Down Memory Lane Society

The perfumer’s tale

A traditional Ittar of Perfume shop in the walled city

A traditional Ittar of Perfume shop in the walled city   | Photo Credit: V V KRISHNAN

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The scents of India, in one man’s shop that unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore

Meeting Lala Premchand Sugandhi (1922-1976) in the 1960s was an eye-opener. He was one of the famous perfumers of Chandni Chowk and his firm still holds sway in the business. Lalaji’s family has dealt in perfumes since Mughal times. In his 40s then, in robust health and wearing the typical dress of an Old Delhiwalah, complete with slanted embroidered cap, he exuded a smell that intoxicated you. Sugandhi like Gandhi, means one who deals in scents, an attarfarosh. Lala Premchand was a walking encyclopaedia on perfumes and he had vast knowledge about both Indian and western scents.

The first British Resident in Delhi, Gen Ochterlony was so fond of perfumes that he sent for them from Chandni Chowk and the Jama Masjid.

He was also supplied scents from the perfumery town of Kannauj where itar-making is a cottage industry and has been from the time of Jaichand, the raja of the place who betrayed Prithviraj Chauhan. Jaichand’s grouse was that Rai Prithviraj had eloped with his daughter Sanjyogta at a Swayamvar organised by him and to which the Rai had not been invited. But before that Rai Pithora, as he was known, enjoyed great hospitality in Kannauj and was virtually bathed in perfume by Jaichand, who needed his help and protection.

Premchand Sugandhi mentioned this while sitting in his shop smelling of all the scents of Arabia and Ind (India) on a hot afternoon during which the cold drinks offered smelt of roses and khas and soothed the senses. The sugandhi presented an article by historian Dr. Ram Nath, later Head of the Department of History, Rajasthan University, in which were mentioned these salient features of the Mughal harem and the succeeding emperors love for perfumes:

Akbar and his sons and grandsons were very fond of perfumes both for using on the person and for burning in the household and the court-hall which were continually scented with ambar (ambergris), agar (aloeswood) and other incenses.

Some of these were definitely ancient recipes which the Hindus had been popularly using in their temples, while some compositions were invented by him, as his historian has recorded. Incenses were daily burnt in the harem in gold and silver censers of beautiful shapes and designs.

Sweet-smelling flowers were also used in large quantities. Araqs, itrs and oils were also extracted from flowers and used for the skin and the hair.

Akbar created a separate department called Khushbu-Khana (Department of Perfumery). Shah Mansur was put in charge of it. Some of the choicest recipes were: Santuk used for keeping the skin fresh, Argaja used in summer for keeping the skin cool. Gulkama was an incense prepared by a special process from ambar. Ruh-Afza was also burnt in censers and gave a very fine smell (khushbu, sugandha) and was used in the household.

A traditional Ittar of Perfume shop in the walled city

A traditional Ittar of Perfume shop in the walled city   | Photo Credit: V V KRISHNAN

Opatna was a scented soap, made by an intricate process, of ladan, agar and other ingredients. Abirmaya was also prepared from agar. Bukhur and Fatila were both types of incense made of agar. Barjat was a soap made of agar. Abir-Iksir was a soap prepared from chandan (sandalwood). Ghasul was liquid soap made of chandan.

The ingredients of these perfume recipes were obtained from various sources from distant regions. Ambar was extracted from a tree that grew in Cyprus and the Mediterranean region. Kapur (camphor) was also a tree extract. Civet and Gaura were animal products, obtained from Achin, Afghanistan. Mid was prepared from an animal secretion. Agar, also called Ud, was the root of a tree. It came from Gujarat, Achin and Dhanasari. Agar, chandan and kapur, the three most frequently used ingredients, were indigenous and these were tree products. Others were imported practically from all over the medieval orient.

Jehangir claimed that itr (attar or oto) was the discovery of his reign. He ascribed it to Asmat Begum, mother of Nur Jehan. This discovery was made while she was making rose-water, when a scum formed on the surface of the dishes into which the hot rose-water was poured from the jugs. She collected this scum little by little. It was so strong a perfume that if one drop was rubbed on the palm of the hand, it scented a whole assembly.

Premchand Sugandhi later commented that if one was tired of the tedium of modern life “come with me to Chandni Chowk Street or Matia Mahal after sunset and stroll down the bazaar named after a Mughal begum.” She was one of Shah Jehan’s wives and the patron of the shopkeepers of Delhi.

Does her spirit still love the place? One doesn’t know in an age of sceptics, but the perfumes she loved still linger in the air. Hina, raat-ki-rani, chameli, motia, khash. The Sugandhi ended the interview with a scented paan and it was with great regret that I learnt of his death at a comparatively young age on November 11, 1976, when I read his obituary.

The writer is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Dec 13, 2019 8:23:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-perfumers-tale/article30095964.ece

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