What is your first memory of smell? Mine is of smelling my sister’s head the day she was born, August 16, 1979. I really liked that smell of a clean human scalp, talc, and also surprise. Forty years later, in late 2019, when people started losing their sense of smell at the start of the pandemic, in a collective anosmia, the question became even more pertinent.
I also started asking it a lot as part of a project that I started in Goa last year, along with impresario Sacha Mendes. We called it called Dial-a-Perfume. A phone-based service to speak with people about their memories of smell in a world where the unthinkable was happening, where ‘loss of the nose’ had become a symptom. People would call and I would try and interpret their words into a fragrance, and sometimes even a unique hand ‘purificator’. These were called Oté, referring to hands in Japanese, a word that is believed to represent the final stages by which all actions become possible. To handle means to manifest, and hands create a passage from the conceptual to the real.
We also use our hands for gestures that can, at times, be even more powerful than words, such as the mudra. The photos here are of me in my studio, playing with mudras in gloved hands, while taking breaks from making the fragrances. My longtime collaborator and close friend, artist Shivani Gupta, shot them. They felt so eerie at the time, and still do actually, that I was hesitant to share them.
The intimacy of perfumes
We set up a little perfumer’s table at Olaulim Backyards, nestled in the forests of the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary by the estuary of the Mandovi river, in the midst of frangipani trees, fragrant Konkan lime and cashew trees. And Mendes helped us create the link with the community over WhatsApp, as all our spaces were shut.
Someone called us one Sunday and said that she would like to surprise her close friend in San Francisco. We chatted with her about her memories of happy smells and decided to make something. Of course, making an actual fragrance takes years, but for this project we decided to weave smells like a patchwork quilt, of streams of memories — the only thing that we could do in this complicated time. Then came the challenge of having to send something to San Francisco while being in a small village in Goa. Our studio and laboratory in Paris were shut at that time.
Creating in the midst of global mayhem is not a simple thing; it demands a strong intuitive capacity, a love for the people calling, as well as the joint energies of many collaborators helping out. The lady talked at length about smoke, forests, leather seats and chalk, and we decided to send a perfumed letter to her friend (a lover, I presumed), but weren’t quite sure how to do it. None of the courier services were operating. In an ideal scenario, my perfumery should have been an online service where people could receive any fragrance they wanted with just a click. And, quite honestly, that is the reason why my perfume colleagues — such as those in Paris or, for that matter, any of the selective brands and even niche perfumeries, like my mentor and professor Marc Antoine Corticchiato — did so well despite the constraints. Because infrastructure was a lot more resilient where they were.
- Perfume retail in India was very badly hit during the pandemic; perhaps the worst in the world. It is hard to acknowledge this, and the answer is not about being online or not — it is not that simple. It is about intimacy. And storytelling. At the time of creating The Perfume Library five years ago, the intention was simple: sharing a new experience of life through smells. And this demands going to the core of what a perfume is — something very close and very exact — which is what we were trying to do through Dial-a-Perfume.
But that is where being in a tiny village really helped us. One doesn’t realise how amazing India Post is. Martha, our neighbour down the street, worked there and very deftly packaged the fragrance and sent it off to San Francisco. It seems incredible right now that a love parcel from a tiny Goan village arrived safe and in time halfway across the world.
Come, smell with us
Most conversations with people who called us were highly emotional because smell does that — it makes every topic a poignant one. Never before had we received so many messages from people both in India and outside, asking us for our catalogue of creations which they intended to link to their travels as scented reminders, at a time when memories were all they had. It was less about a particular place and more about a celebration of their summer holidays in various places. Smells heal; they have that incredible capacity though we don’t exactly know how.
In the midst of all this, both my parents living in New Delhi fell sick with Covid-19 in a very brutal way. While my dad was in the hospital, I created a card game to distract and help my mother convalesce with smells. Every card represented a mood, an emotion, and a state of well-being. The highlight of the day would be to pick a card, and its corresponding oil would be her fragrance for that day. I think these smells sustained her during that difficult period. My parents recovered and I went back to my riverside studio.
A thank you note
- After about a year of running Dial-a-Perfume, I decided to culminate it in March, with a performance with my musician friend, Minam Apang, titled Thief. One hundred and twenty five people came for the performance (we were overwhelmed, but ensured separated seating) held at the gardens of Tamil Table in Goa. Thief is the story of what a jasmine flower feels when it is plucked. Because, at the end of the day, a perfumery is as much about the planet as the people, and the performance — with poetry, fragrances and music — was an apology of sorts to nature.
Many of us now know what everyday life is without scent. Or when the sense of smell has been altered. It is a world where newborn babies do not have a smell, and where food tastes of nothing. Earlier, we had worked with a few people who were anosmic, but today this invisible disability is in the open and we can do something about it. Since March 2020, we have been conducting Smell Meditations with Minakshi Kanoongo, a Delhi-based yoga therapist, and sharing these meditations at large with whoever needs it. We still don’t know what we smell (there are contradictory studies about how smell molecules behave), and I so wish we could know that, but for those who have lost their sense of smell one thing is clear: everything or every time you smell, it builds a kind of muscle memory, similar to while dancing. So the most important thing is to keep smelling. Cut a lemon or an orange (citrus is the fruit of choice for the month of May), cut an apple, have a piece of ginger and smell it for a few seconds every day, consistently.
*We recommend that all wellness routines be undertaken only after consulting a doctor
Smell Meditations are every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, on Google Meet. To sign up, DM the team @theperfumelibrary.
Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan is the perfumer-founder of The Perfume Library, a space dedicated to the design of perfumes and performances.
Smell training kits from The Scent Guru Group
Meanwhile, from around the world
Support groups and smelling kits for those who have lost their sense of smell
AbScentCovid19: a Facebook support group for people who have anosmia (loss of the ability to detect smells) after contracting Covid-19.
AbScent Parosmia: a Facebook group that discusses parosmia (distorted sense of smell) and phantosmia (smelling something that’s not there). Scientists and researchers weigh in, too.
The Scent Guru Group: offers smell training kits to help retrain your sense of smell. The Essential Awakenings Kit comes with six scents — think chocolate, cinnamon, mint and grass — clue cards, and a training guide. Approx ₹4,800, on thescentgurugroup.com
The Smell Project: their kit comes with four essential oils — lemon, eucalyptus, rose and clove — a training guide, paper logs and smell jars. Sold out on amazon.in, you can order it on smellproject.com, for approx ₹3,000.
Retail update from Bombay Perfumery: “Our fragrances, 1020 [a play off between spicy ginger and calm vetiver] and Madurai Talkies [floral, with a heart of rose, jasmine, and violet], remain popular,” says founder Manan Gandhi, adding that while “olfactive trends have remained similar, the emphasis on the use of naturals has been increasing over the last few years”. While the pandemic has impacted the sale of fine fragrances, Bombay Perfumery has “seen an increase in candle sales”.
*Contact your doctor before using the kits
— Team Weekend