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She sure smells good

The dearth of professional courses in India took Ahalya to France. And she went on to do a course in perfuming techniques

Ahalya with part of her collection — Photo: K. Murali Kumar

"EACH PERFUME has a story and a history behind it," Ahalya Matthan insists. "When you package a perfume, you package a dream". She should know, being a professional perfumer. Considering her family owns a successful agarbathi business, and she grew up pottering around her dad's labs, you could say being a perfumer is in her genes, but Ahalya doesn't work for her father.

She chose to learn about perfumery the hard way — and says she planned her life unconsciously to learn the art. The dearth of professional courses in India sent Ahalya to college in France after a B.Sc. in Chemistry from Stella Maris College. Not speaking fluent French meant she was plunged, desperately floundering, into a course detailing fashion trends and perfuming techniques... all in an incomprehensible language. "Since they were talking about perfuming, the language was obviously very descriptive," Ahalya remembers. "In the beginning I just couldn't take any notes at all." But staying with a French family and being forced to chat with classmates only in French taught her the language fast enough. In six months, Ahalya could finally keep pace with her class.

Living and working in the highly developed French industry, made Ahalya realise how differently smell is perceived in Europe and in India. "In France, perfume is a daily thing," she says, "but in India, it is still a luxury. The Indian industry takes its cues from the trends in Europe and the U.S.," she reveals. India needs to get more original, she urges, instead of merely exporting its best raw material and talent leaving a small indigenous industry to cater to a large market.

Although the quickest associations with the term perfumer are "perfume" and "eau de cologne", the bulk of work done in perfuming companies is making fragrances for FMCG's (fast moving consumer goods) for their soaps and lotions and talcs. The companies give a detailed brief of what they expect to smell and the perfumer just creates the smell. Pretty simple. Even Aladdin's genie could do it. A little bored now, Ahalya is looking at the related field of consumer retail in perfuming — the kind of jobs that require you to figure out market trends, and evaluate whether a particular perfume would be successful. The ideal brief, Ahalya says wistfully, would be if the perfumer were just given the mood required and then allowed a free hand to innovate.

Which is why she would eventually like to start up her own company, right here in Bangalore to make perfumes from India, a precious commodity — a possibility if they are branded and packaged right, she says.

But that's not the only plan in the pipelines. Ahalya has a large collection of perfume bottles — 300, at last count, which is still growing, (and eating up increasingly more space, much to her mother's dismay). She wants to put them all together and start Bangalore's first perfume museum, where visitors can wander around reading the stories behind the different fragrances.

While that dream is still a few hundreds of perfume bottles away, right on hand is an art-cum-perfume show. Ahalya's artist friend from Chennai, Oorna Bhattacharya will paint, and Ahalya, taking inspiration from the painting, will create the perfumes. The two are planning this over the next few months in both Bangalore and Chennai.

You can contact Ahalya at


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