At the G7 summit held in Madrid in June this year, prime minister Narendra Modi gifted French president Emmanuel Macron a box containing three different attars: attar mitti, attar gulab, and attar shamama (the box also contained jasmine oil, exotic musk, and garam masala). Attar is an essential oil-based fragrance extracted from flowers, herbs, or spices, which, unlike perfumes, does not contain alcohol. It has been made in north India for, well, over a thousand years and is as Indian as the head wobble.
The attars gifted to Macron were made in Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, which is to attar what Grasse, in France, is to perfume. To Shakti Vinay Shukla, attar mitti, which mimics the earthy, raw, and sweet fragrance of the first rains, is the “fragrance of India”. Attars are made by a process known as hydro-distillation, in which, in the case of attar mitti, clay extracted from the topsoil is baked in a kiln and immersed in water in copper cauldrons called degs that are then sealed with a mixture of clay and cotton.
The deg is connected by a bamboo pipe to a copper receiver and a water tank. “Once a fire is lit under the cauldron, the vapor travels through the bamboo pipe and condenses in receivers over a base of sandalwood oil,” says Shukla, director of the Fragrance and Flavour Department Centre, which is located in Kannauj.
Over the last few years, and especially over the last year, a bunch of new brands, from Boond and Isak to Kastoor, have been introducing Indians to their country’s perfume-making heritage, and the romance around it. Some of them want to take attar out of its limited cultural context, while others are blending Indian and western ingredients and going niche. Here, we take a look at some of them.
Boond was launched last May by siblings Krati and Varun Tandon, who hail from Kannauj, and retreated to their hometowns from Berlin and Mumbai, respectively, during the pandemic. Their father Pravin makes attar as a hobby and knew the lay of the land, so to speak, as well as the people who made attar in Kannauj.
“Attar is a way of life in Kannauj, but we never looked at Boond as a business when we started it. We were looking for a way to help the artisans during the pandemic,” says Varun. Boond’s attars are made the traditional way, but they are distinctly lighter. The jewel in their collection is the evocative Mitti Attar (Rs 1,399 for a 3ml vial). The attars are aimed squarely at the young who are, according to Varun, responding to them at an emotional level. “We get mails from customers, especially from Tier 2 and 3 cities, telling us how they gifted Boond to their mothers or fathers. This is the non-traditional attar audience we are looking to tap,” says Varun. Boond is shipped across the world, says Varun, and in December last year, it shone briefly at the wedding of actors Katrina Kaif and Vicky Kaushal. VicKat’s return wedding gift hamper included a vial of Boond’s attar. The company’s next project is scented candles that evoke languorous summer evenings.
Vidushi Vijayvergiya belongs to a Lucknow-based family that has been making fragrances for 160 years, and are suppliers to cosmetics and hair care companies. In 2017, after studying at a design school in Italy where she researched the luxury market, Vijayvergiva launched Isak along with her uncle Vijay and aunt Niti. Isak’s range of attars and perfumes are priced between Rs 900 and Rs 3,200, and the brand recently secured funding on the TV show Shark Tank India. Isak uses both natural extracts and molecule-based fragrances, and the emphasis is on creating a premium Indian perfume with Indian ingredients: roses from Aligarh, jasmine from Madurai, cloves from Kerala, and oud from Assam. “Indian perfumery is very evolved — but not too many people are aware of that,” says Vijayvergiya.
“Again, we are a hot, dusty country — we need perfume made for our conditions.”
Maison De Fouzdar
Dimple Fouzdar says she always used to dabble in perfumery. “I grew up in a family that loved perfumes, and I often made perfumes myself,” says Fouzdar who read law before studying perfumery in Grasse.
Fouzdar’s eponymous house creates a range of oud fragrances, but its latest, Santal Safran (Rs 9,800 for a 50ml bottle), uses red sandalwood, Iranian saffron, and musk to create a strong scent that, Fouzdar claims, can last up to 12 hours and project up to four feet. Fouzdar, who makes her perfumes at a facility near Delhi, describes her perfumes as niche, many notches above “the usual duty-free stuff.”
“When you wear a Santal Safran or an Oud Imperial, you are immediately noticed and remembered,” says Fouzdar.
Naso Profumi, founded by fashion stylist Astha Suri, uses extracts from attars and herbs that form the base of its scents. These are then blended with floral oils sourced from across the world. The two-year-old perfumery has an interesting range. Its Sarawak Mazzo, which has an underlay of Malaysia oud, blends mandarins and lemons with pure pink rose, while Saffron Infused in Musk & Amber uses Kashmiri saffron and nature-identical amber, to create an intensely musky fragrance. The range of gender-neutral fragrances starts at Rs 4,500 for a 50ml bottle. And, there’s also a Naso Lab that lets you customize your perfume.
Varanasi-born Esha Tiwari’s Kastoor employs the services of attar artisans and perfumers to make modern attars. Kastoor’s range of gender-neutral roll-ons includes the Reign, a contemporary recreation of white oud, and Daydream, which stars rose musk, lavender, and lilies. Like most of its peers, it has toned down the intensity of its fragrances to help them appeal to modern sensibilities. Prices start at Rs 1,799 for an 8ml vial.
(Featured Image: (L to R) Isak and Kastoor)