Bharti Lalwani is an art critic and perfumer. She trained as an artist at Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design in London and later as a critic with a special focus on Southeast Asia at The Sotheby's Institute of Art in Singapore. Hailing from an enterprising family of migrants who saw their future outside feudal India, Bharti spent over twenty years of her childhood and professional life in Lagos, Nigeria, and has moved across several countries and career paths.
In 2017, she became a pioneering independent perfumer in an otherwise male dominated, close-knit inter-generational industry of distillers, aroma chemical traders and attar-wallahs in South Asia. Upon further experimentation and field research, she found that her training as a critic equipped her with sharp insights and ability to produce original work within an old, stagnant and mainly Euro-centric field. She established Litrahb Perfumery in 2018 as an extension of her criticism and artistic practice.
Doing what no museum or institution has or can, Bagh-e Hind, the exhibition, is conceptualised, designed, funded and produced independently by the art critic. As sensory history of South Asia is an emerging field, she developed this multi-disciplinary research project in collaboration with Dr. Nicolas Roth between June 2021 - August 2022. Together, Bharti and Nicolas curated the first and so far the only physical iteration of "Bagh-e Hind" at the Institute of Art and Olfaction, Los Angeles (USA) between July - August 2022.
Bharti is also the commissioning editor of the Catalogue of this exhibition-project that presents new approaches on the sensorial history of South Asia through experimental essays. Operating outside the bounds of academia, she once again finds herself in a pioneering position.
Ultimately, Bagh-e Hind is a public access "garden" she builds for deeply personal reasons. In August 2022, the NMG+GSUS micro grant awarded her INR 25,000 (USD 300) to support her endeavour and to recognise her contribution to art history. Follow her practice via her Newsletters.
Nicolas Roth is a German-American gardener-scholar of early modern South Asia and the co-curator of Bagh-e Hind in its virtual as well as physical iteration at the Institute for Art and Olfaction (Los Angeles, USA). Having built this project's foundational structure by curating the historical paintings, poetry, plants and garden-architectural sites, he remains as the academic consultant on this sprawling digital garden while maintaining his current position at the Harvard Fine Arts Library, as the Visual Resources Librarian for Islamic Art and Architecture.
Nicolas' research breaks new ground as few historians have seriously engaged with early modern South Asian gardens through the lens of their plants and methods of cultivation. His approach is unique in being closely informed by his practical experience as a life-long gardener. The exact botanical species of rose, narcissus, larkspur and poppies are not just identified in paintings and gardening texts, they are also traced and grown in his Cambridge garden in order to be visually and sensually experienced.
Nicolas engages with historical knowledge by testing the theoretical in the practical field that brings the fragrant minutia of flowers to the forefront. His doctoral dissertation "Marigolds and Munshīs: Horticultural Writing and Garden Culture in Mughal South Asia", applies his experiential understanding to the complex interweaving of practical information and literary fancy in Mughal-era writings on gardens and gardening.
Extending into the realm of art history, he brings the same horticultural and botanic discernment to parsing the oft-commented upon but inadequately understood wealth of plant and garden depictions in Mughal painting. In doing so, he resurrects glimpses of the wisdom and concerns of historic gardeners and garden aficionados, and of the visions of beauty, fertility, and productivity that they pursued.
Bagh-e Hind is a multidisciplinary extension of his research; through collaboration with Bharti and by way of her many-faceted synesthesia explorations, the historic garden ideals encoded in paintings and texts are brought to life as immersive sensory experiences that can be accessed beyond any physical garden yet are sensually faithful to it.
Perfumer and Historian bring to Life
Historic Paintings through Scent
"Bagh-e Hind" is an open access research-exhibition conceptualised to map the olfactory landscape of Mughal-era South Asia. The first of its kind, this multidisciplinary exploration is the result of an independent collaboration between art critic-perfumer Bharti Lalwani (India) and historian and literary scholar Nicolas Roth (USA). Nicolas, a specialist in Mughal-era horticultural writings, was invited to select five paintings depicting garden scenes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for Bharti to translate into perfume, Edible Perfume™, incense, and glass sculptures among other artistic forms between the period of June 2021 to August 2022.
Paintings curated in this exhibition illustrate the splendour of the pre-colonial period through elaborately drawn details of rose bushes as far as the eye can see, narcissus stems delicately held by courtly gentlemen, a stunning fireworks display, irises within a formal garden-scape, and a discreet lover’s spot decorated with a bed of flowers amid a lush forest. These select paintings, while in the public domain of digitised collections belonging to institutions outside of South Asia, have so far never been put on public view, or curated together or seen through the lens of botany, much less contextualised with immersive scent experiences.
A partnership across continents, Bharti and Nicolas dream of a world where fragrance is profoundly embedded in the way gardens are experienced, represented, and understood. Their combined multifold expertise offers a novel groundbreaking methodology that takes scholars into the weeds of this emerging field of sensorial history.
Bagh-e Hind is an invitation to audiences everywhere to engage emotionally with art history, to take pleasure in the aesthetic constructions of each painting, and to saturate their senses in order to reimagine new dimensions of love, abundance and pleasure.