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New notes: a whiff of smoke, a hint of ‘chai’

Armed with technical prowess and the zeal to experiment with cigarettes and 'chai', India's boutique fragrance houses are redefining scent-making as art

Jahnvi Dameron Nandan of The Perfume Library. Photo: Sachin Soni
Jahnvi Dameron Nandan of The Perfume Library. Photo: Sachin Soni

Cigarettes, 4,213 of them, with red lipstick on the stub. Some crushed angrily, others half smoked. That’s the inspiration for Füsun, a fragrance by The Perfume Library based on an installation in Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, which displays objects from the book by the same name. In the book, the love-lorn Kemal saves every token of cousin Füsun’s presence—a salt shaker she used, a barrette, a cigarette.

The fragrance opens with a top note of peony with a smoky base. “Füsun’s cigarettes as seen in the museum have been the initial accord and the starting source of this fragrance, and it has evolved into its present form," says Jahnvi Dameron Nandan, founder, The Perfume Library, a four-year-old boutique perfume company based in Delhi. The scent is especially bold in these times when cigarettes are taboo. It just goes to show one thing, that fragrance-making was, and always will be, a work of art.

Walking down the streets in India, one cannot ignore the smells. Madhumalti, raat ki rani, and harsingar fill the senses with their creamy, sharp scents. At the other end of the spectrum are the strong odours: spices, cow dung and fish. Given this variety, it’s not surprising that India has been muse for many iconic perfumes. There’s Guerlain Shalimar, Boucheron Jaipur, Hermès Un Jardin Après La Mousson, and, more recently, Byredo Flowerhead, which is inspired by the sweet-smelling flowers of an Indian wedding.

The Perfume Library uses bold bases in its fragrances.

The new supply chain

The fragrance market in India is booming, with multiple outlets of Parcos and Jo Malone’s entry into the country this year.

In addition, we have our own contemporary fragrance industry. Scions of estates who supplied raw materials to perfume houses around the world now have the opportunity to harness these precious ingredients, with Western technique and Indian sensibility.

The House of Uma in Chhattisgarh is one such estate that would supply essential oils to beauty giants such as Estée Lauder, Tom Ford and Givaudan (the manufacturer of some of the world’s most premium fragrances, including Thierry Mugler Angel). “These companies have come to trust us not only because we make some of the most rare and precious organic essential oils (such as rose), but also because our company has always operated with the highest levels of ethical integrity and technical prowess," says Shrankhla Holecek, founder, Uma Oils. Today, her brand makes some of the most luxurious aromatherapy face, hair and body oils that are popular with Hollywood celebrities and supermodels alike—fans include actors Anne Hathaway and Molly Sims. The range—now available on Net-a-Porter—utilizes centuries of knowledge that has been passed down a family of royal Ayurvedic physicians.

Manan Gandhi of Bombay Perfumery also comes from a family that has been supplying ingredients for decades to fragrance houses such as Chanel and Guerlain. Gandhi worked at the family business in Grasse before launching his own brand, Bombay Perfumery, in 2015. “In 2016, Euromonitor has pegged fragrance sales in India at $298 million (around Rs2,000 crore), driven by easier accessibility to international brands and the growth of the online shopping medium," he says.

As the Indian customer becomes more discerning, she wants both Western technique (clean, light), and the uniqueness of Indian notes. “We’re dealing with a consumer who is informed, ready to experiment and not afraid to challenge the traditionally accepted norms of what constitutes luxury." Chai Musk by Bombay Perfumery is a great example of this experimental aesthetic. It opens with the sweet, creamy notes of masala chai, which are soon taken over by the sharpness of tea, lemongrass and ginger.

Manan Gandhi of Bombay Perfumery.Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Bouquet of ideas

Home is a likely inspiration for most Indian fragrance houses. At Good Earth, founder Anita Lal looks at her own backyard. “Everything at Good Earth starts with a natural curiosity, she says. “I’ve had a passion for scent my entire life, and my indulgence is that I have fresh tuberoses every day for my home almost through the year." She explains that she’s always thinking about the scents in her garden, and applies this curiosity to composing Good Earth’s Amritam line. “Nothing gives me greater pleasure than when my nose tells me that it’s ‘just right’." Right now she is geared for the launch of a mountain forest blend with cedar and oakmoss for Good Earth’s Van Vaibhav collection, to be launched on 21 September. When asked about her favourite modern Indian fragrance, she names Aphtoori by The Perfume Library.

Vivek Sahni, founder, Kama Ayurveda, loves unusual, earthy perfumes. Among his international favourites are Molecule 02 by Escentric Molecules, which is a molecule that bursts on your skin to make you smell like a better version of yourself, and Avignon from Comme des Garçons’ Incense series.

Message in a bottle

Indian perfumers are working in ways that could soon help them compete with international fragrance houses. From packaging to ingredients, everything is thought through and deliberate. Moving on from the cut-glass ittardans of the past, perfumes today are encased in tidy containers like Bombay Perfumery’s stout bottles, designed by The Brewhouse in Delhi. The vintage-looking bottles at The Perfume Library, designed by Dameron herself, take you back in time with old-fashioned labels, typewriter font and pieces of twine.

The ingredients are becoming more complex. When I last spoke to the perfumers of Bombay Perfumery, Pierre Kurzenne (creator of 1020) counted the spicy, woody Cashmeran among his favourite notes, while Alexandra Carlin (creator of Chai Musk) contemplated making a fragrance out of custard apple. In fact, Gandhi is known for making trips to Haiti for vetiver, which he combines with Indian jasmine, tuberose, pepper and lemongrass.

Ahalya Matthan, founder of Ally Matthan Creations, is one of India’s first modern perfumers, who launched in 2004. She comes from a family of incense makers. “With my background, I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a perfumer," she says. When her mother insisted that she get a formal degree, she enrolled at ISIPCA, a school for postgraduate study in fragrances, food flavouring and cosmetics, in Paris. One of her favourite creations is the citrus and turmeric blend for Areev, her own bath and body range launched in 2010, because the ingredients smell modern, yet encapsulate Indian tradition.

Rajiv Sheth of All Good Scents also comes from a fragrance background. “My grandfather had exported essential oils to Africa and Europe." In Africa, these oils were specially blended for henna application, and other local rituals, while in Europe they were used for haute parfumerie. As a young boy, Sheth loved smelling these oils; eventually, he joined the ISIPCA in Paris. He worked for 20 years under some of the best noses in France before returning to launch his own brand of fragrances. Not only are his fragrances highly rated on, the bottles are designed by Krsna Mehta.

The Indian perfume industry might be at a nascent stage but it hasn’t stopped the perfumers from boldly channelling notes such as leather, masala chai, turmeric, even cigarettes. Because of India’s sharp, sweet odours, they are exposed to a wide range of unexpected notes. Add to that family legacy, history, international exposure and modern sensibility, and you have a community that is building its own unique style of modern perfumery.


Fragrances at a glance

Moiré by Bombay Perfumery

Founded by Manan Gandhi in 2015.

An East-meets-West mix with leather and tuberose

Love & Joy.

Love & Joy by All Good Scents

Founded by Rajiv Sheth in 2015.

This powdery floral combines the freshness of peony and litchi with lily of the valley, amber and white musk.

This Space In Between You & Me.

This Space In Between You & Me by The Perfume Library

Founded by Jahnvi Dameron Nandan in 2013.

Fresh, green, grassy notes with ‘tulsi’ and vetiver

Areev Cocoa Cream.

Areev Cocoa Cream range by Ally Matthan Creations

Founded by Ahalya Matthan in 2004. Formulated for very dry skin with the goodness of cocoa butter and coconut cream

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