For several years now, Hassan Siddiqui has never had a day that did not include perfumes in it. “I have around 600-700 bottles of attars and around 300 Western scents. The costliest one in my collection is a 10-ml bottle of pure Oudhattar that costs ₹46,000. Yes, it’s like an addiction, but of the good kind,” he laughs, over a phone interview.
The 26-year-old Siddiqui is one of many aroma enthusiasts trying to highlight India’s thriving indigenous fragrance industry through social media. Though he is based in Bahraich, a small town near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Siddiqui reaches a global audience through his YouTube channel Perfume Review India. It offers a mix of product trials, interviews with perfumiers and explainers on fragrance usage and terminology in Hindi/Urdu, to its 17,800-plus subscribers.
Siddiqui wants to increase awareness about the role natural fragrances play in Indian culture. His focus is on attar or ittar , a broad term that refers to scents using essential oils derived from botanical sources via steam or hydro-distillation, a method credited to the Persian physician Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna in Europe).
Many of India’s traditional attar manufacturers rely on Ibn Sina’s extraction techniques, and are masters at creating not just floral scents, but also edible flavouring from natural sources.
Over a thousand enterprises are reportedly involved in the Indian perfume industry, estimated to be worth 500 million USD in a global market of $24 billion. Besides natural plant extracts, perfume manufacturers use chemicals and synthetic additives.
Even though imported alcohol-based perfumes have a more visible presence in the Indian market, attars too are holding their own. As India grows 31 of the 300 naturally fragrant raw materials required for perfume manufacture, it is an important supplier of essential oils like mint, jasmine, sandalwood, tuberose and spices in the global market.
The domestic natural fragrance market is dominated by Kannauj, a town in Uttar Pradesh known as the perfume capital of India. “We have been using the same hydro-distillation technique since 1896, when my great grandfather Sheikh Mohamed Ayub established the perfumery,” says Saad Akhir, of Kannauj’s family-run business Syed Mohamed Ayub Mohamed Yaqub Perfumers.
The ancient technique starts with the plucking of flowers early in the day. The petals alone are mixed with water and poured into copper stills known as deg and sealed with a mixture of clay and cotton. A bamboo pipe doubling as a condenser ( chonga ) connects the deg to the copper receiver (whose mouth has been covered with cloth or bhapka ) placed in a cooling chamber filled with water.
An earthen oven ( bhatti ) fuelled by wood and dung cakes ‘cooks’ the petals until the distillate is obtained from the vapour in two separate rounds. Both the bhatti and the water in the cooling tank are constantly monitored to maintain an even temperature.
Kannauj is known for attar shamama, a dense, woody scent said to be invented by Sheikh Mohamed Ayub, that is used in the base of most perfume blends by designer houses in France and UK. “Ironically,” says Siddiqui, “they are sold back to India, at a considerably high price, and our people are unaware of this.”
Patronised by the Mughals and the other princely states with Turkish links, attar makers and sellers were once an integral part of the Indian cityscape, as can be seen from the remnants of street names like ‘Attar Mohalla’ and ‘Gandhakaarar Theru’ in southern India.
“The credit for patronising perfumes in Lucknow goes to the Nawabs of Oudh, particularly to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah,” says Vishwas Vijayvergiya, whose family runs Sugandh Co in Lucknow. Apart from distillate extracts of agarwood, sandalwood and flowers, India also pioneered the art and science of making incense, an elixir that perfumes spaces through the combustion of fragrant materials with aromas permeating through smoke, he adds.
Keeping it natural
The lockdown briefly affected production of base oils until restrictions were eased in September. “Even though our exports have stopped due to the pandemic regulations, we are still manufacturing for our domestic customers,” says Mohamed Sadathullah of Hameed and Co Perfumers in Hyderabad.
- The pandemic-induced slowdown has made many perfume companies diversify their product base. While Lucknow’s Sugandh Co still has artisanal winter fragrances this year like Azeemah, Utsav, Hayaa and Kausar, it has also looked into chemical sanitisers. “Like all other sectors, the perfumes sector came to a standstill during the lockdown. However because fragrance is such an integrated part of all everyday life, we continued manufacturing industrial perfumery compounds for the hand-sanitiser and soap industries as soon as the lockdown was eased,” says company executive Vishwas Vijayvergiya.
- Adds Rahul George, of ARI Fragrances, Bengaluru, that creates signature aromas for corporate spaces, “Before the lockdown, nearly 80% of our clients were IT companies, who have all started working for home since March. So we are focusing now on manufacturing for pharma and hospitals. We are hoping to launch products related to women’s personal hygiene and a fragrance for pets.”
“We make perfumes with a sandalwood base, and also blends from attars bought from Kannauj, like henna, rose, and amber. We make oudh from the wood (agarwood, aloe wood) that grows in Assam. The wood chips are cooked to extract the oil from it. All our sandal-based perfumes are made without chemical additives and alcohol,” he says.
Cities like Delhi, Hyderabad and Lucknow are also popular for attar shopping tours, which give visitors a whiff of history with an ittar-saaz or perfumier creating a customised attar using different compounds.
“We can recreate most of the French, Italian and American scents with the help of the ingredients here, because the base note is more or less the same,” claims Saadathullah.
Measured in tolas (12 ml = 1 tola), the attar is sold in quaint craft glass bottles that add to the Oriental mystique of the perfume.
YouTuber Siddiqui, who launched his own perfume brand recently, says that he has come across some expert aroma replicators on his tours. In one of his videos on unusual attars , Siddiqui reviews products that smell like ‘Johnson’s Baby’, mud, and Lucknowi biryani . “I feel we should do more to showcase our attars effectively. The manufacturers have not even entered into influencer marketing, though this industry is thriving,” he says.
He points out the image problem attars seem to have, in general. “Expensive attars , which typically sell for ₹1,000 per 10ml, are packaged in ₹3 glass bottles with cheaper applicator sticks. Besides this, customers need to be educated on the right time of the year, and day, to use these natural scents. A winter-time perfume like musk can turn out to be very smelly in summer.”