- kannauj oud
- As a photographer, I have always been interested in how things are made. I have been fascinated by how raw materials are skilfully transformed in the hands of expert craftsmen to form products of great beauty and utility. In India, other than entirely handmade products, crafts are also produced in a semi-industrialised manner in factories. With the central government promoting ‘Make in India’, I wanted to go behind the scenes to document how that vision is unfolding at ground zero. I was curious to explore ‘smell’ as an often overlooked sensory subject. In India, olfactory gratification is crafted at an industrial scale at Kannauj, in Uttar Pradesh, which is where I headed.
- Perfume making has a long history in India. The Mahajanapada kingdom of Gandhara (in present-day Peshawar) took its name from the root word ‘gandha’, meaning aroma, because the region was once renowned for its perfume makers, who made fragrances from aromatic herbs, flowers and spices. Kannauj was the ancient capital of powerful empires in North India and perfume making here go back to the time of Emperor Harshavardhan (r. 606–47 CE). Traders in Kannauj also evoke a story about Mughal Empress Nur Jahan: when she emerged from a hammam (Turkish bath) smelling of roses, a court physician investigated the cause and discovered hot water had an aroma dispersion effect, and he subsequently designed the traditional pot/vat called deg. This story is surely apocryphal, but a similar process had indeed been developed much earlier by the Persian polymath Avicenna (Ibn Sena), in the late ninth or early tenth century, when he used steam distillation to produce essential oils from roses.
- Most perfume shops in Kannauj are concentrated around Safdarganj, Subzi Mandi Road and Farsh Street, in the heart of the city. I met Mr Shakti Vinay Shukla, Director at the Fragrance and Flavour Development Centre (FFDC), who explained to me the dynamics of the modern perfume industry. FFDC was established by the government in 1991, and it is involved in a variety of activities to promote and scale up the perfume industry in Kannauj.
- At FFDC, I realised how ubiquitous fragrances are in our daily lives. The perfume industry at Kannauj produce fragrances used in a range of home products, such as shampoos, toothpaste, detergents, hair oil, talcum powder, soap, room freshener, etc., and flavours used in food and beverages, such as ice-cream, chewing gum, sherbet, soft drinks, confectionary products, etc.
- With the passing of time, usage in other products like snuff, pan masala, etc., came about. According to Mr Shukla, the perfume business was badly hit by the gutkha ban, as 95 per cent of the domestic usage was in creating various gutkha flavours. A new emerging market includes products related to aromatherapy, but it still hasn’t found its foot in Kannauj, with oils used for aromatherapy accounting to less than 0.5 per cent volume in usage.
- Regardless of the increasing range of new applications, Kannauj is renowned specifically for ittar (also pronounced attar or itr) making. The delicate whiff of ittar is like an aromatic signature, which lingers long after a person has exited a space. In earlier days, perfumers crafted custom-made fragrances according to the personality and preferences of a client. Composing a perfume is a complex science and integrates in-depth knowledge of subjects like organic chemistry, botany and pharmacy. A perfumer who is briefed with designing a new perfume approaches the composition like a musical piece, with top, middle and base notes. It takes years of apprenticeship for a perfumer to develop a keen sense of smell and to capture the ‘experience’ of a smell. Due to its complexity and exactness, perfumers pass down formulas as a closely guarded secret through generations in the same family. Some families in Kannauj claim to have been in the perfume-making industry for 30 generations!
- The perfume industry uses various types of herbs and flowers (jasmine, lavender, rose, clove, pandanus) as the main base