Glowing Embers: Sensorial Contexts of Smoke
The wedding procession of Maharana Raj Singh II at Bedla, Artist: Nema, son of Bhagwan, Artist: Jiva , son of Chand, ca. 1754-1755, India, Udaipur. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; H x W (sheet): 79.2 × 125.8 cm (31 3/16 × 49 9/16 in); The City Palace Museum, Udaipur, ELS2020.1.75
I mean for this mosaic essay to explode like an 18th century phataka. The essay, like a firework, launches into the air on a thin thread of light, erupts with a loud crack, and glitters back to earth. The Mughals and Rajputs loved their fireworks displays, they spent lavishly on them, designed elaborate and fanciful arrangements from which they would be launched, and apparently burned them on every occasion. Paintings of courtiers staring up at a night sky glittering with fireworks are everywhere in eighteenth century Indian art, a few of which can be viewed and enjoyed in the Smoke chapter of Bagh-e-Hind.
Who would not be enthralled by a pyrotechnic display? The sizzling wick, the fizzle of the cheap paper, the echoing boom, that sharp hit of gunpowder. Fracture, delight. Even at an aesthetic remove centuries later, I feel from these paintings an attempt to capture the ineffable– the smell of smoke, the sense of delight, a certain incandescence. The paintings, however, can only go so far as to reproduce the swoon of smoke. Could we go further? Can we sense the drift of gunpowder in the night air through looking, thinking, smelling and writing? Can we taste it?
I should foreground a couple things– that I am American, that I live in Pune, India, and that I am currently writing a book about culinary heritage, which means I am always working between the immediacy of taste and the concept of history. This means several things. One: I am an insider-outsider. My sense of place is always skewed and heightened. Two: this sensorium is my sensorium. The smoke is very real, not a metaphor. Three: I have been trained to resist scriptocentrism, a term coined by theorist Michel de Certeau and popularized by performance studies scholar Dwight Conquergood.
Conquergood defines scriptocentism: “This embrace of different ways of knowing is radical because it cuts to the root of how knowledge is organized in the academy. The dominant way of knowing in the academy is that of empirical observation and critical analysis from a distanced perspective: “knowing that,” and “knowing about.” This is a view from above the object of inquiry: knowledge that is anchored in paradigm and secured in print.”
“What gets squeezed out by this epistemic violence,” he continues, “is the whole realm of complex, finely nuanced meaning that is embodied, tacit, intoned, gestured, improvised, co-experienced, covert.” What gets left out is taste and smell.
I recently attended a talk about sensory history. “Of course, I begin,” the speaker began. I braced. “[...] with texts. I look for words that describe smell, like…”
Oh, no! I begin with my nose! I begin with smells. Could it be more obvious?
I moved toward food studies as a grad student because taking food’s ephemeral and experiential form of meaning-making seemed a worthy challenge. Writing about sensory experience is almost impossible. This “almost” is what makes the attempt so fun. Before I lived in Pune, I was a theatre critic in Berlin. I liked being a critic for the same reasons that I now like being a food writer. It’s wobbly work. You have nothing to go on but your own sensory apparatus, no rail to hold onto but your own experience in the dark theater. I have become an expert in theorizing my own delight. So let’s start here, with delight.
In order to understand the following anecdote, you need to know that Pune runs on nostalgia. The perfect place for a scholar of nostalgia to make a home! As I wait for two Kannadiga uncles to grind my coffee, I look up at their old-fashioned felt-board sign: “we are in the 50th year of your service.” I do some mental math– I note that the shop was established in 1973, just before the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. I am never not thinking historically.
In Pune, the cantonment area or “Camp” still reflects the neighbourhood’s colonial past. Irani-Parsi bakeries established in the early days of independence still sell blonde mawa cakes and crunchy conical cream-rolls, a local speciality filled with a super-sweet, vegetable-shortening-forward vanilla frosting that clings like film to the insides of your cheeks. Locals queue up outside such bakeries from 6 AM onwards because that’s how their parents and grandparents did it in post-partition India. Pune doesn’t have a lot to offer by way of tourism, but the city is long on heritage.
Shrewsbury biscuits, a Pune specialty, have no flavour. Not no flavour, exactly, but rather the flavour of butter, flour, sugar and fake vanilla. Aggressively bland, this is the point of Shrewsbury biscuits, a colonial hangover and by association nostalgically English. The best, or at least, the most famous, Shrewsbury biscuits in Pune originate from Camp’s Kayani Bakery, established in 1955. Kayani’s Shrewsbury biscuits are so emblematic of Pune that everyone visiting from overseas must visit and buy a box of Shrewsbury Biscuits as a souvenir for their friends and relatives back home to enjoy. Here, everything has remained the same, the 1920s stone flooring, the 1940s wood framed glass shelves, the clock next to the Zarathushtra insignia on the wall, the shape of the biscuits and the signature stamp on them, the queueing system and brisk first-come first-serve service. Getting the attention of the servers behind the tall glass shelves gets competitive, so tough luck if you're short. The “Kayani Bakery” will proudly never be franchised. “We have no branches,” their carry-bags proclaim.
Old Punekars always express anxiety anytime a local news story appears about how the bakery is facing issues that may force it to close its doors for good. Nostalgia is anxiety about the future. If Kayani disappears, if it even changes, what does it mean for Pune?
Editor's note: In the week this essay was published, Lily and I went to Kayani Bakery to take photographs and buy some cookies as this piece of writing made us crave that special fake-vanilla-butter taste. We were pleasantly surprised to find that they now have an orderly queue-system that cuts out the chaotic-competitive ordering process. Once you reach the counter though, the service still remains brisk and high pressure. There is no time to fuss over one's wish-list. Precision is still a requirement. The Camp experience is also not complete until one stops at the corner shop to buy intensely fragrant desi gulab, mulberries and jamuns.
Once, when I visited, I noticed a small plastic bag tied with twine and a handwritten sign: Smoked Shrewsbury SALE 60 RU.
I was going to buy the sale cookies no matter what. But the idea of a “smoked” Shrewsbury shook me a little. I am an American millennial. If a food product sounds questionable or somewhat humorous, I will try it. If the food suggests I am aggressively weird! or I am not for everyone! or I am a little cheffy! or I am designed to appeal to your basest instincts! I am all about that!
I am the target audience for your sichuan peppercorn ice cream, your berry whip Snickers bar, your bacon-fat cotton candy, your candied cricket. I am going to order it and I am probably going to enjoy it. But smoked shortbread? Here, in old-school Camp?
The only obstacle was the man behind the counter. He grimaced and replied in Hindi: “Madam, please don’t buy these.”
“No, no, we like this kind of thing,” my friend and I insisted.
“They are not very good,” he demurred. Now, this guy was holding up the line at Kayani Bakery, a line that snakes around like at Disneyland, a line that usually moves briskly, in a city that brooks no civility, a city known for rudeness and curtness and “let’s move this along.” Something was up with these biscuits.
A few more back and forths and he finally gave in.
We tried them. Pronounced smoke flavour. Not exactly the blackened taste of fire-kissed food, that intense metallic carbonized hit, but a certain acridity, a meatiness almost.
“I think these will be better if we dip them in chai,” my friend suggested.
We went out for chai; we had some theories.
An establishment eatery is trying to keep up with “the times” and expanding their offerings. This seemed unlikely but my friend knew of a traditional thali place in Bangalore that put a veggie burger on the menu, so anything is possible.
Smoked butter: In terms of flavour, fat has the ability to trap and absorb aroma molecules, which explains why the foods we think of smoking are usually full of animal fats or butter.
A few weeks later, my friend went back to the bakery and learned that the true answer to our mystery was
There was a mishap with the oven and rather than toss the cookies, they put them up for sale.
Pune is a small conservative town known more for preserving tradition than anything else. However, Pune is responsible for another of India’s novelty smoked foods– Tandoori Chai. I first noticed this as it was being offered out of the back of a truck under a highway overpass and I wondered where the tandoor was. Turns out, it’s not that the tea itself is smoked, only that the clay kulhad cup is heated before the chaiwalla splashes in regular masala chai. Two brothers way over in one end of Pune came up with the idea. My view is that tandoori chai is certainly worth the 20 rupees but it doesn’t really taste like smoke, which is to say it doesn’t trouble you, entice you, delight you, move you, ancient you, prehistoric you, primal you. Tandoori chai does not incite chaos.
Images by Vaibhav Devnath of Tandoori chai created by Amol Dilip Rajdeo in Pune. According to this article: "Medium-sized clay pots or kulhads are first roasted in a piping hot tandoor. Once done, semi-cooked tea (with a tinge of spices) is poured over these charred kulhads. The tea immediately bubbles up and creates a thick layer of foam over the kulhad. In the end, the final beverage is served in a clean kulhad with either a bun muska or biscuits." It is priced at Rs. 20.
A brief detour to liquid smoke, since I mentioned it earlier and you might not be familiar. In 1865, Ernest Wright, an American pharmacist, ran smoke through a condenser and bottled the results. This liquid smoke was initially sold as a preservative. Cheaper, easier and cleaner than preserving by actual technical smoking.
Liquid smoke is a boon to urban home cooks, avoiding the social and literal pollution associated with smoking as a culinary technique. Liquid smoke, an industrial culinary technology, has evolved alongside many other industrialised foods. The McRib’s signature smoky flavour is, of course, artificial. The smoky taste of mass manufactured barbecue chips comes from this liquid smoke. Barbecue purists, of course, think of it as cheating.
This is probably because there is something special and elaborate about open-fire cooking that is not just solely about the flavour. It is about the elemental quality of smoke, it’s in-betweenness. It stands in the liminal space between nature and culture in anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ structural paradigm about the distinctions between the two categories, The Raw and the Cooked. For Levi-Strauss, smoking is “the concrete form of cooking showing the greatest affinity to the abstract category of the cooked.”
Smoke is intangible, contactless. It is, in that sense, pure. For this reason, open-fire cooking and cooking with smoke have adherents whose dedication borders on the sacred.
River of Smoke
In the Mahabharata there is an instance where Yayati, the mythological king, is exiled from heaven by Indra. He begs to be returned to earth among virtuous people, and so he locates a sacrifice and descends there, through a “river of smoke”. Smoke signifies sanctity, smoke makes rebirth possible.
Yayāti, smelling at the smoke produced from their sacrifice that had approached heaven’s gate, fell toward the earth. That king, the lord of the earth, clinging to the river made of smoke connected to earth and heaven, like the moving Ganges, that king descended… – McHugh, J. (2012). Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, New York: Oxford University Press, 231
Sticks in the fire
Francis Mallman is an Argentine celebrity chef who specializes in open-flame cooking. The camera loves him. And he loves fire. I have never eaten anything he’s made, but still, when I think of a mouthful of smoke, I think of him.
“Here with the cinders crackling and the fat dripping down like candle wax and the splayed ribs of the lamb starting to look like a glistening harp, it’s easy to regress to the mind-set of a 12-year-old boy. You eat with your hands. You toss sticks into the fire.” – Is Francis Mallman the Most Interesting Chef in the World?
I wonder what any of this may mean for India, where we all eat with our hands. I wonder what this means when here, so much food tastes like fire. The taste of flame is not distinctive. Open-flame cooking is simply the cheapest and most readily available way to cook.
On my commute home, a woman is carrying a bundle of sticks atop her head to use as firewood. The firewood is as long as she is tall. She edges her way across Pashan Road. As I stop to let her pass, I look at the wood and imagine what she will have for dinner.
As a lecturer on gender studies, I have to note that the language around “smoke”, smoked cooking, the tools, the smoky fragrance, is extremely gendered. There is something extremely masculine about all this discussion about fire that I find extremely off-putting – the barbecue bros and the smoked meat dudes and the meat guys in general, which is why it’s funny that I find critic and curator Bharti Lalwani’s Smoke perfume for Bagh-e Hind so feminine. Perhaps it’s the tuberose.
Maharana Sangram Singh II receiving Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur feasting in camp; Painting; Artist: Jairam, ca. 1732. India, Rajasthan, Udaipur. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. H x W (sheet): 45.5 × 51.4 cm (17 15/16 × 20 1/4 in); H x W (image): 40.5 × 45.5 cm (15 15/16 × 17 15/16 in). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1980. ELS2020.1.35
In the upper left register of one eighteenth century Rajput painting “Maharana Sangram Singh II receiving Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur feasting in camp”, a servant crouches over a small open grill. The coals are visibly hot, bright red flecked with orange. In the servant’s hand is a cooking implement, a trident, on which chunks of meat have been skewered. It’s a little hard to make out, but it appears as though they have just been taken off the grill. Judging by the choice and vibrancy of the hues and colours, the artist has intentionally painted this in a way to tempt the viewer. We are being invited to imagine the delicious chew and salivate over the smell. The whole scene is designed to impress upon us the opulence of Maharana Sangram Singh II, his grandeur, largesse and hospitality. The sweet cooling sharbat has already been served. A huge pot of perhaps pulao is on full boil.
“The imposition of one’s sensibilities onto others is reflective of power relations at work,” writes scholar Kelvin E.Y. Low in the article, “Theorising Sensory Cultures in Asia”. The skewered kebabs are not just mere kebabs: they are a flex. We understand that each of these careful details, showing us the fat dripping off the meat, the fat sizzling down onto the coals, is a form of displaying power, luxury and abundance.
I don’t need to explain Orientalism to you, but I do need to emphasise that the politics around smell in South Asia are not neutral. Here, smell is already conditioned through the colonial British sensorium, a colonial sensorium that finds the smoke overwhelming, not sacred. The concept of British sensorium in India is constructed on the idea that the smells in the air were pathogenic– following Andrew Rotter’s Empires of the Senses. Such a sensorium greets olfactory excess with suspicion.
Could we instead consider the smells of smoke, flowers, meat, heat, sweat, pulao, fine fabrics and incense together as the smell-sensorium of “Maharana Sangram Singh II receiving Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur feasting in camp” and overlay this with a reading of desire, power, or rest?
Tarakki (Modernity/ Progress)
My wealthy relative in Calcutta redesigned her kitchen recently. It looks like a spaceship. Into her gleaming white marble countertop is set a slick, black induction stove. But then, her husband intensely missed the taste of smoke, so she bought a single gas burner and put it right on top of the expensive induction stove. Now, a fat orange gas line snakes across the fancy cooktop. The look is ruined, but the food tastes right.
The Hindi and Urdu word for sparkler is phuljhari, phuljhadi. It means “falling flowers.” We smell these paintings as we see them. The language itself is sensory as it helps us enter these immersive worlds.
The night of Shab-i-barāt. Style of Govardhan, Mughal (Delhi) c.1735-40. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper. British Library, Johnson Album 20,2
I love this painting– of a lady holding a sparkler away from her body, as a cascade of crackles fall to the ground and a wisp of smoke curls upward into the night air. In the middle distance are fireworks and then, touchingly, in the background, pops and bursts from other firework celebrations. The artist has used perspective to give us a sense of the ambient surroundings, from every instance of side the pop of firecracker-pops, from every angle of, smoke. Roasting, Claude Levi-Strauss reminds us, is unidirectional. Smoke, on the other hand, is pervasive; it knows no boundaries. Throughout the week of Diwali, everything smells smoky, even my babies’ wispy hair.
Samsam al-Dawlah Khan Dawran watching a fireworks display, attributed to artist Kalyan Rai/ Kalyan Das/ Chitarman, c. 1719-1725; 25.1 by 33.2cm, Delhi, India. Gouache with gold on paper, inscribed in black nasta'liq amongst smoke 'amal-i Kalyan Rai', inner borders of gold-flecked cream paper, outer borders of gold-flecked blue paper, verso bearing the seal of 'Bairam Khan Ghazanfar Jang Bahadur 1159' (1746-7 AD) and inscribed 'no.11' in an English hand. Location unknown
In the painting that inspired the perfume-translation for the Smoke chapter in Bagh-e Hind, the courtly audience of Mughals gather, looking up above their noses, at the dots of white and yellow against the black background of the painted sky. Incense pours from a silver cup. Candles flame into nothingness, the brushstroke a single hair. There are trays of fruits, night-blooming flowers. It is Shab-e-Barat, a day of atonement. But what luxury everywhere: the jewelled hats, the nose-pins, the tanpura!
Radha and Krishna watching fireworks in the night sky; Attributed to the artist Sitaram, late 18th Century; Painting; 45.5 x 31cms; Kishangarh, Rajasthan; National Museum, New Delhi. Display status unknown
In her extensive analysis of a similar painting in the National Museum in Delhi, Kavita Singh demonstrates how this genre of the Shab-e Barat painting is adapted across courts and contexts, with greater or lesser changes in imagery and therefore meaning. What draws all these images together is the echo between the central harem figure’s phuljhari and the rich glitter of their fabrics, the creamy whites of their pearl jewellery and the hot-whites of fireworks, like little stars, brightening the night. But when I read art historical writing about these paintings, even really excellent explanations offered by Singh, I often feel more lost.
I recently met a person who informed me of some things he had learned in a cross-cultural communications class. “India is a context-rich society,” he pronounced. “America is context-poor.” I had to laugh, pure poetry. Mughal or Rajput paintings are “context-rich.” I notice this now with my American colleagues– an unwillingness to talk or think through anything Indian, a stumbling around lack of context and a fear of upsetting anyone. It’s easier not to engage. I feel it too, especially with these paintings. Writing this commissioned essay has been at the same time a challenge and an invitation into the world of Mughal art.
These eighteenth century paintings include even as they exclude. They are so densely packed with detail that your eye scans, moment to moment, jumping from one detail to the next. In these Shab-e Barat compositions, my gaze follows that of the assembled women, down the figure’s extended arm, across the rug, toward the Radha and Krishna seated opposite. One of the women attendants is not painted in that strong, elegant profile, her head is instead at a kind of comical tilt. She is looking off into the distance, where fireworks flash still brighter. I feel, despite the historical and cultural difference, an intense kinship with this distracted, round-faced woman as she is dazzled by the opulence of the scene. Like me, she is both inside and out.
A drawing of a ‘Maker of Fireworks’ by an anonymous Calcutta artist, c.1794-1804
Watercolour on paper. British Library, Add.Or.1115
Air Quality Index
The last time I checked the AQI in Pune, it was 268, which is considered “very unhealthy.” At 300, it becomes the worst possible category, “hazardous.” These are emergency conditions, but they are also every day.
And yet! We love smoke. We crave the taste, the smell, the sight of it. Mewari paintings, their surfaces a thick smoke impasto; silver incense holders shaped like fish; Diwali cracker stalls packed to the roof.
You step outside the Jama Masjid in Delhi, cross the road, begin to pick up the scent, and then it becomes stronger, and then indelible: Karim’s. A table for three, please. Tandoori raan and a tandoori roti, please. Smoke on the food and the smoke in the air combine. It is immersive. It is a little much. It is very hot. But still: another round of chicken tikkas, please.
A bhakri roasted and served fresh off the flame should taste of fire. Our bodies, after stepping outside in winter, take on the smell of burning leaves. The smoke from the empty lot comes in, thick, grey, and powdery, to my children’s bedroom. I squint against the burning air and close the window.
And so perhaps this is why the world stands idly by as the air across the subcontinent becomes unbreathable. Going outside, unbearable.
Geographer Asher Ghertner writes about the historical roots of India’s air pollution crisis in colonial-era ideas that the “decreased vital capacity” of Indian lungs showed that they had adapted to the heat and humidity of the climate, whereas British officials “required” fresher air.
Ghertner explains: “The pathologisation of the Indian lung that once justified colonial-era segregation has made a troubling contemporary return, producing state imperceptibility of pollution-induced illness. Specifically, colonial theories of tropical air suggest that the Indian lung is uniquely suited to a dusty environment. When invoked in the present, this obviates the need for urgent pollution abatement action.”
I send Ghertner’s essay to everyone who will listen, to my colleagues in the history department, to the climatologists. “Climate inaction is rooted in colonial medical practices, the racist ideas that Indian lungs were smaller and adapted to bad air,” I explain, over and over, peppering my emails with exclamation points.
But they know all this, already, too. And still, but still.
There’s no responder in our taste buds for smoke– it’s not actually a taste. But we smell it: combusted cellulose and lignin. We’d recognize it anywhere. Woodsmoke. It goes straight to our limbic system. If we are at all prone to exaggeration or whimsy, we start to think about our ancestors, our ancestors’ ancestors, the reflection of a fire on the wall of a cave. Smoke does this to us. It lands not on the tongue, nor even in the nose, but somewhere deeper inside.
I pay to smell like smoke. Critic-perfumer Bharti Lalwani’s perfume-translation of these paintings in the Smoke chapter comes on strong. “Smoke” sits dark and even a little foreboding in its glass bottle, resinous. These paintings are in private collections, or in museum storerooms, or scanned online, or otherwise not on display. But the perfume is real, it's here, it's heavy, it's high octane, it smells like a tuberose on fire, like someone holding a whole bouquet of tuberoses, all on fire.
I am obsessed with perfume because it is a luxury commodity that erases itself. It is invisible (but we buy and sell it online). It is intangible (but held in these images, these Mughal paintings, that inspired the scents). It is soundless as the depths of the sea. Perfume is just this: a smell you can own. My descriptive abilities run up against the hard wall of this sensory experience. The smell changes as the hour goes on. It grows and weirds and thins and then is gone. Writing about perfume is impossible. No: it is almost impossible.
Lily Kelting is an assistant professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at FLAME University, a new-ish liberal arts college in Pune, India. Her food writing also appears in Vittles, Gastro Obscura, enthucutlet, the Kitchn, and elsewhere.
Published: 13 April 2023