themselves reflected in it. Perfumes are always about memories.

“People who practice this art, which is essentially the mechanics of the craft of smell, are called Noses. It is challenging to work with a medium that is formless, where the only visible tool is our nose,” she says.

Busting some myths about perfumes, Jahnvi says they stay longer if sprayed on fabric rather than on the skin because fabric is cool and the skin warm.