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quarta-feira, 23 de março de 2016

Older Than Kolnisch Wasser

by: Sergey Borisov

Let`s forget about the newest art-perfumes and selective fragrances for a while. Let`s forget about marketing-niche-branding-packaging, let`s drop modern trends and in-house perfumers, and a price level of 200 dollars per bottle. How about we welcome affordable traditional Indian attars which are centuries old for a change?
For instance, there`s a traditional Indian oil-based aroma named Majmua 96 in my perfume collection. I bought it in India in 2006. Unlike some expensive attars and blends with “OUD” in their names, Majmua is one of the most widespread and popular oils, you can buy it from every street vendor of oils (attarwallah). Usually, Majmua is not expensive, the oil is used as a ritual ointment with meditative and relaxing properties, before pooja or namaaz in India and Pakistan. 

My bottle of Majmua 96 found me in Mumbai at the symbolic price of about 200 rupees (probably I paid too much, as any tourist) – and there were many other Indian attars and oils on the same wheeled pushcart: Jannatul Firdaus (Heaven`s Gate), Musk Ghazal and Bint El Madina (musk oil mixes), Mogra and Motia (jasmine attars), Shamama (ambery oil mix), Dehnal Oud (one of Oud oil mixtures), as well as Rose, Jasmine, Vetiver, Marygold, Saffron, Lotus, Cinnamon, Frankincense and Cardamom attars.
Old Attarwallah, perfumer and vendor, told me that the traditional formula of Majmua is made of four Indian attars (that`s why it`s named Majmua, which means “gathering” in Urdu): Kadamba, Kewra, Mitti, and Ruh Khus. He had me smell those attars and I wrote down the names, as some of them were new to me. So the four attars were: Neolamarckia cadamba flowers attar, Pandanus Odorifer flowers attar, parched clay attar (broken clay bricks and cups can be distilled into sandalwood oil!) and vetiver roots attar. Every producer has its own proportions of components, and some secret additions. According to Old Attarwallah, Majmua 96 is rather a summertime blend – by the winter his clients prefer the thick and ambery Shamama or the musky Ghazal Oud.
I decided not to buy Kadamba and Kewra in addition to the Majmua 96 (all of them can be purchased separately), as upon smelling both were pretty flowery oils; the first smelled like a green, floral and slightly woody neroli fragrance, while the second was pretty sweet, but I did not write down any nuances.
The two remaining attars of the blend were the ones I bought. I've always liked vetiver, and another bright green and wood-smoky Ruh Khus exemplar was gladly added to my collection. Attar Mitti was purchased earlier, in the small sleepy town of Kannauj, bearing the title of “eastern Grasse” – I was struck by its exoticism. How surprised I was that parched clay from the banks of the sacred Ganges and clay shards can be subjected to steam distillation with a non-zero result.
The Ganga river
First of all, sandalwood oil plays the main role in the smell of attars, since in the traditional Indian steam distillation “deg-bhapka” process the oil serves as the collector of the volatile substances. Then the smell of the first rain drops on hot parched earth appears, due to a substance called geosmin, which is a result of the vital activity of Actinobacteria (this substance gives the distinctive smell to carp fish). Result: attar Mitti is a sweet woody scent of sandalwood with an earthy, dusty start, and it`s really interesting!
Sandal powder
After all the preliminary descriptions above, I will proceed and describe the smell of Majmua 96 itself. It's persistent and it seems like it pulls you by the sleeve, inviting you to look at the souvenirs. It looks you in the eyes, but it feels like it looks through your soul. It needs to distract you from the rest of the Indian smells – jasmine and rotten fruits, dust and spices – and it shows you a hole dug in the soil, big bright garlands of flowers, seedlings and tubers, rhizomes, and some unlit agarbatti sticks. Perhaps this is the Indian harvest festival – or an Indian Coco Chanel fans jubilee of Chanel №19?
Majmua 96 is extremely longlasting – it lasts all day, even in the heat, especially if used the Indian way which I observed at Mysore and Mumbai: they impregnated a cotton ball with perfume oil and put in a bend of the ear. It is very diffuse – my beloved wife (we spent two months in India together) learned from the kitchen that I had started writing about the Indian fragrance, for she came over to me to find out what smelled so beautiful. It is extremely harmonious and complex – it`s quite difficult to distinguish even the well-known and beloved vetiver and sandalwood oil notes. I didn't notice any soothing or meditative properties that were promised. Majmua 96 is made by the Nemat company (Mumbai) – it's just an unusual oriental fragrance, my memory of India.
It is alluring, but rough; instead of a haute perfumery scent it reminds me of a beautiful and enduring perfume base (somehow De Laire's famous "Mousse de Saxe" pops into my mind, probably because of the saffron-like bitterness, vetiver and a light floral accent). In the warm floral-woody fragrance one can faintly distinguish some soapy-aldehydic citrus tones and green notes, some sweetness from unknown flowers, evoking honey and neroli, a woody warmth, and the well-defined earthiness of dry dust. I'm not sure if there's real sandalwood oil in my Majmua 96 – it is way too expensive for such a cheap blend, and the earthy accent of Mitti is easily added by a tiny amount of nagarmotha essential oil or highly diluted geosmin.
There is another difference from the traditional formula that I did not notice immediately. It's perfectly distinctive in the Majmua 96 base notes – something metallically bitter, like a saffron attar, or even some synthetics. I wonder whether there is conflict around the mandatory 100% natural fragrances in India? Do Indian people protest against the use of Ambroxan, Galaxolide and Iso E Super in traditional attars and blends? Do they consider the use of synthetic materials a sign of progress or a sign of the pursuit of profits in the modern world?
After all, if the old attarvalla was right and, despite the age-old tradition, each trader has his own recipe for Majmua and other aromatic blends, then why not make the recipes with synthetics? The formula may vary due to different factors - including the emergence of more stable and efficient synthetic materials. Even in India. Even in home-made products. More information about Indian Attars can be read in the articles of our editor Naheed Shukat Ali:
Attar in India: Introduction - "I still remember as a child my mother often used to tell about my grandfather's signature scent which was an attar called Darbar..."
Attar in India: Part 2 - "I always believed Darbar and Majmua were attars, but they are not...."
Most likely, the names of attars are not subject to copyright protection in India (as well as the names of Indian spices and dishes), but are simply the commonly used names. Manufacturers can only protect the name of their companies and their product quality (on my cheap bottle packaging were two holographic stickers) – leaving the name of the attar in common use. It was like that in the days of handicraft production, when people chose their own names as a guarantee of quality. Let me remind you that this is how we know about the oldest known perfumer – she was a Mesopotamia citizen, her name was Tapputi and she lived about 4000 years ago. And all her fragrances were created exclusively from natural ingredients.


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