In an 18th-century Rajasthani miniature painting, now at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, a dressed Radha, seated on a flower bed in a clearing framed by thick forest, awaits her lover Krishna. It is twilight. Will Krishna show up for this meeting? Or will he hold her up?
The painting is part of a ragamala (an ensemble that illustrates ragas of Indian classical music) and expresses the pain of desire. Radha’s desire seems to be projected onto the forest, set with flowering shrubs and branched birds. Instead of vague floral decorations, Kota artists opted for detail and specificity – creamy frangipani and champaka, oleander, thick plantain sheaths, velvety celosia, and spiky pandanus flowers, called kewra in parts of India. . We can see the fragrant forest, but what if we could smell it too?
Independent perfumer Bharti Lalwani, 40, based in Pune, and Nicolas Roth, 32, a researcher in South Asian studies, on September 10 launched a virtual exhibition, “Bagh-e-Hind” (Baghehind.com), allowing viewers to explore the worlds of Mughal and Rajput miniatures through scents and smells.
The idea was started a few years ago after Lalwani saw a 17th century painting of Emperor Shah Jahan admiring jewelry and adornments with his son Dara Shikoh. The flowery frame around the stage was an explosion of flora and fauna, as elegant as the subjects of the painting, but wild and uncontrollable. The king of the world could have his jewelry but the natural world was beyond his reach, it seemed to Lalwani, who said, âThese paintings impart a lot of scent. Contemporary audiences would have known them – this idea of ââa summer garden, a pleasure garden, abundance in nature – parrots rummaging in mangoes or bees drunk on honey.
The curators classify the exhibition into five sections, not all of which are flower-based. The rose (led by a gulab bari garden), iris, narcissus, and kewra are themes here, as are smoke (fireworks). It’s a layered idea of ââwhat the olfactory might mean in Indian paintings.
Roth, based in Cambridge, USA, holds a PhD from Harvard University in garden culture and the horticultural writings of Mughal India from the 16th to the 18th century. He chose paintings with prominent olfactory elements as well as those representative of a particular genre convention. In the Narcissus section, for example, the lead role has two aristocratic young men sitting opposite each other on a garden terrace, sniffing sprigs of narcissus, perhaps with a bowl of jasmine between them. âThe allusion to scent is clearly a central aspect of the image, with the daffodils beautifully and naturalistically rendered. Daffodils are frequently referenced in Persian and Urdu poetry, where they generally represent beautiful eyes and thus allude to vision. and insight, but also flirtatious looks and intoxication, “says Roth. Yet this exceptional painting is an example of a large body of similar compositions – pairs of men or individuals, on terraces garden, surrounded by various accessories of the good life, as imagined by the first modern South Asian elites, Roth adds.
Olfactory associations, more than sight, are known to be instantaneous and instinctive. It is the smell of the cake baked at our neighbor’s house that reminds us of a deceased grandmother; or the hint of cologne that reminds us of a former lover. They arouse emotions and nostalgia, like the madeleines in the (novel Marcel) Proust, and at the very least, there is something primal and pheromonal about them. Considering the vivid details of Indian miniature paintings, one might think that the olfactory aspect is therefore obvious. Yet among the small number of scholars who study Indian miniatures, there is hardly any research to date on this aspect.
It is difficult to confirm whether the original audience for these paintings approached the works in the way the exhibition encourages us to do. Roth says he has yet to find evidence of painters specifically trying to evoke olfactory experiences. But the wealth of detailed depictions of scented flowers, perfume bottles, perfume burners and the like, and the frequent and extensive references to perfumes and perfumery in contemporary literary texts strongly suggest that it was something. very intentional on the part of painters, he adds.
It’s ironic that the exhibit opened virtually during a pandemic, during which we are desperately trying to protect our noses and mouths. In an attempt to overcome the current plight of humanity, curators aim to tease our noses and taste buds by using language laden with olfactory references, snippets from their conversations, poetry, historical artifacts associated with paintings, and flowers from Roth’s personal garden. Additionally, the sound design was created by Berkeley-based landscape architect Uzair Siddiqui.
The highlight – at Rs 27,000 each – is Lalwani’s âsynesthesia boxâ, custom-made for each section. Lalwani, who has been creating perfumes since 2018 under the Litrahb Perfumery label, has composed notes and trademarks âedible perfumesâ. These respond to the clues of the paintings, mixing and matching them with other notes. The edible scent of the Rose section, for example, translates a hot, muggy summer in India by using a dark chocolate spread created with vetiver, peanuts and jaggery.
Much like the history of South Asian art, where some of the finest works have been smuggled or looted from their native lands, perfumery also has a problematic history. Lalwani explains how the raw materials used in perfumery are often exploitative in nature, such as natural civet musk, which is extracted after great pain to the animal. Additionally, perfumers have often taken an orientalist eye to South Asia and Mughal gardens to seek inspiration for their products. Take Guerlain’s Shalimar, created in 1925, inspired by the love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. Their ad from a few years ago features a Russian model waiting for her lover and the Taj Mahal springing from a lake in Rajasthan. If the perfume and paint trade is troublesome, Lalwani hopes that “‘Bagh-e-Hind’, on the other hand, offers a lot of beauty and a lot of stillness.”
The exhibition assumes that the public is familiar with scents. So if we have never seen or inhaled a narcissus, much is left to the imagination. And, it’s also possible that our familiarity with certain scents means that the paintings evoke associations that are far removed from their original intention. Kewra, for example, is used today as a cheap biryani flavoring, unlike its historical use, as Roth discovered when it was a coveted fragrance ingredient. So, while the kewra intoxicates a Radha with the desire for her missing date, it is perfectly acceptable for the audience to remember the best, or worst, biryani or korma they have ever had.