A 200-year-old perfumery in the capital is known to harness the fragrance of the first showers of the monsoon. Shrabasti Mallik takes a trip to the store, tucked away in the bustling bylanes of Old Delhi
The narrow lane in front of me is chocka- block with honking rickshaws, loud fruit vendors, jostling residents and wide-eyed tourists. It is a bright, sunny day and I am in Old Delhi, standing at the turn leading to Dariba Kalan, in search of the redolence of rain. I was told a few days ago that an old perfumery, tucked away in these lanes, sells the fragrance by the bottle. And neither the hubbub nor the sultry weather, coupled with the dust, is able to overpower the miscellany of aromas that gradually envelops me. I attempt to identify individual fragrances, but can decipher only two – a gentle jasmine and a sweet rose.
I follow my olfactory senses into Dariba Kalan and, bypassing the motley crowd, reach Gulabsingh Johrimal, believed to be one of the oldest perfumeries in the city and specialising in attars (fragrant essential oil).
The interior of the shop is simple – the cabinets are lined with Belgian cut-glass decanters filled with sweet-smelling attars and an employee is assisting a Russian family in choosing a scent. A closer look reveals traces of the store’s 200- year legacy – a still-ticking pendulum clock from 1950 and intricately-carved shelvings made from Burma teak wood.
The aromas are stronger now – I smell rose, jasmine, pandanus (kewra) and a host of other scents I cannot discern. Mukul Gundhi, who currently manages the store with his brother, brings out a small vial of attar and dabs a little on my inner wrist, instructing me to spread it as much as possible on my skin. It is the fragrance of rose – subtle and ambrosial. “This attar is made from desi gulab [indigenous/native roses], grown at our farm in Uttar Pradesh,” he shares.
Politely, I enquire about the fragrance of rain. Gundhi smiles and tells me that I have come at the right time. “Attar such as gill (gill means wet) is season-specific, so timing is key. It is best applied during peak summer, because it carries the aroma of mon-soon and brings a sense of relief,” he explains, and begins looking for a sample bottle. I try to imagine how the oil might be prepared: workers intently waiting for the first drops of rain, scooping up heaps of damp soil and collecting them in vessels for further processing.
Gundhi laughs. “You are not far off,” he says, and describes how several pieces of broken earthenware are used to create the sublime fragrance. “The pieces are placed in a copper vessel, to which water is added and heated. The steam from the vessel is passed over sandalwood oil [kept in an adjoining vessel connected by a bamboo pole], which captures the scent from the steam. What we ultimately get is the smell of rain,” he sums up, drawing out a small vial containing an opaque liquid. He opens the lid carefully, and gently brushes the glass applicator wand on my wrist.
I recognise the scent instantly. It is petrichor – the aroma that arises out of raindrops kissing parched soil – earthy, rustic and soothing. This is gill attar – the one I have been searching for. And it really does capture the scent of monsoon in a bottle! A second sniff of the perfume, and a medley of memories rushes through my mind: the pitter-patter of raindrops on the window pane, colourful paper boats floating in roadside puddles and mouth-watering savouries accompanying a cup of piping hot chai.
My interest in the traditional distillation process of attar-making is piqued by now. Gundhi takes his seat behind a long, wooden counter, almost like a teacher about to impart a lesson, and explains the nitty-gritties of the long and elaborate procedure. “A 10-kg batch of attar takes about two to three weeks to prepare. The process demands tremendous patience,” he reveals. The preparation involves suspending flowers and other desired elements in a sealed container over boiling water. The rest of the process is the same as that for gill. “Sandalwood oil is the most preferred base in attar-making, because of its preservative properties; it enhances the fragrance of the distilled element. Like fine wine, the fragrance of sandalwood-based attar matures and improves with time,” he explains, opening a small bottle containing a thick, dark green liquid and proffering it towards me. Just a whiff, and I am instantly transported to my childhood; my father used to smell the same. Gundhi watches my reaction closely. “Is it khus?” I exclaim. He smiles in approval.
Gundhi has interesting anecdotes to share about the origin and history of attar, and I am all ears. He had learnt from his forefathers that attar and attar-making find a mention in the Vedas, but with the passage of time, the knowledge contained in the scriptures has been lost. “Today, we relate attar only to Mughal rule. History suggests that the craftsmen involved in the process of distillation were called akhtars and what they created was called attar. They were considered masters of the process,” he explains.
With a small vial of attar in my hand, I exit the store, the miscellany of aromas lingering around me. I may not have been able to bring back the smell of the rains with me (pure attar can be quite expensive – a 5 ml bottle of gill is worth Rs.1,000) but I know that I will return to this little shop often, to relive the first shower of the season over and over again.