December 3, 2021

Cl Youth Theatre

Fashion, The needs of women

Why attar is back in fashion

The newly launched ‘Samajwadi Attar’, according to a member of the Samajwadi Party, will smell of ‘socialism’. But even as people decode the fragrance of socialist politics, the good old attar not just evokes nostalgia but has got a modern twist in cocktails, food and festivities.

When sommelier and wine educator Gagan Sharma curated a gift box last year, a bottle that caught everyone’s attention was one of a mildly scented attar. It stood amid a collection of gins, honey, wines and chocolates, all made in India. “Ittar is a celebration of our senses. It’s so authentically Indian and it has a certain tehzeeb (manner) around it. For me, it evokes nostalgia and memories of my grandparents, who always used ittar, and my childhood spent in Chandni Chowk. Its beauty is in the fact that while distilling the ittar, the purity and provenance are kept in mind,” he says. All gifts and festivities in his household always include a bottle of attar.

That smells take your mind back to a memory and trigger certain feelings is well documented. People wake up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee, drift into a blissful state of comforting relaxation with the whiff of petrichor and suddenly step into a bright mood with the tangy citrusy aroma of oranges. In an earlier interview to India Today, Abdulla Ajmal, consulting perfumer at Ajmal Perfumes had explained: “When you smell things, the olfactory bulb talks to the rest of the system, allowing your brain to make a connection between smell and what you are feeling or experiencing at the time. Therefore, when we experience a scent which is stored in our memory, our brain tends to correlate it with certain recollections and the emotions involved with them emerge in tandem.”

Attar is a perfume that evokes emotions of Indian-ness and memories of childhood. “It’s about connecting to your roots. Different attars will trigger different emotions. Some have a divine fragrance, there are others that make you feel confident, some relax you,” explains Kushal Gundhi, the eighth-generation owner of Gulabsingh Johrimal House of Fragrance, a 205 year-old attar shop in Old Delhi.

The origin of attar is often debated. Some claim that it came from Persia and Egypt, there are several who trace its roots to the villages of India. “Attar was first made in India several thousand years ago from where it travelled to Egypt and the Arab countries through traders and then went to Europe. The Mughal kings used attar extensively in their darbars,” says Gundhi, who encourages customers to make their own blends of attar at his store. The first attar made by the founder was one distilled from Bulgarian roses or ruh gulab cultivated at their farm in Hathras, around 200 km from Delhi. “Back then, this was the only fragrance. Over time, we distilled attars from other flowers and now, we make them from leaves, fruits, roots and wood to appeal to the younger audience that wants variety,” he says. His extensive collection has aromas such as oud, saffron, tobacco leaf, amber, caramel, wood along with a bouquet of floral perfumes.

The attar has enjoyed a special—and almost enigmatic—place in Indian culture with tales of kings and queens bathing in a mélange of scents, surrounding their chambers with fountains perfumed with attar derived from roses and of ‘gandhkarikas’ distilling the essential oils of flowers for the royal harems. The quintessentially Indian perfume later found itself on the silver screen with romantic movie scenes and songs invoking the heady perfume of the attar.

The romance of attar is in the stories that every fragrance carries. Gulab Singh Johrimal still distills attar the traditional way by boiling the extract over wood fire until the essential oil is collected. Gundhi says that 5,000 kg of the Bulgarian rose yield 1 kg of attar which is currently sold for Rs 28,000 for 10 ml. Sharma says that the process of blending and creating your choice of attar is a memorable experience. “Ittar is home-grown, it has a deep cultural connect and is authentic. People attach pride in something that is Indian,” he says.

At a time when people are taking pride in all things local and Indian, the attar has got a contemporary twist that takes it beyond being a just a perfume. In its modern avatar, the attar has made its way into swanky bars and gourmet kitchens. It’s sprayed on cocktails as a garnish, used to scent food and used in diffusers. Distilled from natural ingredients, traditional attar doesn’t contain synthetic chemicals, making it safe in food. Mix it with neutral alcohol and you’ve got a bottle of perfume ready. A famous paan shop in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri is believed to spray a hint of attar on his paan for that extra flavour. And with a new blend of 22 scents to create the ‘Samajwadi Attar’, the traditional Indian perfume has now made its way into electoral politics.