Sunday Herald: The scent of the season

The fragrances of ittar permeate the air during Ramzan. Follow the scent...

An ornate ittar bottle. Photo by Poorvi Bose

It’s that time of the year — the end of summer, the month of Ramzan, and the onset of the rainy season — when the world of fragrances comes alive. This part of the world, as if to welcome the monsoons, becomes zealously fragrant. Anywhere we go, especially to Mohammad Ali Road, Bhendi Bazar of Mumbai, the Old Delhi lanes, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, or any other small and big cities, one can smell mogra, kewada, gulab, khus, heena, chempa, keshar, kadam ­— all associated with aromatic flowers and herbs. And the best fragrance according to me and by lakhs of others is the halki, halki khusboo of the first rain on parched summer earth — the smell of gili mitti (wet clay) when it’s not raining.

All these whiffs come in 10 ml colourful crystal bottles with quaint metal caps. Some of the bottles are beautifully painted, some others are colourful, whereas in some others, the crystal cut adds its own beauty. The aroma wafting from these mini bottles is of attar, ittar or itra­ — a Hindi and Urdu word for perfumes made from essential oils extracted from flowers, herbs and mitti (clay) by steam distillation. Attars are never mixed. They are always distilled aromas.

Birth in the civilisation

Attar isn’t a new commodity. Archaeologists have dug up clay distillation pots dating to the ancient Harappan civilisation. The Egyptians were famous for producing flowery perfumes. There are stone wall-paintings showing women carrying perfumes in small cones on their heads to spread aroma wherever they went. Then, it was prepared by crushed flower petals and leaves of herbs mixed in liquid oil.

The present-day formula of attar was discovered by the great Muslim physician al-Shaykh al-Rais, who was addressed as Abi Ali al Sina. It was he and a few others who started the process of distillation of flowers and the collection of the distilled liquid oil on distilled base oil, which in most cases was sandalwood oil. Of course, Hindu mythology is replete with stories of sandalwood, jasmine and rose aromas. 

During the many excavations in India, similar distillation units were found in the mighty Indus Valley Civilisation, but the current trend of attars gained popularity during the Moghul era. It’s said that King Akbar had an interest in attar and his reception room was always filled with scents from different flowers. There is also a famous tale of Akbar and his minister Birbal over the spillage of a drop of attar. It is said that Akbar’s love for attar was so great that he didn’t like to waste even a drop of it, and when Birbal mocked him over his stinginess, an angry Akbar filled up an entire tub with attar.

This love for attar was shown even by the nizams of Hyderabad. It then gained popularity with other Indian rulers. It became popular because traditionally, in the Eastern world, attar was given as a farewell gift to guests in crystal-cut vials called ittardans that had ornate caps made of silver or gold, and encrusted with precious gems.

Till as late as the mid-20th century, the usage of attar remained with the nobility and the rich & famous artists. And till then, it was prepared in the purest form of distilled concentrated flowers, herbs and other oils on pure concentrated sandalwood oil.

“When the demand increased along with the cost of the base oil, adulteration started creeping in,” says Gyanesh Trivedi of Rajaram Attarwala, a 70-year-old shop located near the Cotton Exchange building of Pydhonie in Mumbai. The shop was started by his grandfather, who came down to Mumbai from Varanasi of pre-Independent India. Their present-day client list reads like the who’s who of Mumbai — the Barjatyas and Dharmendra from Hindi cinema, the Goenkas of Zee TV, the Birlas and the Mahindras from business houses, and many others.

The main adulteration in the attar industry is to do with the use of base oil. Good quality sandalwood oil is replaced with a cheap one; sometimes, alcohol or even paraffin is used. This cuts down the cost of making a lot. Traditional attars never use alcohol as the base.

Also, the concentration of distilled flower oil is diluted. So you get less aromatic attar that doesn’t last long as the alcohol evaporates and the base oil gets spoiled.   

Like every other attarwala in India, Gyanesh sources the concentration from only one place, Kannauj, a small town in Uttar Pradesh about 125 km from the capital city Lucknow, better known as ‘the capital of perfumes’ in India.

“Since 1911, we are in the business of attar,” says the seventh-generation Rajesh Pathak (67 years old) of Munnalal & Sons from Lucknow. “The popular mitti ki attar is made only in Kannauj. It’s made by baking the topsoil of lakes and then distilling it over sandalwood oil. In fact, every new attar is discovered accidentally or by experimentation in Kannauj. Though attar-making continues throughout the year, the fragrances are seasonal. The fragrance depends on the flowers of the season. At present, it is mogra season. So, in Kannauj all bhattis are distilling mogra flowers.

It’s said that when the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh hosted a victory party, he asked the attarwalas of Kannauj to make 19 unique fragrances for his guests. His dream was to make Kannauj like Grasse of France, ‘the world capital of perfumes’. But the plan seems to have been shelved. At present, Kannauj has more than 500 bhattis of attar distillation. 

Besides mitti ka attar, Kannauj has also produced the famous Majmua attar, known as ‘The Attar’ from India. “It was made by my father Mohammad Ali in Lucknow,” claims the 70-plus-years-old Quddas Zakaraia of the H M Zakaria shop located next to Madina Masjid near Crawford Market in Mumbai. “Later on, Majmua 96 was copied and made popular,” he says.

In usage

Making attars — distillation in huge copper vessels on slow wood fire — takes time. The slower the fire used for distillation, the better is the concentration, and costlier the attar’s price. The price range for 10 ml attar is from Rs 200 to Rs 50,000. The costliest attar is the oud attar made from Agarwood. It is mostly used by the super-rich and the royalty of the Middle Eastern countries. It costs somewhere around Rs 50,00,000 per kilo.

“But Agar attar isn’t liked by everyone, and isn’t available with everyone. It has a distinctive smell,” explains Gyanesh.

And because of its rarity and price, many famous perfume houses like Armani’s Prive’s Oud Royal, Yves Saint Laurent’s M7 Oud Absolu, Versace’s Oud Oriental and others use it. But these are perfumes, and not attar.

Though no perfume can be greater than a pure attar, it certainly isn’t popular with the young, who swear by international brands. To popularise attars, we need young film stars, cricketers and footballers talking about them. Only this will save the traditional perfume industry.      

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Sunday Herald: The scent of the season

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