Nearly 300 years ago when the Mughal Empress Noor Jehan was having a bath in her shaahi hamaam, little did she realize that she was discovering the most expensive and exotic itar – Rooh-e-Gulab. Legend has it that when she went to have a bath; she noticed an oily layer over the water kept overnight with crushed rose petals, which when distilled became the famous rose perfume. The Maharajas of the erstwhile states of Gwaliar, Patiala, Darbhanga, Mysore and even Maharaja Ranjit Singh are counted amongst the most famous users of itars. The early documented use of itar is in Abul Fazal's account of Akbar's court in Aain-e-Akbari. Abul Fazal mentions Akbar using attar along with incense sticks burnt daily in gold and silver censers.
Lucknow can be enumerated as one of the few cities in the North India where the love of exotic fragrances and the art of itar making have reached exalted heights . The credit for patronizing and popularizing the perfumery in Lucknow goes to the Nawabs of Oudh, particularly to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Fragrance has always been an important part of the cultural life of Oudh. Till the 1960's this art was confound to a few family run perfumeries as the renowned Asghar Ali –Mohammad Ali perfumers. But by late 70's most of these distilleries folded up due to infighting or simply because they could not move with the changing times.
It was at this time when itar industry in Uttar Pradesh was in the doldrums, Chunnamal Vijayverigya, who ran a two-generation-old perfume business in Lucknow decided to reinvent it and within a decade turned it into a flourishing trade. The flagship brand Sugandhco was born in 1980. Says Vijayverigya, one of the scions of the Verigya family manning the counter in their perfume shop in the up market Hazratganj area of Lucknow, " Sugandhco combined the traditional knowledge and modern concepts to produce some of the most exotic and innovative perfumes." Through intensive research at their Research& Design unit in Lucknow they invented 20 exotic blends for long lasting and soothing aroma, some of these include the much publicized brands like Andaaz, Khushboo, Joohi, Kadambari, Kasak, Madhosh, Mehboob and Rim Jhim to name just a few. " Unlike their Western counterpart, in itar there are no masculine or feminine fragrances. The rules that exist are strict. Factors like the season, the occasion and of course, the temperament influence what you wear and when ." says Vijay, excusing himself to attend to a customer.
Finding markets for these innovative blends was not difficult. Demands came pouring in from different quarters and soon our R&D department which consists of 30 trained hands began working on different blends," says Vijay, who has done a course in perfumery from Grasse in France. The five Verigya brothers, who collectively look after the business, spend nearly five hours daily at their R&D unit studying these blends. "It's all about your olfactory senses," says Vijay.
The process employed to extract itar is still age old. Simply explained, itar is the pure extract of flowers in sandalwood oil. It forms an ideal base for perfumes as during distillation, the original perfume of sandalwood vanishes and the oil captures the fragrance of the flower. The distillation is done in several tin-lined copper pots, which can hold about 50 liters of water each. For about 2 grams of rose itar approximately 10,000 roses are put in each container. The pot is then tightly sealed and the mix simmers for six hours. The steam collected goes through a tube that passes through a pool of cold water and ultimately reaches a large glass jar where the rose water is collected.
At this point the droplets of attar are still in the rose water, so a second distillation takes place, in which the globules of attar rise to the surface as the liquid cools down, facilitating their collection with a device similar to a syringe. The rose itar is the costliest since a 100kg of roses yield only 2 grams of itar.
Rajasaran Varma worked with The Times of India for seventeen years. In 2001, he was appointed as the Resident Editor of The Indian Express which was launched by him in Lucknow in July 2001. He is now the Contributing Editor of USP-AGE, a business and communication magazine published from Mumbai.
"We have also moved from the traditional fragrances. These days we also use fruits for the fruity fragrance, which is really popular these days. We mix pineapple with peach or lime with oranges and get the desired blend," adds Vijay.
Sugandhco adopted a novel strategy to market its products in the country. Instead of having retail outlets in different places it opted for a direct selling approach. The partners decided to mail circulars to various hotels, resorts and spas telling them about the positive effects of using itar. Inviting them to an irresistible olfactory treat they urged these establishments to try out their various blends and kinds of perfumes. Joss sticks with lobaan, Jaiphal and Guggal to create a divine and meditative mood, Nainital Breezer to bring in the heady smells reminiscent of hills, of pine trees and the valley of flowers. It was an offer that few could refuse. Orders began to pour in. "Today we are supplying to the leading Five Star Hotels in India and abroad" says Vijay with a measure of pride.
Sugandhco introduced concept marketing in a big way. Says Vijay with a measure of pride.
People did not know the traditional uses of fragrances for floor fragrance, cooler perfumes and laundry and wardrobe. Men and women only knew itar as a means of enhancing their personality or their sex appeal. So Sugandhco introduced fragrances, which could make coolers give off scented smell of khus during the heat of scorching summer months. They also introduced the fragrances for the laundry and wardrobes, which could offset the heavy and pungent smell of freshly dry-cleaned clothes. "Why only bodies and clothes, why should not everything around you smell good? This was the question we asked and the answer was a resounding demand for most of these products" says Verigya.
The company today is supplying different blends of fragrances to the US, Australia, Dubai and the United Kingdom. Buyers in these areas, says Vijay, prefer heavy perfumes unlike in India where itar has a seasonal appeal. While they have few competitors in this field in the local market, there are some manufacturing units in Kannauj, a nearby town, which are targeting the same countries. "But this kind of competition inspires us to keep reinventing ourselves by innovating new products" says Verigya
Sugandhco is also making herbs and fragrances, which are used in a big way in the aromatherapy worldwide. "This is where we have to educate our buyers that oils and herbs used for aroma therapy are not imported from abroad but produced locally and extensively written about in our Vedas, only that we have been slow to patent them into full-fledged therapies. The amazing medicinal qualities of herbs find mention in Ramayana where Laxman was restored to life and health with a mere sniff of the Himalayan herb Sanjeevani." philosophizes Vijay.
It is widely believed that lemon oil taken internally or sniffed helps contain diabetes, asthma, boils, varicose veins etc. Three drops of sweet marjoram, taken with a little jaggery helps in curing the migraine. Administering petitgren oil controls nausea and vomiting. Heena is known for producing heat and if put on a quilt in winters can add to the warmth., but should be avoided during summer months. Meenakshi Gaur who runs a popular beauty and health clinic Khoobsoorat in Lucknow informs that jasmine extract is extremely useful in treating stress, hypertension and treating skin ailments. Sugandhco produces 600 different varieties of herbal oils for aromatherapy used especially in resorts, spas and five star hotels. The company also produces a variety of oils such as mint cloves for industrial uses as well.
What was the biggest challenge the Verigyas faced when setting up their business in Uttar Pradesh. "The biggest challenge was how to convince the Indian buyer to purchase indigenously made perfume" says Vijay. "People would just not relate to the local perfumes for various reasons-either they were not to their liking or that they were badly packaged as compared to the western perfumes. So we decided to conduct extensive research and experimented with different blends. We also changed the packaging of our bottles and used improved quality of glass with better flip-off caps. Despite all this, we feel there is a kind of mental block .It has unfortunately become virtually imbedded in our psyche that everything western is good," he rues, recalling the struggle they waged to wean away the modern buyer from the western fragrances.
Even in these times and age it is not rare in Lucknow that in a typical Muslim wedding, the whole ambience is so heavily laden with the fragrance of itar that it takes your breath away. Rajkumar Amir Naqi Khan, scion of the Mehmoodabad family, loves to use his favorite itar Majmua on his Sherwaani on special occasions. Poonam Seth, a socialite and an entrepreneur swears by Itre-gil, which smells of the first shower of rain on a parched land. A lot of Urdu poetry is still woven around these wafting fragrances and many a beloved's letters are perhaps still doused in them. As they say in Lucknow "Ishque aur mushq kabhi chupta nahi hai…. true love and the smell of musk cannot be hidden long. Who knows how far the story of Lakhnawi Itar will go?