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Perfume & Flavour Translations
Notes between the Perfumer and historian
June - August 2021
Nicolas, I read your recent essay Verbal (Re)constructions: Reading Architecture in the Urdu Masnavī. In it you refer to several splendid paintings depicting fireworks celebrations in gardens at night time. This gives me an idea for playful 'Smoke' notes that I can construct.
'Samsam al-Dawlah Khan Dawran watching a fireworks display, Delhi
This painting - though it inserts a specific figure - is really an example of an eighteenth-century genre scene of courtly women celebrating the Muslim festival of Shab-i Barāt. Most versions have just the women, but there are various ones that insert a historic or mythological figure where Samsam al-Dawlah sits here - even one from Kishangarh where it is Krishna and Radha that join the women, which Kavita Singh has written about at some length. Not surprisingly, that one is glossed as them celebrating Diwali or just watching fireworks, but I am actually not so sure if that was the sole intention - I think to an educated eighteenth-century audience it would have been pretty clear that it was the standard Shab-i Barāt scene. Much like for Diwali, lighting lamps and fireworks are central to the way Shab-i barāt was historically celebrated in many places, so the conventions associated with the representation of the two holidays in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century painting can be quite interchangeable.
There are other paintings of people lighting catalogued as depictions of Shab-i barāt which I suspect might actually represent Diwali. Iranian traditions associated with Shab-i barāt - which may have still been followed by Iranian immigrants and Persianized elites in South Asia in the eighteenth century, especially in places like Avadh and Hyderabad - also involve the burning of isfand or wild rue (Peganum harmala). The censor could potentially be a reference to that. The floral inlay on white marble - or frescoes of flowers on white stucco meant to evoke white marble - are pretty standard for post-Shah Jahan Mughal architecture, and its representation in painting I would argue quite typical of the obsessive recording of “ideal” Mughal architecture that I write about in that Journal18 article (building on the wonderful work of Chanchal Dadlani in her book From Stone to Paper: Architecture as History in the Late Mughal Empire). Also note what I think are supposed to be real bouquets in some of the niches though, and the fruit (apples?).
Here, I will take some liberty and skip the fruit/ apple note to focus more on the smoke and the scent of incense in the air. The perfume as it stands now is smoke, smoke, smoke which clears to reveal a resinous patchouli in a garden with old cedarwood trees. A hint of jasmine sambac appears towards the end with that signature burnt-rubber top note.
Earth-smoke: Patchouli, vetiver, wood-smoke, tar/ burnt rubber, petrichor, cut grass/hay, moss, tobacco, galbanum (green top note), sandalwood and hydrocarboresin (fractionated labdanum), cedarwood (Himalayan and Atlas), iso e super
Musk: castoreum musk (synthetic), Ambroxan
Floral: Mimosa, honeysuckle, tuberose
The Edible Perfume component is set: Ambergris, tonka bean, black cardamom, sulphurous black salt, organic menthol crystals beaten into sugar and ethical cocoa powder. - You have samples for both Perfume and Edible perfume by now. I expect the cocoa leaves a sparkle on the palate.
This scent starts out sweet and floral, and then gradually becomes smokier, even a tiny bit acrid - in a really interesting way! - before mellowing out to a rich, warm woodsiness with lingering smoke note. Due to the prominence of smoke and wood, it is somewhat reminiscent of conventional men’s perfumes, but much richer and more complex. The corresponding edible perfume is particularly evocative, somehow perfectly capturing the metallic tang of firework smoke. Moreover, it produces a slight minty tingle sensation, which in conjunction with the smoke aroma, immediately calls to mind the cascading sound and glittering showers of sparks of a fireworks display.