Attar story

Fragrances have been a thing of wonder for as long as I can remember. While growing up, perfumes of every sort were called "scent" (pronounced s-a-i-n-t) in colloquial Bengali. This was when sophisticated citybred men would indulge in a splash of Palmolive after their morning shave. Deodorants did not exist, and you only needed a generous dusting of talcum powder after a shower to get started with your day.

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I would watch fascinated as a quick press of the cap dispersed the fluid in the glass bottle into mist. The mist would land on my father's shirt, and give him his manly, cologne smell. My love for perfumes come from their knack for uncovering memories. A few years after my grandmother—Umma—passed away, my mother gave me a small, wooden gourd-shaped thing. The thing had a light coating of shiny black lacquer, and belonged to Umma from when she was a bride. It had a small hole at one end, plugged in by a tiny piece of cork. The thing had a peculiar, sweet smell when you opened the cork. Later I got to know it was an ittardan, a small receptacle for storing fragrance. The smell inside was of musk, distilled from pheromone glands of the Asian musk deer. The ittardan was over five decades old and empty when I got it, but the smell remained. It was faint, distinctive. A wild, sweet, old-world aroma. 

Getting serious about perfume is not easy. My first proper perfume was a drugstore variety bottle of Nike, called Up or Down. It is a clear, brown-pink liquid that has a light springtime smell of sage, cedar leaf, and vetiver. A mainstream, everyday blend that you might forget in a hurry. Among other perfumes in my wardrobe is an unassuming bottle of an 1980's powerhouse smell—Bijan for Men. It is every bit like loud, flamboyant 80's advertisements—a small-scale nuclear explosion of bergamot, oakmoss, amber, and musk. This is meant for someone wearing a gold chain, a rayon suit, and a mullet. I got it as a gift from a well-meaning grand-uncle, and use it for a night of heavy drinking, and to offend sensitive people.

My long-coveted bottle of Azzarro Chrome is another drugstore variety fragrance that smells clean, loaded with aldehyde and white musk, which makes it the perfect bait for fragrance snobs. It is an unassuming frosted square of glass that holds the airy blue perfume inside. It is a smell I associate with a crisp winter morning in Calcutta, the day after our wedding. Each glass bottle is a significant memory, every bit as important as the moment of its acquisition. Buying attars however, never figured as a consideration.

For years, I have regarded attars with suspicion. My earliest memory of attar is of a sweaty, grey, synthetic safari suit. I cannot put a face on the suit. I had met this man when I was five, he was perhaps a colleague of my father, back in the Public Works Department at Murshidabad in central Bengal. The safari suit would reek of a cloying, heavy smell of synthetic ambergris, turpentine, and sandalwood. A typical attar from the 1980s, it was strong enough to mask the smell of a dozen, sweaty forty-something men in a stuffy, government office room.

I never took a liking for attars. Growing up, the rows of glass bottles with cheap lacquered caps strewn across mirrored shelves in Patherghati aroused suspicion and little else. Park Circus in central Calcutta is where you would find scrawny old men sitting in tiny glass-lined shops selling vials of attar. Often, there would be long bearded gents selling attars from a little wooden chest fixed at the back of their bicycles—minuscule perfume emporia on wheels. Each clear bottle had a crystal stopper that lifted a smidgen of attar, which would be dabbed on your arm for a smell test. I would shrug off their smells and walk on. Things changed when I moved to Delhi and discovered purani Dilli. It was here in Old City that I came across a little shop on the corner of Chawri Bazaar and Sitaram Bazaar Road. Hidden between sheet metal and hardware shops sits a bespectacled man with oil-slicked, parted hair. The air of this sliver of a shop is heavy with the smell of jasmine blooms and amber. Here, my education of attars began.

The attar seller is a friendly banya gentleman with pan stained teeth and a well-meaning grin. He listens patiently as I try to tell him that I want to try attars for the first time. His first offering comes with a grin. "White musk", he remarks, and dabs my left forearm, followed by an expert swish of the fingers to help the skin absorb the perfume. The smell is unremarkable, an ugly, synthetic cousin of Jovan White. I am less than impressed, and ask him to show me something a touch more subtle. With a sigh, he reaches out to a corner of his ancient wooden shelf. Out pops a crystal vial enclosing a clear, oily liquid. The glass stopper comes off and a quick dab follows a sombre phrase, "White Oudh".

I wait for a while and take a whiff, and am lost. In my head opens an endless sea of bergamot and pine top notes. In a minute, the aroma changes to a honey oak scent, with a lingering dark, animal note underneath. This is my first sampling of agarwood attar, and I realize there would be a long road ahead. Despite its playful opening note, it is an intriguing, older man smell, with an inexplicable Oriental tone. Woody notes have never been my favorite, but Oudh is a different beast. It is at once sweet, musky and dark, with an opening of fresh blossoms, and powerful, ancient magic.

My second bottle of Oudh appeared in a stall at the Park Circus intersection, a year ago. I asked for a 8ml roll-on from a generic brand. Out came a bottle of golden brown perfume trapped in a small tolla glass ampoule. This was a synthetic from the nerve centre of attars in India—Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh—made by the small-scale company Arco. The first whiff blew me away with its intensity. The woody, amber notes were more pronounced. The sweetness subdued, acquiring more of a vanilla-infused warmth with time. This was a powerful, grown-up guy elixir that would last for a full day. I pocketed a bottle soon.

Attars, like all fragrances, are chemistry experiments. The notes of attars open up in different ways on people, based on their own constitution of skin oils and sweat. Your everyday, alcohol-based perfume stays on for a few hours at best, after which the smell tapers off. But attars have a bit more magic to them. A decent attar can last for upwards of a day, intensifying after an hour or two, as the body's warmth diffuses the oil molecules into the air.

Attars can conceal unexpected heart notes hidden behind the opening act. My most recent attar, a 5ml phial of blue iridescence from Matia Mahal in Purani Dilli conceals a fruity note of mint and juniper berries over a warm base of musk and amber. It is a bouquet that lingers for days. An unusual, old school fragrance I have learned to love.

Attars based on a traditional sandalwood oil base command exorbitant pricing, but contemporary synthetics are affordable, selling for upwards of 100 Rupees for a tolla (10ml). These are attars based on a neutral mineral oil base—the aroma comes from a mix of natural, vapour-distilled aromatics and synthetic molecules that mimic natural scents. Compare it to a middle-tier French perfume, and buying attars just make more sense. Thanks to the French perfume industry, fragrance prices inflate many times over their cost price. Contemporary perfumes are lab-grown molecules, and the price is split across R&D costs, packaging and branding expenses, and snob value. Thanks to synthetics, you can buy yourself an ampoule of attar that mimics Davidoff Cool Water, Hugo Boss, or a top-shelf Kenzo with ease and affordability. It is aromatic subversion at its finest.

Artisans of attar distill and blend aromatics by hand. Raw materials are often scarce, and can take months to process and mature. Pure Oud, for instance, comes form the heart of the temperamental agarwood tree, which produces a fragrant resin when infected by the ascomycetous mould. Arcane copper distillation machines extract the resin to yield that enigmatic distillate. Oud can cost upwards of 20,000 Rupees ($350) for a small 10 ml tolla vial.

The perfumers of Kannauj have used this age-old process to distill hundreds of florals, roots, woods, and animal essences. And perhaps the most intriguing, and delicate of the lot is mitti. It's the fleeting smell of wet earth after the rains. Cakes of fine mud from the riverbanks are baked, processed, and matured in stills, it's precious aroma captured in clear glass jars using ways known only to few. This is the art of perfumery in its closest approach to alchemy—in its ability to contain the smell of the dark, wet earth from half-forgotten, rainy afternoons in a bottle.

Unlike perfumes, the aroma of attar stays with you for days. It rests deep inside your skin, your clothes, your hair. It morphs and blends with your body. In time, it becomes you. And in fleeting moments, somewhere in the glass vial, you find a secret joy, an enchantment, and a cue for places and things left behind.


67blogs said...

a beautiful post! will try one attar really soon

Paper Boats said...

I live in a oud-crazed faux-nation where every which way you turn redolence grabs you by the nose! So thank you for this very nice read and helping me revive my nostalgia for the ouds and attars of old. :)

bhavini said...

There's so much to reread in your post. I have an interest in attars as well, but I've never really invested myself as you have. Thanks for bringing the inspiration back.

Fully grown fuzzy Hipposaur said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, 67blogs, Paper Boats, and bhavini. I'm glad this let you dip into your own memories of smells and scents.

Unknown said...

Nice story live what bhavini said. Thanks for bringing the inspiration. Back