There is a touch of magnetism about Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. A walk through these narrow alleyways can lead you back in time. They give you a sense of history, of old narratives waiting to be rediscovered. One such narrative revolves around the perfume stores located here, selling organically made fragrances known as ittar in Urdu.
On a recent visit, I got to know about a particular kind of ittar that has been around for at least a couple of hundred years. Today, you can buy a 10ml bottle of this fragrance — named Ruh-e-gulab — at the Gulab Singh Johrimal store, which was established back in 1816, when Delhi was another city, even was called by a different name altogether.
After crossing the numerous jewellery stores in Dariba Kalan, I found Gulab Singh Johrimal on one side of the road. Here, the Ruh-e-gulab, Delhi’s oldest rose-flavoured ittar, is still the most expensive product. The 10ml bottle of this product is priced at a whopping Rs 32,000 — almost equal to the price of 10 grams of gold.
Intrigued by the cost and overcome by an urge to try out this “queen of ittars”, I asked the owner if I could smell the tester (already preparing myself mentally to have my request turned down). And soon, to my surprise, the Ruh-e-gulab was asked to be brought.
I had imagined that there would be a fancy decanter holding the perfume or that it would be brought to me in an ornate velvet case. Instead, the bottle was made of plain glass. Perhaps the makers were saving the artistry for the fragrance. The ittar emanated a sugary scent — comforting enough to have you forget for a few moments the chaotic scenes unfolding outside in centre of Chandni Chowk bazaar.
“To extract 1000ml of the oil used to make this fragrance,” Mukul Gundi, the owner of the store, told me, “we require as much as 5,000kg of fresh Bulgarian rose, which is pricey in itself. The process of extraction is another factor which also determines the price. For pulling out the extract, we use steam distillation process — the most authentic way to extract pure oil, which is costly. Besides, for this much amount of yield to take place, special care has to be taken at rose farms, which again requires a lot of money. All these aspects increase the overall price of the ittar.”
But aficionadas don’t mind spending this much, even if what they’re getting is a mere 10ml smidgen. Among those who regularly buy the ittar are celebrities that Gundhi didn’t want to name. He said, “We don’t have a register maintained about the name of the customers, but certain big names time and again reach out to us to buy this particular fragrance.”
Gundi is the seventh generation of his family and he claims that growing competition – from local as well as international players – has never deterred him. He said, “We have never been disturbed by the competition, which is always on an increase, because we are true to our customers. We have never compromised the quality of any product in our shop despite gaining popularity. This business was set up by my great grandfather, Gulab Singh, and his son, Johrimal, a couple of centuries back. Ever since, it has stood the test of time and aims to create different blends.”
“Most of the owners give self-composed names to their different blends. My products go with names like Mausam, Alhabib, Arabian, Loving Heart and the like. Two ladies once wanted Mumtaz. They didn’t find the product as most shops give their own came to the blends but then I asked what kind of fragrance they were looking for and I made something as per their requirement.”
Another boutique shop which crafts various blends of ittar is Arihant Fragrances, located at Janpath in Delhi. The owner, Mahender Jain was recently able to recreate the smell of wet earth after fresh rain.
Established in 1980, Jain’s store is quite popular among regular visitors to Janpath. Here one can see a swarm of people huddled over the counter to try various scents, through the day. Jain comes across not just as an expert perfumer, but also as a performer and, at times, as a sort of magician, with his multiple blends and creative powers.
A customer, after learning about the various scents for some 20 minutes, didn’t buy anything and was ready to leave the store. Jain mixed three different varieties of ittars on cotton and handed it to him to sample. Jain told him, “Aap mujhe yaad karoge; kya pata fir se yeh bana paoon yaa nahi. Aap yeh kam se kam chaar baar use kar sakte hain. Iska koi naam nahi hai. [You will remember me; I am not sure if I will ever be able to remake this. But you can use this at least four times. It has no name.]”
“Do ittar fragrances have names in general?” I asked Jain. He replied: “Yes, most of the owners give self-composed names to their different blends. My products go with names like Mausam, Alhabib, Arabian, Loving Heart and the like. Two ladies once wanted Mumtaz. They didn’t find the product as most shops give their own came to the blends but then I asked what kind of fragrance they were looking for and I made something as per their requirement. It is just a poetic twist given to ittars. We keep on adding new names as we develop new blends. There are as many as 40 varieties of blends available in this shop and we get a lot of raw material from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh.”
Kannauj, a small district in Uttar Pradesh, is popularly known as the perfume capital of India. For centuries, it has been supplying most varieties of ittars, as well as raw material for organic fragrances, to many destinations within India and abroad. Among the regular buyers of ittars made here were some of the most prominent royal families in India.
The FFDC runs many certificate and diploma courses for people wishing to learn the craft of perfumery. Shukla said, “These courses are approved by the National Skill Development Authority in India. Both Indian and international students enroll here. In the past, people from Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Bhutan have been part of various curriculums.
Sunil Kumar Gupt’s family, a group of master ittar-makers based in Kannauj, have been supplying fragrances to several high-profile clients since 1885. Among these clients was the last Nizam of Hyderabad, who, incidentally, had a fondness for Ruh-e-gulab.
Sunil shared an anecdote: “My father went to the royal court of Hyderabad to showcase the perfume. He told the actual price to Nizam, which was Rs 12 for 10ml. Hearing this, the Nizam was outraged and told him to go back and prepare something which is of Nizam’s standard. My father then pulled out another bottle, which was of the same ittar, but told the Nizam it was different and that the price was Rs 300 for 10ml. My father told the Nizam that he can’t sell this as the King of Mysore doesn’t want anyone else to use it. The Nizam didn’t take it lightly and his bodyguards took the ittar forcefully from him. The Nizam poured a large quantity on his clothes and one of his princesses complimented him that day. And that’s how we got the contract to sell to the royal family which we did until Independence.”
While some say that the craft of ittar-making dates back to the Mughal period in India, others are sure that it is as old as the Indus Valley Civilisation. Shakti Vinay Shukla, director of the Fragrance and Flower Development Centre (FFDC) in Kannauj, takes us back in time. “In Taxila Museum in Pakistan,” he said, “there is a terracotta apparatus on display excavated from the Indus Valley Civilisation. This apparatus is fairly similar to the one we use in Kannauj for the process of making ittar. This proves that the craft has been around since a long time in the district. The people of Kannauj have now come up with a government centre to impart training in all aspects of ittar-making to those who are interested.”
The FFDC runs many certificate and diploma courses for people wishing to learn the craft of perfumery. Shukla said, “These courses are approved by the National Skill Development Authority in India. Both Indian and international students enroll here. In the past, people from Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Bhutan have been part of various curriculums. A trained student can easily start his job at Rs 15,000 per month, a sum which eventually increases. We train in a way that a student can start his or her own brand of ittars, so that we get more Indian brands in the future.”
Despite the various types of ittars available in India, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain this cottage industry. The competition from international designer brands, selling well-packaged and well-advertised perfumes, remains fierce. Abhay Rathore, of Abhay Sugandh Vyapar. a third-generation ittar manufacturer from Kannauj, now based in Lucknow, said, “The word ‘brand’ has a huge impact. People like to have something from abroad. Most of the brands thrive because of the display and marketing. People like to shell huge amounts of money, that too most of the time for synthetic products, which further makes it a luxury product. The amount of actual fragrance used in such products is minimal. But in Kannauj there is no compromise with quality.”