A small-town attar line that seeded an aromatic story

Certain top notes of perfumery took roots in Kannauj, an understated — and underrated — town in northern India



By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Sat 26 Feb 2022, 1:22 AM

Swapnil Pathak Sharma was born in a home redolent of the most exotic fragrances. In fact, she grew up in, then left, and then returned to a town renowned for scents and aromas — Kannauj, in Uttar Pradesh, dubbed the ‘perfume capital of India’ for its expertise and legacy of attar. Her great grandfather, Pandit Munna Lal Pathak, started an attar and essential oils supply unit in 1911, one of the first in a town that now has some 300 such businesses. For more than a century, her family has been involved in the bulk supply of fragrances and essentials to the food, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics industry.

While growing up, discussions about perfumes and essences formed an integral part of the Pathak household conversations. Among her indelible memories as a child is that of dabbing Hina Attar on her knee and going running to her mother pretending to be bleeding from an injury to extract TLC (tender loving care).

Like many attars, Hina has a complex composition: it is made from oils of patchouli, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, with turmeric, saffron, and sarsaparilla, giving it a deep red colour. For Swapnil, inhaling these aromas, playing with mounds of jasmine, rose and marigold, and jumping over piles of khus (Vetiver), was the stuff of childhood games.

ALSO READ:

In as much as she flowered amid fragrances, Swapnil was never into perfumes or cosmetics as a teen or a young woman. The family business was dominated by men — as indeed the whole attar industry in Kannauj — and her ticket out of town, after early schooling at the Assisi Convent School in Etah, was a boarding school in Ranikhet near Almora, and later the Bharatiya Vidyapeeth engineering college in Pune, where she earned a degree in electronics and telecommunication in 2011.

It was during her final months in the engineering course that she had an epiphany arising from a dental issue that led to getting her teeth into the family business. Forced to buy a 10ml of clove oil from a store to address a toothache, she was shocked to see the poor quality compared to the clove oil her own family distilled at home. “It was a top brand and super expensive, but nowhere near in quality to what we produced,” she recalls.

Returning home to Kannauj in 2012 after her engineering degree, she dived into the family business, assisting her father as she tried to understand the basics of manufacturing of essential oils and attar. She also enrolled for a one-year course in aroma technology at the local Fragrance and Flavour Development Centre set up in 1991 by the Government of India and the Government of Uttar Pradesh — one of the few efforts made to boost an industry estimated to directly and indirectly employ some 50,000 people (in the region). Here, for as little as Rs3,000 (approx. Dh150), one can learn the basics of raw materials used in the incense-fuelled product categories of agarbattis, dhoopbattis, havan samagri and perfumes as well as the practical demonstration of manufacturing these products.

In 2015, with backing from her father, Swapnil ventured personally into the fragrance and wellness market, creating a brand called ‘Aromazeia’ to offer essential oils, carrier oils, incense cones and other Ayurvedic products. “Kannauj is mainly into bulk supply of fragrance raw material. More than breaking from the pack, for me it was about showing a new path to my people in Kannauj,” she says, recalling her first foray into products. Aromazeia did well enough in India, but how could she scale up to the global market dominated by established western giants?

The scent of Kannauj

In 2019, Swapnil married Ashish Sharma, a young early-career foreign service official who was just finishing up a posting in Moscow, and was being detailed to the Indian consulate in New York City next. Typically, diplomatic spouses are an understated presence in the Indian foreign service, rarely recognised for the quiet but important role they play as cultural ambassadors. Many of them have dazzling educational qualifications that they sublimate for a spouse’s career — and a greater cause.

But New York City, arguably the most global of entrepots, where politics, diplomacy, culture, business and fashion meet, can trigger verve in the most passive of spouses. By now, Swapnil had gotten deeper into the family business, with an underlying regret that Kannauj was, for all its renown in India, hardly famous outside — like, say, Grasse in France, considered the “WORLD’s perfume capital”.

Comparisons are odious, to flog a cliche, but Grasse has an outsized reputation in the world of perfumes compared to Kannauj. In fact, till the 16th century, Grasse, only 18 km from Cannes, the famed movie magnet, was known for its leather, not perfumery. It was only in the 18th century that its unique microclimate — warm with rolling hills, sufficiently inland to be sheltered from sea air, and abundant

water from a new project nearly — triggered a cascade of flower-growing, eventually piping into the perfume industry whose main ingredient is flowers.

Today, Grasse is known as the world’s perfume capital (la capitale mondiale du parfums), growing jasmine — the main ingredient for many perfumes — and other flowers by the ton. It has an annual jasmine festival — Fête du Jasmin or La Jasminade — in August and a Rose Expo in May. During the festivals, skimpily-clad young women throw flowers to throngs of people from decorated floats driving through the town. Fire trucks spray jasmine-infused water on the crowds amid street performances and concerts. Several famed ‘parfumeries’ such as Galimard, Molinard and Fragonard have museums in town offering tours and promoting sales. You get the picture.

In contrast, Kannauj is a typically decrepit Indian town, with narrow, crowded lanes and bylanes, chaotic traffic, and the ubiquitous cows on the roads. Despite its greater legacy, its economy is only around a sixth of the more than 600 million euros Grasse generates; in fact, there are no reliable statistics on Kannauj’s output or revenues, so poorly is the industry assessed.

There are stories aplenty though on how the town got to be the olfactory factory of India, with hyperbolic accounts of how even the gutters of Kannauj are fragrant. One account claims that the Mughal emperor Jahangir, on seeing oil coming out of the rose petals his wife Noor Jahan was using in her bath water, commissioned research to extract perfume from flowers. Others offer even older takes pointing to archaeologists unearthing clay distillation pots dating back thousands of years to the ancient Harappan civilisation of the Indus Valley.

Brihat-Samhita written by Varahamihira has an extensive treatise on the preparation of perfumes (gandhayukti). According to Swapnil, Kannauj is likely to have been manufacturing fragrances since the Gupta age, because Harshacharita, written by Banabhatta, has references to it.

But it is the Middle Eastern touch that is strongest, attested by the term attar or ittar — Kannauj’s primary product — derived from the Persian word ‘itir’, meaning ‘perfume’ which is, in turn, derived from the Arabic word ‘itr’. Small wonder Shakespeare referred to “all the perfumes of Arabia” in his play Macbeth.

Attar’s USP

Regardless of the antiquity or origins of perfumes, what distinguishes Kannauj is that it still follows methods and customs fine-tuned over centuries to make attar, primarily through a process called deg bhapka. In this process, flower petals, clay pieces, or spices — depending on the product being prepared — are boiled in large copper pots, called degs, over brick ovens, using wood charcoal. The fragrant vapour is then passed through a funnel called chonga, into a container called bhapka. The bhapka is kept in water so that the fumes condense inside it to form the final product.

It is a labour- and resource-intensive process that has withstood the ravages of time, and it is getting harder all the time because of shortage of raw material and competition from synthetics. For instance, oil from sandalwood, one of the primary ingredients of many an attar, has become progressively scarce and expensive. Flower prices can fluctuate wildly depending on season and availability.

But there is one edge Kannauj’s attar has over perfumes: it does not use alcohol. Could that, and its ancient process of distilling, not to speak of unique products, be a winning ticket to global recognition?

A small serendipitous stroke of luck would put Swapnil on a journey to break the mould in many ways.

Cooking up an aroma

Vikas Khanna is now a famed Michelin star chef, restauranteur, entrepreneur, and film maker. Like Swapnil, he has risen from a small-town upbringing (born in Amritsar, emigrating to the US after working for a string of top-tier Indian hotels). He first came to the US to study at the Culinary Institute of America. He worked at The Café at the Rubin Museum of Art before he co-founded Junoon, an upscale Indian restaurant in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, nailing a Michelin star in its inaugural year, and every year thereafter for eight years.

Like Swapnil, he too has had a long-standing gripe about lack of Indian products and produce in the global market. He is passionate about foods and spices of India and how understated and undersold they are in the global marketplace. Long before the Indian government’s Make-in-India enterprise, Khanna, who has his fingers in Ellora in Dubai, had spent years visiting Kashmir to document the cultivation of saffron, derived from the flower of crocus sativus. Saffron is widely considered the world’s most expensive spice and Khanna had been going to the Valley to record everything from its pollination to its harvesting. “Did you know that the crocus flower closes its petals the moment it begins to rain? Nature knows how to protect its treasure [saffron],” he noted in a 2018 tweet, attesting to his passion to understand not just the produce but how it comes to the market.

Early in January 2021, Khanna was visiting the Consulate General of India in NYC to discuss his saffron agenda (in the food sense!), with CG Randhir Jaiswal when the official suddenly remembered he had a saffron-infused perfume given to him by Swapnil and Ashish, who had just arrived in the Big Apple. “I got excited immediately,” Khanna recalls. “I had been working on saffron for the past four years and I had been consulting for perfume brands, including Guerlain. And here I was at the intersection of spices and fragrance!” Impressed by the quality and packaging of the product, Khanna sought out Swapnil.

By March, after detailed meetings, they came up with the idea of developing a perfumes and attars portfolio, inspired by India’s floral and culinary legacy, under the flagship of Zighrana — Swapnil’s company that derives its name from jighrati, the Sanskrit word for fragrance or smell. The first of the products, eponymously named Vikas Khanna and launched on Valentine’s Day, is confected from a unique blend of spices like cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, along with sandalwood, jasmine and rose. More products are in the pipeline, including India@75, a fragrance designed to commemorate the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, and a perfume called Kannauj, to celebrate an understated town that is the ground zero of perfumery in India.

But the product that the global market could absorb with pleasure is something unique — a Kannauj specialty that is little known beyond its aficionados and is sometimes called the “earth’s perfume” and the “scent of life” itself. Called Mitti Attar, it captures the aroma of rain on dry earth, a fragrance described by the Greek term petrichor — ‘petra’, meaning stone, and ‘ichor’, which in Greek mythology refers to the golden fluid that flows in the veins of the immortals.

Neither Swapnil nor Vikas are under any illusion that the products will immediately make a huge splash in the world market or fly off the shelves in duty-free shops. For now, Swapnil’s immediate target is to get her initial products into stores such as Macy’s.

“This is just a small pebble in a vast pond,” says Vikas Khanna, recalling that it took him working in nine restaurants before he could nail a Michelin star. “Nothing comes easy, but the first step is to challenge the single vision of perfume that the world has.”

Swapnil agrees. Her name, after all, translates into a “magnificent dream”.

Chidanand Rajghatta is a US-based writer and author, most recently of Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman


More news from Long Reads
Can e-bikes go mainstream?

Long Reads

Can e-bikes go mainstream?

VanMoof, the Dutch e-bike company taking inspiration from Apple and Tesla, is one of the world’s hottest brands in a bike market remade by the pandemic. Will it help reshape urban transportation?

Long Reads