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Perfume & Flavour Translations
Notes between the perfumer and historian
June 2020 - August 2021
Tell me about the varieties of narcissus you have been growing?
Among narcissi, my favorites are varieties of Narcissus tazetta - the typical nargis of Central and South Asia, abundantly referenced in Persian and Urdu poetry, depicted in Safavid and Mughal painting, and still sold by Indian florists in the fall and winter. In the northern US these are not very common due to their limited cold hardiness, and the main variety I grow, 'Avalanche,' is one of the hardier selections. However, my garden also faces south and has most gravelly, well-drained soil, so it is comparatively hot and dry - and as a result 'Avalanche' and other Narcissus tazetta varieties actually perform much better for me than the large daffodil-type narcissi that are the norm here. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that identifying, tracking down, and growing plants from the materials I study and from my observations traveling has not only been illuminating to my research and personally satisfying but has also greatly enriched my horticultural skills and shaped my gardening style.
“[...] two aristocratic young men meeting on a terrace, and each is holding a single sprig of nargis or tazetta narcissus. Presumably, they would have periodically sniffed the flowers in such an instance, and the sweet and spicy narcissus fragrance would have marked the encounter.”
- Extract from an interview between Nicolas and Bharti on the 17th Century Mughal painting 'Prince with Audience'. 'Mughal garden Typology', Journal/ Litrahb Perfumery Journal, Summer 2020
I think the narcissus would really dominate here; I also suspect that the white stuff in the little bowl is supposed to be jasmine blossoms. There is not a lot of theorization of these sorts of scenes, even though they are fairly numerous in the eighteenth century. The narcissi are a complex cultural reference; they are likened to eyes (so allude to vision and allure) but also specifically intoxicated eyes (thus intoxication, passion).
At the same time, being held like this and given their sharp fragrance, I think the narcissi are also presented here as a mufarriḥ or exhilarant, a fragrant substance meant to open the nose/breath and the mind, facilitating thought (important to note there that dimāgh in early modern Persian was a slippery term, able to refer to both the nose and the brain; hence it meaning “nose” in modern Iranian Persian and “brain” in Hindi/Urdu). Beyond that, I am tempted to read these scenes as possibly romantically/erotically charged.
I would think about this scent-translation as a 'dirty floral': Narcissus with a shadow of lotus (lotus also being a metaphor for eyes and intoxication) with overt indolic notes. I imagine Narcissus extract in combination with blue lotus and other night blooming flowers should fill the body and soul of the fragrance. The musk and indole should play up the erotic tension present in this painting.
Floral: Narcissus absolute, Tuberose absolute, ylang-ylang, jasmine grandiflorum co2, violet, lily, gardenia, lilac, lotus absolute, iris, grape, galbanum, saffron, lavender absolute
Musk: civet and castoreum musk (synthetic), ambroxan, phenylacetic acid, linalool, azarbre, cis hexenyl, cis hexenyl salicylate. (Perfume concentrate diluted in ethical sandalwood oil)
The fragrance translation for Painting No. 2, uses cashmeran/ cashmere musk, an exquisite aroma molecule that simulates a warm, clean, velvety-creamy-woodsy musk to emulate the sensation of luxurious garments, shawls, textiles covering bolsters, wool and silk carpets. Sylvia Houghteling writes an indepth essay on the significance of elite garments, textiles and pashmina shawls of the Mughal era that is worth reading.
Images: Hunting coat and embroidery detail, India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1620–30. Embroidered satin with silk, V & A Museum, perfume translation of the textiles based on her descriptions.
A note on 'Dirty Floral':
I would describe this perfume as sensual but transgressive: the heady narcissus note, supplanted by lotus, violets, lilies and jasmine swiftly yield to the erotic-narcotic accords that unsettle conceptions of intimacy and tension while fliting easily between realms of the divine and the sacrilegious.
The intensity of this aesthetic construction is further amplified by indole, a natural organic compound found in rose, jasmine, tuberose, narcissus - and feces. It is this 'dirty' animalic note that substantiates the voluptuousness found in sweet-smelling flowers. No floral perfume is complete without the carnal-facet of indole - a perfect metaphor for nature where elements of rot, decay, death give way to regeneration, life and beauty.
Fragrance critic Nuri McBride writes eloquently on this subject.
For the Edible Perfume, apricots would be good - an important local product in the Hills where Nargis grow more commonly. It is also the basis of "courtly" sweets like the Hyderabadi 'Khubani ka mitha' (a jammy compote made from stewing dried apricots in sugar and nuts)
Here I would like to imagine what floral moonlight/desire can 'taste' like. Nargis and Apricot are a curious combination that might spark some magic.
For the first stage I've prepared a perfume sugar with extracts of tuberose, marjoram, jasmine grandiflorum CO2 (as jasmines are depicted in a bowl in front of the Prince), sandalwood and davana CO2 to heighten the sensation of Narcissus on one's palette.
For the second stage, the sugar is mixed into thickened apricot compote that carries the floral scent and flavour-notes, then coated around apricot bits, followed by a final perfume sugar and corn-starch dusting.
For the Incense, I choose Blue Lotus for its subdued narcotic profile.
You now have the final versions of synesthesia-translations of this painting.
The perfume starts out quite green rather than straightforwardly floral, with a floral sweetness slowly taking over. Even so, it retains a bit of a sharp edge, appropriate to the somewhat bittersweet fragrance of fresh Tazetta narcissi. Similarly, the edible perfume for this set has a really intriguing floral complexity. It is rich and sweet and fruity - thanks to the dried apricot base - but also somehow slightly savory redolent with cool, bright floweriness.
Among the five in this project, two perfumes burn bright and hot: Narcissus and Kewra. While notes of narcissus are employed in mainstream feminine perfumes, I have drawn out the flower's dark pervasive facet and transformed it into an illuminated masculine figure that possesses a psychotropic potency to induce fantasies in the wearer of this perfume.
This fantasy is further enhanced by 18th century Urdu poetry - which is why I insisted on your inclusion of translated verses that are now discretely embedded across the exhibition for audiences to discover. The curious idiomatic expressions of Mīr Taqī ‘Mīr’ or Shaikh Z̤uhūruddīn Shāh ‘Ḥātim’ deploy such fragrant seduction through a kaleidoscope of word, image and emotion!