It’s a 205-year-old perfume house but when you step into either of the two shops of the legendary Gulabsingh Johrimal in Old Delhi, it could be just another dusty old store. A sense of history wafts across, however, when one of its owner-partners, the affable Praful Gundhi, 56, tells you the carved wooden frames and cabinets encasing the glass shelves behind him are over a hundred years old. Then Mukul, 50, his seemingly more outgoing brother, points to a glass shelf with tall, luxuriously shaped-and-cut glass attar decanters, saying they have been around since perhaps his grandfather’s times.
Their eldest brother, Atul, 60, sits at the counter facing Dariba Kalan, greeting every other passer-by or customer with a nod or a “Ram Ram ji, sab theek?”, his familiarity with the area palpable. The unassuming stores—their wholesale headquarters is in Dariba Kalan, known for its silver jewellery, and the retail shop is a seven-minute walk away, on the main Chandni Chowk road—belie Gulabsingh Johrimal’s heritage as one of the repositories of India’s olfactory culture since the time of the Mughals.
Established in 1816 by Lala Gulab Singh (fondly called Gulab Singh Gundhi, or perfumer, now the family’s adapted last name; sugundh means scent) and his son Johrimal, the perfumery has stood witness to sweeping changes—the decline of the Mughal empire, the rise of the British Raj, Partition, and the birth of a nation. So when Mukul talks about the pandemic and how it affected them, the tone is matter-of- fact, yet optimistic.
Though he prefers to discuss the psychological pressure on shop owners forced to stay away from their trade, he does acknowledge the economic impact—their business has taken a big hit, slowing down by 40-50% since April 2020. The pandemic forced them to pay greater attention to an online showcase, a transition made simpler by their familiarity with the world of e-commerce—they were already retailing on iTokri, an e-commerce platform for handicrafts, handlooms and other traditional products. “We have been selling long-distance, in fact, since the 1980s,” interjects Praful, a postgraduate in chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Their father, Ram Singh, first started exporting scents but perhaps even more importantly, the perfume house has been retailing attars across the country through India Post’s “VPP”, or Value Payable Post, service for over 30 years. The experience helped them adapt to the logistical necessities of e-commerce, including quality packaging.
They started their own online shop, with Mukul’s son Vinamr, 19—studying for a degree in pharmacy—taking it upon himself to modernise their website. The once-static page not only stories their legacy but also lists their products. Today, they offer a few hundred blends as well as natural essential oils and scent-related products such as incense sticks and dhoop, room fresheners, soaps, reed diffusers and distilled waters.
Currently, Praful’s son Kushal, 33, a postgraduate in chemistry from Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, leads the blending work, experimenting with materials and proportions, keeping a copy of his grandfather’s notes close. His observations dot the spaces between the older Gundhi’s hand. In six years, he alone has come up with 25 blends.
Through it all, one scent whose popularity has remained constant is Madan Mast attar, a blend of musk, labdanum, oakmoss and damascus rose, priced at ₹200 for 10ml. Their pure, natural attar range can be steep: The speciality Ruh Gulab (the essence, or more poetically, “the soul” of rose), for instance, is priced at ₹28,000 for 10ml.
A market for bespoke fragrances sprang up after journalist Vir Sanghvi shot an episode with them in 2009 for his TV series Custom Made For Vir Sanghvi, aired at the time on NDTV GoodTimes. Younger, aspirational customers also began to come in requesting duplicates of scents from luxury brands—a Tom Ford dupe here costs ₹320; the originals, retailing on platforms like Nykaa, are usually upwards of ₹2,000 for 10ml. But then, smiles Kushal, the youngsters return to try some of the originals.
“Nose is everything for me,” he says. “There’s a library of over 200 raw materials that I constantly keep myself updated with, memorising their smells, testing and training myself. You could say I have inherited (the capacity) for this from my father and uncles. What I learn from my family, no course (in perfume-making) can teach me,” he adds, when asked if more formal perfume-focused training, like that offered by ISIPCA or the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in France, ever crossed his mind.
Rajiv Sheth, perfumer and founder of All Good Scents, a home-grown brand that uses French techniques in crafting traditional Indian notes, agrees. “You can train yourself into perfumery. Children from generational businesses have a higher understanding of detecting odours and a good sense of smell.” Sheth notes, though, that it’s always good to update skills, especially when the competition is global. “Isn’t it time we see an Indian perfume brand, say, at a duty-free store? I think (older perfume houses) need to start looking at their heritage and build on it, to grow.” A member of the Société Française des Parfumeurs, Sheth wonders if perhaps Indian traditional fragrance houses can also organise themselves into associations, and find ways to look to the future.
At Gulabsingh Johrimal’s retail store, Kushal believes “old is gold”—why fix what isn’t broken? “I only take a decision to change something when there’s no other way, like ab agar ye nahi karenge, to nahi chal payega (if we don’t do this now, then we won’t be able to continue). That way we don’t diverge from our originality also but don’t totally lag behind also.”