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  • Bharti Lalwani

Bagh-e Hind: Resurrected Scentscapes of 17th & 18th Century India

The Emperor Shah Jahan with his Son Dara Shikoh, Folio from the Shah Jahan Album verso: ca. 1620; recto: ca. 1530–50 Painting by Nanha, The Metropolitan Museum

Gardens of Hind: Reclamation of the Past

‘Bagh-e-Hind’ first took shape in 2018 as a fragrance translation of a 17th century painting The Emperor Shah Jahan with his Son Dara Shikoh (Folio from the Shah Jahan Album). Shah Jahan is depicted admiring jewels with his favorite son, presumably in a garden. The father contemplates a ruby in his right hand, while holding a tray of emeralds and rubies in the other. His infant son meanwhile grasps a peacock fan and a turban ornament. The image illustrates the sumptuousness of court life in intricately painted details of jewels, the gilded furniture, and the textiles, but it is the extravagantly painted frame around the image that further expands the theme of splendour and opulence. While the subject of the painting appears static, a moment carefully presented to symbolise Shah Jahan’s command over the material world, the drawings in the frame appear to barely contain the dynamism of the natural plane beyond the purview of the emperor.

The beating wings of doves disperse the cloud motifs abruptly as they zip past a tree with heaving oversize peaches about to drop, while bees, winged insects and a butterfly dutifully tend to flower-buds on the verge of bursting into full bloom. All this action is just in the top register of the frame. Peacocks, partridges and cranes strut about lush foliage and multi-petal blooms of vibrantly hued, exaggerated representations of saffron-crocus, narcissus, rose, calendula and purple iris. As an art critic and perfumer, I could practically smell the ozone; freshly turned wet soil intermingled with floral honey lingering in the air just as the flavours of overripe stone-fruit and sherbet inexplicably appeared, tantalising my taste-buds. The resulting perfume-translation was a decadent bouquet of floral notes with a touch of mouth-watering accords (nectar, mango, honeysuckle, frankincense, oudh and sandalwood). In this instance, the medium of ‘fragrance’ functioned as a conceptual alliteration that matched the bhava and invitation of the painter to the audience: Come and drink in the imagery through your senses!

Analyses of smells and fragrances lavishly communicated in this genre of paintings are fairly recent. Only in the last two decades have a handful academics ventured beyond the usual architectural, religious and socio-political discourse on Mughal and Deccan India. The meticulous research of specialists James McHugh, Emma J. Flatt, Katherine B. Schofield, Ali Akbar Husain and Dipti Khera, has delved into multi-sensory analyses of smell, sound, word, image and mood via excavation of medieval Sanskrit texts, descriptions of Mughal and Deccan courtly disposition, Hindustani music, perfumery manuals and pictorial scrolls to reveal new interpretations of cultural values embedded in these artistic, literary, and garden-architectural expressions (1). Scholar Dipti Khera’s recently published research "The Place of Many Moods: Udaipur’s Painted Lands and India’s Eighteenth Century" provides exhaustive analyses of the painting traditions of north-western India in the eighteenth century. While this unusual research strongly suggests that sensory perception has the potency to prompt valuable clues to uncovering new interpretations, tangible aromatic-translations of the atmosphere and mood in this artistic genre have not been broadly considered (2). Additionally, the issue of access to such folios that lie in institution-vaults (most not on display) outside of South Asia invariably reveal the far reaching tentacles of Empire into present day that dictate the barometers for archival and institutional exhibition-building. This problematic mode of history-making raises many questions - If access to these artefacts is always going to be a virtual experience, especially for those outside of the insular academic world, then is it possible to reimagine novel methodologies to draw them out for public viewing and consumption? Is it possible to re-contextualise historical South Asian paintings and objects through lyrical olfactory interpretations that could be so bold as to dim the power of the museum-spectacle? As an art critic who inadvertently veered into the realm of fragrance, the early conceptions for an experimental, virtual-yet-tangible exhibition such as 'Bagh-e Hind' took shape on the basis of these uneasy questions.

In the process of searching for methods to excavate olfactory heritage, I found the compelling work of Lauren N. Davis and Dora Goldsmith, albeit outside the field of South Asia area studies. Davis investigates the smell-scapes of the Ottoman Empire and their transformations in the 20th century - the smell of trade routes reflected in spice bazaars, the marketing practices of the time, the scent-memories of twentieth century shop-owners and fragrance that still lives on in the Bazaar to this day. Davis curated an exhibition in 2016 in Istanbul titled "Scent and the City/Koku ve Şehir" at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations. This incredible exhibition spanned Hittite, Ancient Greko-roman civilizations to Byzantine and Ottoman empires over a period of 3,500 years. On exhibit were over 50 scents from history (henna, ambergris, musk, frankincense, jute sacks) to present day fragrances (cologne, rose water, coffee, plastic bags) that sought to expand the audiences’ perception of the past in relation to contemporary life, religion, ritual and food (3).

Goldsmith, on the other hand, is an Egyptologist whose PhD dissertation offers a hypothesis on the role and cultural significance of smells in ancient Egypt. Over a decade she has built a compendium of nearly a thousand texts that mention words referring to smell, or smell elements that she translates. Says Goldsmith, ”My interpretation of these texts depends greatly on the context. A ‘divine scent,’ for example, can mean a perfume used in a temple. But it can also mean frankincense, lotus, or the scent of ointments that were used to embalm mummies. Furthermore, temples, private homes, the streets, workshops, the necropolis – each of these places had a very characteristic smell. People even used several strong perfumes at once, with men and women alike wearing scented wigs, censing their clothes with incense and anointing their bodies. They were always surrounded by intense fragrances wherever they went.” Since 2020, Goldsmith has offered virtual Kyphi-making workshops, and produced educational olfactory-kits for the public that include smells of Mummification, Ancient Egyptian Garden, Tutankhamun’s Floral Collar, and the famous ‘Mendesian’, a perfume possibly worn by Cleopatra. The opportunity to attend her lectures on the olfactory landscape of an ancient civilisation offered a few perfumers such as myself an insight into botanical species that have survived to present day and how one might use their contemporaneously produced extracts to recreate an atmosphere of the past (4). Closer to my field of contemporary art, was fragrance specialist and educator, Michelle Krell Kydd, whose novel approach integrated interdisciplinary research across art, history, music, flavour and science at the University of Michigan. It was her unusual, innovative explorations that made the early conception of a 'virtual scent-exhibition with offline components' appear within the realm of possibility, however locating a historian willing and able to anchor such a fantastical concept in historical context remained an elusive task.

Around 2020, I came across the new work of Nicolas Roth – His unique research focused on the garden culture and horticultural writings of Mughal India from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, drawing on a range of textual genres in Sanskrit, Persian, and various forms of Urdu and Hindi, as well as visual sources found in painting and other art forms. The fact that he was a practicing gardener familiar with floral varieties illustrated hundreds of years ago, and was diligently tracing and growing antique varieties of rose and narcissus, had me restructuring the concept of "Bagh-e Hind" around art history, fragrance, material culture and botany. However, the question remained if this abstract approach to smelling and tasting heritage could find grounding within academic research and practice. According to Roth, the reason for academia’s ambivalence towards such interdisciplinary approaches is due to the difficulty in incorporating these into forms that research is expected to be presented in. Says Roth, ”There are efforts like The Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University to bring the practical experience of materials and techniques into history teaching and research, but experiential treatments of perfumery and horticulture have been particularly elusive. At the same time, precisely because they are so evocative and people can connect to them on an aesthetic and emotional level, they have great potential to make the study of South Asian history, literature, and art more accessible to a wider audience.”

Shortly after encountering his published papers last year, I interviewed Roth on how he “reads” gardens comparatively across multiple literary languages and genres that shaped the diverse and richly multilingual landscape of Mughal-period intellectual culture. At my invitation this summer, we extended our conversation by having Roth select five garden paintings between the 17th – 18th centuries to translate into synesthesia-experiences. Our virtual conversations spanned over three months – Roth in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA) and I in Pune, Maharashtra (India). Our intention was set: to create a garden that invites audiences to take pleasure in the aesthetic constructions within each painting, to inhale and taste the painterly signifiers that in their stillness, reveal dynamic beauty and power. ‘Bagh-e-Hind’ is the arc under which five types of Synesthesia Boxes are produced as artworks that include not only fragrance elements but also edible perfumes and functional vintage objects such as rose water sprinklers and brass incense holders. These ornately designed objects along with fragrance and flavour components curated for this project are intended as metaphysical extensions of the paintings’ temporal spectacle to create a sense of immediacy for the audience. By thoroughly saturating our senses, we may be able to reimagine new dimensions of love, pleasure and opulence.


The Translation Process: Rose, Narcissus, Smoke, Iris, Kewra

The selection of all five garden paintings were left to the historian: The first two paintings Roth chose were ones he had discussed in his interview with me the previous year. The central notes of both paintings were obvious: Rose and Narcissus. For his third choice, I requested he select a painting that illustrated firecrackers as that would give us the opportunity to play with unusual smoke-notes. Roth's selections of the last two paintings in the series, a garden scene without obvious flowers to prompt the fragrance, and a lush forest scene with a dominant kewra plant as its central note.

A sketch of the process by Bharti Lalwani, August 2021

In order to create a series of olfactive bridges to gardens of the past, Roth and I engaged in discussions beyond the overarching historical narratives in these folios. He identified plants, trees, and flowers. I followed up with questions on the season and if the dramatic scene in the painting is occurring at dawn or dusk. This provides me with key information that prompts my decision to include or exclude night blooming florals as a dominant accord in the perfume-translation. While Roth laid out the specific botanical contexts of each image, I began with an ingredient search to develop multi-sensory translations. The first batch of samples were then shipped to Roth mid-way through the process for his evaluation - and this is where our creative process became intriguing.

We found ourselves on opposite ends of the olfactory spectrum. Due to our contexts being remarkably different, if he thought 'sweet', I thought 'savoury'. Being an uncomfortable outsider with an unusual background and career in different spaces and places, I can describe the smell of electricity and water shortage, the smell of chaotic military coups versus the seductive scent of an efficient, immaculate authoritarian machine. While comfortable with repulsive smells, sterile spaces with clean scents are disconcerting to my mind. As a critic trained in the art of looking wide-eyed into ugly truths framed and concealed within aesthetic-scaffolding, this tension between repulsive-attractive smells plays a significant role in my perfumery practice. On one end of the spectrum, Roth, a gardener-scholar, is familiar with the scent of fresh blooms, on the other end, I am familiar with their corresponding botanical extract/resinoid which smell nothing like the flowers they are produced from. He looks at a rose and describes its closeness to the delicate, airy scent of rose-water, while I inhale a dense rose-absolute which smells of a thousand blooms that have wilted by noon with a persistent green bitterness that reinforces a sense of its leaves and thorns. Roth and I looked at the same garden-painting, but drew different conclusions. It should be emphasized that our perceptions were in contrast but not in opposition to one another - our olfactory associations being unique to us, we were both right.



Maharana Jagat Singh II celebrating the Festival of Flowers in the Gulab Bari Garden

Raghunath, son of Maluk Chand, 1750, Udaipur, Rajasthan

In the process of constructing the fragrance, Roth pointed out the less obvious points of smell-scape: “Among the piles of rose garlands there are also poppies and larkspur on the platters on the chabutra. I think rose, cypress, wine, and horse/hay definitely make sense. Perhaps also charcoal/ash, as associated with the sanyasis/ Shiva that the entertainers are imitating. And there appears to be an actual sadhu sitting near the elephant in the forecourt. The trees appear to be generic leafy trees, probably figs of various sorts (peepal, gular…).”

The Spring festival celebrated with such resplendence had me considering various elements that would speak to the specifics of his description, yet appear exaggerated to draw the focal point away from the obvious central motif of the rose in parts. For example, I listed (synthetic) animalic musks of civet and castoreum to signify the Sanyasi - who appeared to be enjoying his tobacco behind the elephant and horse, meant that a prominent narcotic-animalic note became integral to the formulation. The rose bushes were bursting with blooms - this suggested strong hay-notes of fertiliser and rich soil/mitti element. Even though the Rana and his courtiers were enjoying themselves under a canopy, I considered the hot noon Rajasthan sun and the piles of rose garlands as they were worn by men- crushed, wilted, their fragrance intermingling with musks applied on their bodies at the start of the day, now indistinguishable from collective perspiration-odours.

The formulation thus attempts to reflect this atmosphere with the following ingredients:

Floral: Rose absolute, rose oil (Indian), pink pepper co2, frangipani, touch of jasmine, champaca flower, orange flower absolute (Tunisia), heliotrope + alpha irone, alpha ionone coumarine, geraniol, rose aldehyde for powderiness

Spice + Fruit: saffron, floral nectar/ honey, mango/ peach for sweetness

Resin: Labdanum/ rock rose, poplar bud absolute, tobacco absolute, benzoin

Wood: sandalwood, vetiver, mitti/ petrichor accord in dilution, oud, fresh mown hay note

Musk: A full bodied animalic funk lurking beneath the freshness of the rose garlands with civet, ambergris and a leather accord to mimic perfume and perspiration.

While Roth thought of the formulation as ‘luscious’, he expressed his scent-imagination of the painting with elucidations of 'airy, breezy' characteristics that are present in rose blooms but apparently missing in the perfume. I understood his description to mean notes of violets, citrus, tea, and powdery-with-a-hint-of-pepper which are indeed present in a fresh rose blossom. At this point, we considered expanding the project to create Synesthesia artworks that could incorporate various fragrance and flavour facets key to each painting. While the perfume went in the direction of a hot seductive 'floral-musk rose’, the experience of the rose garden itself could be drawn out with other components: tea, incense, edible perfume, sound, poetry and soap.

While the tea is composed of bergamot scented black tea and mint with a profusion of rose petals to conceptually create the sensation of 'drinking' a rose garden, Roth and I decided on crafting a delicious ‘sticky hot sweaty rose’ with dates and poppy seeds. Using an array of high grade edible extracts as my colour palette, I employed Sandalwood CO2 extract and Rose Absolute as the principal elements to beat into sugar which would then carry this perfume into chopped dates. Additionally, minute quantities of gulkand are dusted in cornstarch so as to appear visually indistinguishable from the dates - the audience may assume they are eating pieces of dates coated with sugar and poppy seeds, but will be occasionally hit with a mouthful of ‘crushed rose garlands’. The Gulab Bari edible perfume™ thus functions as a medium that playfully heightens the ‘hot musk-y rose’ notes present in the perfume-iteration.


In the instance of ‘Prince with Audience’ (17th Century, Mughal), what was intriguing to me was what the historian was not saying:

“[...] 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 (4).

Roth suggested the dominant scent should be narcissus with a hint of jasmine blossoms apparently placed in a bowl in front of the Prince. According to Roth, “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).” Roth cautiously added that he was tempted to read these scenes as possibly romantically/erotically charged.

I remind the reader once more that I am not familiar with the scent of fresh blooms but master-perfumer Christophe Laudamiel had sent me a vial of Narcissus Absolute. The material smelled aggressively animalic-green-herbaceous-spicy-balsamic, like the smell of the blooms together with the plant whole, its leaves rotting in a puddle. Smelling this extract undiluted from the bottle induced in me a state of listlessness and the mind seemed numb for a few minutes, so I could begin to understand the intoxication brought on by sniffing a narcissus at night in an atmosphere of resplendence, beauty, music and poetry.

To illustrate this scent-slippage of the narcotic flower into nose into brain into simmering tension around the two central figures, this plant extract was perfect. The perfume translation was thus constructed on sharp instincts as ‘a dirty floral’ in two parts to amplify the image and its substance.

First Accord, Floral: Narcissus with a shadow of lotus (lotus also being a metaphor for eyes and intoxication) with overt indolic notes. I imagined Narcissus extract in combination with blue lotus and other night blooming flowers: Tuberose absolute, ylang-ylang, jasmine grandiflorum co2, violet, lily, gardenia, lilac, lotus absolute, iris, grape, galbanum, saffron, lavender absolute.

Second Accord, "Pashmina and mul": The musk components here are key in playing up the erotic tension present in this painting. Civet musk, castoreum musk (synthetic), and exquisite aroma chemicals such as ambroxan and cashmeran intensify the scent of luxurious garments and shawls adorning the figures (5). The exaggerated animalic facets in this accord denote the wool and silk carpets, textiles covering the bolsters, and peacock fly-whisk featured prominently on the left of the Prince. In order to create an olfactive reference for cashmeran, I encourage readers to bring out their shawls to sniff and imagine the construction of this perfume with the scent of goat hair, wool, lavender, civet, saffron, lily, and lotus with a mild hint of naphthalene balls stored in a wooden/ cedarwood cabinet.

This perfume, like the other four, has matured over three months. It can be described 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 while fliting easily between realms of the divine and the sacrilegious. The intensity of this aesthetic construction is further magnified by indole (6), 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.

For the Edible Perfume, Roth suggested the creative use of apricots in combination with narcissus: “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).”

While the fragrance reinforced lust, I wondered if it was possible to taste ‘floral desire on a moonlit marble terrace’. Nargis and Apricot are a curious combination in that it was possible for the spice-facet of the flower to sparkle against the tartness of the fruit. For the first stage of this process I cut dehydrated apricots into cubes, and prepared a sugar scented with tuberose absolute which comes closest to the narcissus in edible form, with extracts of marjoram, saffron, jasmine grandiflorum (as jasmines are depicted in a bowl in front of the Prince), sandalwood and davana to deepen the sensation of a boozy-narcotic narcissus on one's palate.

This prefixed perfume-sugar is then blended into thickened apricot compote together with roughly broken misri/rock sugar crystals that are a deliberate addition to translucent jewel-like pieces of dried apricot-cubes. Scent, flavour and visuals are three main components working together to simulate not only the sensation of a floral bouquet but also of the precious gems ornamenting the hilt of the sword and katars that the courtly male figures keep on their person. Here, misri adds a necessary glint to the appearance of the edible perfume as well as a crunch to give the semblance of biting into a gem.

Other synesthesia components are the tea and incense that are meant to be experienced in combination with one another. A subdued but fragrant lotus incense simulates cool moonlight that shines upon a ‘marble floor’ of bergamot, fennel, cardamom, lavender, chamomile and vetiver.


Kalyan Rai/Kalyan Das/Chitarman II Samsam al-Dawlah Khan Dawran watching a fireworks display, Delhi, c. 1719-1725

The "Smoke" chapter of this exhibition is the only instance where the idea for the perfume directed the selection of the garden-image. Roth had paired his latest essay in Journal18 (7) with a number of folios marvelously detailing sparks and smoke from firecrackers in the background of gardens against the night sky. The idea of a scent-translation that communicated the visual sensation of a flickering flame, a flashpoint, then a climactic shower of sulphurous sparkles was a conceptual challenge I was eager to test.

The historian settled on a painting that not only referenced this visual splendour but also prominently featured censors and perfume bottles in its composition. Taking prompts from the painting and Roth’s essay, the architecture of the perfume found its balance with two key structural elements: ‘Amber’ and ‘Smoke’. Resinous patchouli, labdanum, hydrocarboresin and benzoin build the pavilion with additional materials that intensify their density and ability to hold onto a profusion of burning charcoal and birch tar-notes that hover atop the pavilion like a dome. Sandalwood with three varieties of cedarwood (Atlas, Himalayan and Hiba) and copaiba balsam create the trellis that support night blooming flowers such as jasmine creeper and honeysuckle as they diffuse their heady fragrance into a night of festivities. Once the embers from the incense, burnt paper and gunpowder ebb, and the smoke has cleared, it is possible to pick up the crisp-green scent of earth and freshly mown grass supplanted by vetiver and galbanum.

The flights of fancy and magic animated by Smoke are recreated in the Edible Perfume: Dark sulphurous and iodine elements of black salt, ambergris, are combined with leathery black cardamom, long black pepper, tonka bean and organic menthol crystals, that are beaten into cocoa powder to simulate a tingle of firecrackers on the palette. Star Light is meant to be tasted on its own in micro quantities or added to ‘Monsoon Malabar Coffee’ included in this Synesthesia Set. The piquant incense additionally heightens the scent-experience of terpenes found across camphor, patchouli, cypress, menthol.


Garden Scene, Mughal, early 17th century

The fragrance and flavour palette of this painting that Roth selected was challenging to translate as the floral notes were not obvious. Roth pointed out the red and pink poppies in the furthest register of the image and some purple-hued irises among the greenery in the forefront. The interpretation in our view was green but we found it difficult to communicate our ideas for the perfume. Midway through our process, I sent him samples for paintings 1, 2, 3 and a fougere fragrance I proposed for this landscape. Our following conversation then focused on what the scent should not be: minty, eucalyptus-y, herbaceous, that the proposed perfume sample was missing a floral quality.

Iris has a very subtle scent and in perfumery, this is a fantasy note, meaning that it is constructed with synthetic aroma chemicals as the flowers are too delicate to be distilled for their scent. 'Orris' (rhizoma iridis) is the highly prized root of Iris germanica and Iris pallida that is harvested, dried for upto five years, then put through an extraction process to yield orris butter that possesses a pleasant violet-like scent. Apart from Iris, the historian imagined a sweet floral-citrus note that I asked him to expand on: Did citrus mean mandarin, lime, lemon, grapefruit, bergamot, petitgrain, neroli/ orange flower; On a scale of one to ten, was the palette warm or cold, floral or fruity? While Roth specified the sweetness of citron fruit (I could not locate/ source the extract for perfumery), the rest of his responses to these prompts had us settle on prominent notes of iris, orange flower and jasmine atop a silvery cedarwood.

Once the direction of the fragrance notes were clear, it became straightforward to conceptualise the edible perfume and other synesthesia iterations that possessed the ability to transport one into a 17th century garden.


Early in our process, I expressed such resistance to Roth’s selection of the painting featuring Kamod Ragini that depicted kewra prominently in its lush landscape. I considered for a length of time where this instinctive aversion stemmed from in order not to unsettle the basis of experimental partnership between the historian and myself. Did I envy the heroine for having access to such forest-splendour while I was more or less trapped in my apartment for over a year? Was it an inkling of the heroine’s inevitable disappointment, a knowing from the collective experiences of women that her lover, whom she waits for in anticipation, isn’t likely to show? Or was it Roth’s emphasis on centering the masculine kewra-note in this scent-scape?

While I could set the bulk of my reservations aside, it was the kewra that appeared to bother me the most. As I am relatively new to the experience of living in India, I only came across the plant extract in 2018 when my research on South Asian botanical ingredients and distillation processes was underway. I don't believe I have (knowingly) encountered it in cuisine either. Mostly utilised by the food flavouring industry, the extract itself is a skin irritant and therefore a synthetic counterpart is mass-produced as “attar”. This is the version that I encountered three years ago. It smelled so sharp - as if the bottled liquid was a meta-physical scream that blistered my skin and brain.

Similar to my reactions to kewra, I have had a gag-reflex to the combination of rose and cardamom extract (the smell-flavour equivalent of paan with gulkand) and to the Hindi word ‘rajnigandha’ for tuberose. While the tobacco industry indeed employs pure rose, cardamom and other extracts from Kannauj to flavour their products, I have had to recreate the combination in such a format since 2019 that it frees me from those connotations. I also ran far away from tuberoses until my interview with Roth last summer wherein he referred to the flowers by their urdu name: ‘gul-ishaboor’. The rounded gentleness in its pronunciation brought me an equal sense of safety and flavour within which to explore fresh attachments to the flower and its inclusion in my practice.

So, I returned to this synthetic/ reconstituted “Kewra” and understood it to be built from cheap construction materials: “synthetic” is not interchangeable with “cheap”. Using this material as the foundational building block, I decided to smooth the rough edges off with tonka, vetiver, peru balsam resin, all of which add a lacquer-like gloss and syrupy richness. Taking my cues from Roth’s reading of the painting, I built a floral-honey accord of frangipani, champaca/magnolia, jasmine, parijat, honeysuckle, gardenia, tuberose and ylang-ylang to draw the powder-plastic note out of its abyss and into the twilight zone of romance and magical possibilities.

The composition of the perfume now mirrors that of the painting - the pair of peacocks and banana bud Roth pointed out to me as metaphorically alluding to her anticipation is represented through animalic musk paired with butyl phenyl acetate (faint banana note) respectively. Lastly, the addition of sandalwood offers the perfume a creamy, sophisticated finish.

As this perfume has matured for three months, it has gone from an aggressive one-dimensional bitterness to a feminine note that radiates power. I have also come to realise how neglected the kewra note is in mainstream (French) perfumery, and how poorly it is positioned in the South Asian context of fragrance. We might actually be the first to present such an opulent Kewra, one that embodies the Ragini figure, resplendently ornamented in body and spirit.



1. See following:

Husain, Ali Akbar, Scent in the Islamic garden: a study of Deccani Urdu literary sources, Karachi : Oxford University Press, 2000.

McHugh, James, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, Oxford University Press, 2012

Schofield, Katherine Butler, Orsini, Fracesca, Tellings and Texts, Curato, 2019

Vermani, Neha, In Power and In Sickness: A brief history of the colour yellow at the Mughal court, Yellow Book, A Project by He Xiangyu. Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2019

Flatt, Emma J., The Courts of the Deccan Sultanates: Living Well in the Persian Cosmopolis, Cambridge University Press, 2020

2. In 2008, Scholar James McHugh collaborated with masterperfumer Christophe Laudamiel at International Fragrance Foundation (IFF) to create and attach a set of fragrances with his PhD thesis. I am informed that when accessing McHugh's thesis, these scents are not brought out of the archive at Harvard.

3. Ottoman History Podcast, Istanbul and the Ottoman Olfactory Heritage, Episode 363, Lauren Davis interviewed by Susanna Ferguson, 2018 June,

Additional resources: Ergin, Nina. "The Fragrance of the Divine: Ottoman Incense Burners and Their Context." The Art Bulletin 96, no. 1 (March 2014): 70–97.

Fahmy, Khaled. "An Olfactory Tale of Two Cities: Cairo in the Nineteenth Century." In Historians in Cairo: Essays in Honor of George Scanlon, edited by Jill Edwards, 155–187. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2002.

4. Lalwani, Bharti, 2020 June, ‘Mughal Garden Typology: Conversation with Dr. Nicolas Roth’, Interview

5. Houghteling, Sylvia, ‘The Emperor’s Humbler Clothes: Textures of Courtly Dress in Seventeenth-­century South Asia’, Ars Orientalis Volume 47

6. McBride, Nuri, ‘The Chemistry of Death and Desire’,

7. Roth, Nicolas, Verbal (Re)constructions: Reading Architecture in the Urdu Masnavī, Journal18, Issue 11, The Architectural Reference, Spring 2021


Published 10th September 2021



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