Lucknow/Kannauj: Mewa Ram smiles more than he speaks. It’s a side effect of his job. “When you are surrounded by flowers all the time, it’s hard not to be happy,” he says in Hindi, his sparkly brown eyes on the baskets brimming with roses.
We are inside his workplace of 30 years: a dusty, century-old godown, as big as a school football ground, in Uttar Pradesh’s Kannauj, famous as India’s perfume capital. An aluminium tin roof, with enough holes to let in the light of a bright February afternoon, covers the exposed brick walls of the godown and a clay bhatti (furnace). Here, Ram, along with six others, extracts oils from flowers, wood and herbs to make ittar, or a blend of natural essential oils, in huge, circular copper stills using the traditional hydro-distillation process, or deg bhapka. The process starts with mixing the petals or herbs with water and pouring them into the deg, which is then sealed with a mixture of clay and cotton. A condenser in the form of a long bamboo pipe connects the deg to a covered copper receiver, kept in a water-filled cooling chamber made of cement. The petals are cooked in the bhatti using wood and dung, leading to distillate from the vapours. The entire process, monitored constantly to maintain an even temperature, is labour-intensive, taking anywhere from 15 days to over a month.
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“We all come from families of ittar artisans,” Ram says as he introduces his colleagues, who, like him, make around ₹9,000 per month as daily wagers. They all work for a veteran ittar maker. Their childhoods were similar: running around farms of rose and henna plants owned by others, and, by age 10-11, learning the art of making ittar, for their fathers worked in the bhattis as ittar makers.
Before I can ask Ram, 45, if he ever thought of leaving Kannauj—a city so rich in perfume-making that its products have a GI (Geographical Indication) tag—for big city life, he runs to one of the stills to check whether it’s covered properly.
“What’s inside it?” I ask.
“Shamama,” comes the reply.
Ram disappears. A minute later, he returns with a dark-coloured vial. Smell this, he says, dipping a cotton-covered matchstick in the vial.
One whiff takes me back to childhood and memories of my great-grandmother tucking me into a big, white cotton blanket. The scent, a dense woody one, is similar.
“Did it remind you of anything?” Ram brings me back to the present. “It is made of over 10 ingredients and is used as a base of perfume blends. This scent is found only in India.”
India has a centuries-old history of scents, from the sweet jasmine, deep rose and floral-spicy marigold to the strong musk, earthy oud and refreshing mint. Well before Mughal emperor Akbar’s rule, when scents like rosewater and musk were sold as luxurious reminders of love or the beauty of the natural world, ittar was held in high regard. The Mahabharat and the Rig Veda mention the healing properties of fragrances. The ancient Sanskrit text Brihatsamhita has over 30 verses on “gandhayukti” (blending of scents), giving perfume a special status in medicine and religion. There’s a reason ittars are celebrated for their purity: When 40kg of rose petals are distilled over the course of 15 days, it results in less than 5g of oil, or 20 litres of rosewater, a day. Small wonder then that the oil is worth ₹6-7 lakh a litre, and rosewater, ₹5,000 per kilogram.
Essential oils, the pure extract, can be found in daily products, from your day cream and face pack to incense. Even tobacco has rose extract, for flavour. An ittar becomes a perfume once you add alcohol. For decades, Indian scents, in the form of ittars or essential oils, have been a darling of international luxury houses for their natural, rich quality. That warm, fruity flavour of jasmine sambac you smell in Dior’s ₹10,000 top-seller J’Adore comes from the fields of Tamil Nadu. The woody-with-a-hint-of-damp-rot aroma in Diptyque’s Oud Palao ( ₹14,500 for a 75ml bottle) has its roots in Agarwood trees in Madhya Pradesh.
Kannauj has a multi-crore perfume industry, with thousands of people associated with it. Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Odisha are the other states with ittar manufacturing centres. Surprisingly, though, India has never produced its own lines of perfumes that are globally known. Ittar makers have been happy selling to their thinning, yet dedicated, clientele, while many essential oil producers export raw materials and sell to the cosmetics and tobacco industries. About 90% of the ittar produced in Kannauj goes to the tobacco industry, and much of the rest to the Middle East, says Shakti Vinay Shukla, director of the Fragrance & Flavour Development Centre started by the Union government in 1991 to “directly and indirectly engage with the industry and farmers and promote the art of perfumery”.
Over the past couple of years, the effects of the pandemic on business have made brands realise they need to look within to create a local market for fragrances and make the Indian consumer understand the importance of their own perfume legacy. But it’s an uphill battle that needs investment, market research and talent—the “nose”. The market continues to be dominated by European brands, with a “low-class” image attached to made-in-India products. Some of the young entrepreneurs who are getting into the business are doing it mainly because they love scents, not because they have the expertise or solid market research to back them. They are essentially packaging/repackaging what is available, with some innovation. It doesn’t help that a changing climate is affecting the quality of flower oils, though government institutions are stepping in to help create newer varieties.
A gold mine
In its broadest sense, fragrance goes beyond an individual’s expression of self, taste or toilette. Of all the senses, smell is the only one that has a direct line to parts of the brain that deal with emotions and memory, the amygdala and the hippocampus. Even before you enter a room, you become familiar with its smell, not how it looks or feels.
Want to spread the spirit of prayer through the home? Burn a mogra (jasmine) agarbatti. Need to cool down on a hot day? Try a spray of khus (vetiver). Want clear skin? Dab some rosewater. Can’t sleep? Roll some gilli mitti (petrichor) or lavender behind your ears or neck. Perhaps that’s why the herbaceous shamama smell transported me to that old white blanket, which may have been sprayed to ward off pests. Whether to remember the departed, show devotion, feel refreshed or work up an appetite, fragrance connects us with our past and present.
Propelled by such factors, the industry itself has been growing, overcoming hurdles that Shukla points to: the impact of the goods and services tax, the rising cost of raw materials, especially sandalwood ( ₹18 lakh a litre at present) and the increase in use of synthetic raw materials. “When your disposable income increases, perfume is among the first things you buy. And people are earning more and spending more, they want natural products as well. So there definitely can be a demand for our natural products.”
But these are not products that can make inroads into, let alone win over, a global market. Young home-grown perfumers are now taking the first steps towards change. Entrepreneurs behind perfume brands like Boond, Naso Profumi, Bombay Perfumery, ISAK Fragrances, House of Kastoor and All Good Scents—many of which source raw material from places like Kannauj and Hyderabad—are repackaging familiar local scents, even making new blends. Last month, on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too pitched in, saying he wanted to make perfumes from Kannauj a global brand.
“Indian perfumery is a gold mine that has survived for millennia,” says Bengaluru-based Ahalya Matthan, one of India’s leading perfumers, who has been associated with the industry for over two decades and creates bespoke fragrances. “There’s so much potential for home-grown perfume brands, especially since the pandemic has increased demand for wellness products.”
In 2020, the Indian perfume industry, largely unorganised, was valued at $500 million ( ₹3,750 crore), a small part of the $24 billion global industry. The local market is growing by 15-20% year-on-year. Globally, the perfumes market is expected to grow by 8.4%, with an estimated value of $69.9 billion by 2025, shows data from the Research and Markets platform.
The demand for Indian essential oils is on the upswing. Close to 85% of the domestic production of fragrance ingredients is exported. “There’s already a 27% rise in exports this year compared to 2021,” says J.P. Tiwari, the regional director of ChemExcil, the government-run export promotion council for basic chemicals, cosmetics and dyes. In the past three-four years, there has been a 10% rise year-on-year despite the pandemic, he adds. “People are buying perfumes because they are going out again, or they want to feel good. They want more options, and this is where our players can grow.”
March of the changemakers
Varun Tandon and his sister, Krati, hope to do exactly that. The Kannauj residents, whose family had a perfume business till they switched to the cold storage business a few decades ago, grew up in boarding schools, far from conversations about ittar. Ittar was such an integral part of life in the city that they never considered it special. “It’s like living in Agra and never visiting the Taj Mahal. I remember my mother packing bottles of ittar in my luggage to gift to my teachers and I would get irritated,” laughs Varun, 30, a film-maker and co-founder of Boond, an eight-month-old brand that’s trying to introduce subtlety to ittar for the modern consumer.
As they grew up, they too adopted the habit of giving ittar bottles as gifts to friends. A year ago, they had an idea: Why not make ittars that appeal to more modern perfume aficionados? “My father used to make ittars in the kitchen during summer holidays and make us smell them,” says Varun. “So it was easy for us to start a perfume business. We had the knowledge and we knew from which bhattis in Kannauj we could source the blends.”
“Have you noticed that when people our age think of ittar, they think of a very strong smell, something that will give them a headache?” says Varun. “We wanted to change that image. We simply made them lighter; it’s so simple but nobody bothered doing it till now.” Their Gulabi (rose), Motiya (jasmine) and Maati (petrichor) have the soft lingering smell of old, familiar fragrances. “Our history, culture live in ittar, we don’t want it to disappear.”
What makes Boond’s creations (priced at ₹1,399 onwards for 3ml) stand out is their colourful packaging, made by homemakers in villages near Kannauj. Each order is accompanied by personalised poetry composed by Varun and Krati’s father, Pravin, a diehard fan of the lyricist Gulzar and the singer Jagjit Singh, and handwritten by their mother, Rachna, a homemaker. “It has become a family business,” laughs Pravin.
It’s not about the money, Varun insists. “The agenda is to create a Made in India perfume and take it global.” Domestically at least, the marketing strategy seems to be working for the Instagram-only brand: Boond perfumes were part of the gift hampers sent by actors Katrina Kaif and Vicky Kaushal during their wedding in January. Varun says they make over 100 direct sales a month to customers across India, the UK, the US and Europe via Instagram or word-of-mouth orders. “People DM to ask what an ittar is. It’s strange, it’s like ghar ki murghi dal barabar (we take what we have for granted),” says Varun.
Finding the vocabulary
“We don’t pay enough attention to smell when it’s literally our first association with anything. Even our vocabulary for expressing a smell is so limited that we have to borrow words from how we convey the taste of food,” says Varanasi-born Esha Tiwari. Her new brand, Kastoor, is what the 29-year-old founder, who has no formal training in perfumery, calls a line of “modern ittars” that act as a bridge between the pure art of perfumery and contemporary tastes. She sources ittars from places like Kannauj and Hyderabad. “I read books, articles, and research to understand different smells and customers. I want to reach the globetrotters, those who are ready to experience something different. I blend depending on the mood I want to create with a fragrance,” she says. A whiff of her creation Reign, for instance, is enough to make you feel regal. The ingredients hold out a hint of why: woody, spicy white oud, balanced with sandalwood.
Smell has always fascinated her, especially since she grew up around her grandfather’s collection of ittar bottles. “Smell is all around us but it’s invisible,” Tiwari says. “Now, imagine if people were educated to express what they smell. It would be a game changer. It would make them appreciate perfumes more.”
With her entire family in the education sector, Tiwari had never thought of starting a perfume business, or any business for that matter. “I was working as a marketing professional. Nobody in my family has ever done any kind of business, so it wasn’t something I was supposed to do, but perfumes are just so fascinating. It’s literally air that makes you feel a certain way.”
Tiwari insists it’s too early to share her revenue numbers—she started her self-funded business last year—but the number of positions she’s trying to fill, five at the moment, in her south Delhi office indicates the business is expanding. “I think I have the nose for creating good perfumes,” she says confidently. “That’s half the battle won.”
Nischal Suri, 51, is the nose behind Naso Profumi. When we meet at his bhatti in Barabanki, some 30km from Lucknow, he holds out a tray of seashells he picked up during a recent trip to a coastal Indian city. “Try smelling them,” he says. They are odourless. Then he asks me to smell the ittar made using the seashells. It’s pungent. You don’t want to smell it twice. “Now if I mix it with two-three different oils, you would love it,” he smiles. I will have to wait a little to smell a seashell perfume; he’s in the process of creating one.
At Naso, that’s what he does—bring unique smells together. Think mint infused in rose and lemon that reminds you of staring at the sea while standing inside an old fort on a rainy day. Or tamarind combined with bergamot, evoking a memory of a meal of roast chicken and rabri with loved ones.
The magic of creating a fragrance requires courage. “You are essentially creating a perfume based on what you like and hoping your customer will like it too,” says Suri, who has spent the past three decades looking after his family business of making and exporting ittar and other essential oils to the tobacco and cosmetics industries.
Naso was actually the idea of his 26-year-old daughter, Astha. After studying in Europe and working as a fashion stylist in Italy, Astha realised that Indian perfumes are not being celebrated as they should be. “I was at this fashion show for an international brand and for some exhibition space, they had kept what looked like ittar bottles. I was amazed: Here was my legacy but still not mine. You know what I mean? That’s when I was like I have to build an India brand.”
The biggest challenge in creating such a brand is familiarising the customer with the range available in India, points out Lucknow-based Vidushi Vijayvergiya, who, two months ago, secured funding at the TV show Shark Tank India for her perfume brand ISAK Fragrances. “We have such diverse climatic conditions and flora and fauna, that’s the reason our perfumery has evolved so much. But the customer is still very much in favour of Western brands because they have been feeding this idea of luxury,” says the 39-year-old, whose family has been in the perfume business for over a century. “Indians generally don’t associate products made in India with luxury.” Her aim over the next five years is to open a store near Champs-Élysées in Paris, opposite the Sephora store that has perfumes from every part of the world but India. “I want them to smell the fragrance of India.”
This is where perfume brands like All Good Scents play a pivotal role. Besides offering online and offline workshops where people can learn the art of perfume-making, the brand’s founder and creative director, Rajiv Sheth, also offers DIY perfume kits so people can understand what really goes into the scent they use. “India never really progressed in terms of perfumery. Till a few years ago, people in India were using deodorants as perfumes. It took them some time to realise deos were a utility item,” says Sheth, who, like most of the other entrepreneurs, comes from a family of perfumers and spent 16 years in France creating fragrances. “After the pandemic, people are opening up to desi perfumes,” says Sheth, who is expanding his brand to include candles. “They are considering buying Indian products because they want to experiment, they want to open up to the story behind a fragrance.”
The consumer is becoming curious, observes Bombay Perfumery founder Manan Gandhi, among the first to launch an Indian fragrance brand, five years ago. “People are getting more cognisant about smells, where the ingredients are from,” he says. “Social media has played a big role too. People don’t think of wellness as some luxury thing any more.”
Having said that, he, like Naso’s Suri, agrees the task of changing the “low-class” image attached to made-in-India products is like “moving a hill”.
The answer can be found in a by-lane of Mumbai’s Bandra area. Jean-Christophe Bonnafous, a French national who has been living in India for six years and learning the flute from Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, owns Call of The Valley, a store in Bandra meant to bring French aesthetics to Indian perfumery. Besides fragrances, he offers essential oils, all made using ingredients sourced from across the world, including Haiti, Egypt and, of course, India. “India is still obsessed with the West,” he explains. “About 50% of my raw materials are from India. When I say something is from India in Europe, people get fascinated. In India, I have to convince people to buy products made here.”
Anita Lal, the force behind the luxury retail chain Good Earth, doesn’t understand the fascination with European perfumes. “Do you know how the whole culture of perfumes started in Europe? People used to pee in courts, not take baths, and to mask that smell they started using fragrances,” she laughs. Records suggest the French king Louis XIV (1638-1715) hated taking a bath so much that money was spent in Versailles to sweeten the air with flowers and spray furniture with perfume.
“Egypt and India were among the oldest perfume makers. In Mohenjo Daro, they discovered a silver perfume jar wrapped in a cloth. There’s just so much Indian history in perfume that there’s no need for us to look at the West. They might have the technology to create synthetic molecules and create 10 different smells from a single rose but we have the natural resources and the traditional knowledge of blending which they don’t,” insists Lal. Next month, Good Earth is launching two perfumes—Isfahan, inspired by fragrant gardens, and Zagros, reminiscent of a mountain meadow with the fresh green scents of conifers, because it was “high time we spread the fragrance of India across the world”.
It makes business sense, given the impact of the pandemic and the fact that government support for the tobacco industry, the biggest source of income for perfumeries, is fading. “We should have ideally thought of making our own perfumes decades ago,” says Suri. “During the pandemic, the government offered barely any support to small and medium-scale industries like ours. It was like a wake-up call to start focusing on the domestic market or perish, since the dependence on synthetic raw materials is also growing globally (China and Euope are the biggest producers). Covid has made us realise that if we want to survive we will have to focus on wellness as well, and it’s certainly doable given India’s expertise.”
Gopal Krishna Saini has spent 40 years growing flowers like jasmine, rose, henna and marigold on his six-acre family farm in Kannauj and selling them to ittar makers. “More perfume brands are coming up now, which gives me hope there will be more demand, and more money for us,” says the 50-year-old, who earns close to ₹15,000 a month. He has noticed, though, that changing climatic conditions have affected the fertility of the soil. “Flowers produce less oils, and the output, in general, has reduced in the past decade. The government needs to help us.”
It is trying. Since 2017, as part of the Aroma Mission, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has been helping over 50,000 farmers across the country enhance incomes using lab-grown, improved varieties of flowers and herbs like khus, rose, patchouli, mint and tulsi. “Climate change is certainly affecting productivity, which is why we are creating newer varieties to help more farmers. In the second phase of the project, which started last year, we are reaching out to more farmers,” says Prabodh Kumar Trivedi, director of the CSIR’s Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants in Lucknow.
Since independence, he explains, the focus has been on wheat and rice productivity. “It’s only in the past 10-15 years that there has been an increased interest in flowers and the fragrance industry,” he says. “We are waking up to what we have a little late but at least we are.”
Mewa Ram was always aware of the power of scent. When I finally ask him if he ever wanted to leave Kannauj for a better-paid job, he smiles and says, “I create something in a tiny bottle that brings happiness to me and to the people who use it. How many jobs can do that?”
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