Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
An ittar shop and its owner in Nizamuddin West in New Delhi. Courtesy Amrit Dhillon
An ittar shop and its owner in Nizamuddin West in New Delhi. Courtesy Amrit Dhillon

Indian perfumers give traditional scents a modern twist

The Indian makers of ittar are giving their scents a new, high-fashion twist by producing non-alcoholic imitations of famous global brands such as Dior and Chanel.

Since the time of the Mughal emperors, Indians have prized ittar, perfumes made from natural oils, petals and herbs. Unlike modern perfumes, ittar is non-alcoholic and favoured by Indian Muslims who prefer not to wear the famous global brands because of their alcohol content.

Until now, ittars have been traditional fragrances such as musk, jasmine and rose, but ingenious ittar-wallahs are producing imitations of famous brands for Muslim customers who want a non-alcoholic but "modern" fragrance and for non-Muslims who are not fussy about the alcohol but want a good imitation of a famous perfume for a fraction of the cost.

To avoid copyright issues, these manufacturers - whose workshops are tucked away in alleys in cities such as Mumbai, New Delhi and Bhopal - call their perfumes by names that are close enough to suggest the source of the "inspiration", but not identical to the actual brand. So Davidoff's Cool Water becomes Blue Water, Coco Mademoiselle becomes Coco Madame and J'adore, by Dior, is called Jade.

The industry is secretive. The men making the fakes refuse to let themselves or their products be photographed. On condition of anonymity, one manufacturer in Nizamuddin West, New Delhi, says: "Everyone wants to smell nice and to give perfume to their wives and girlfriends, but who can afford the big brands except the rich? We are filling a big gap in the market."

Fake perfumes have been manufactured in India since the days of the "Licence Raj" when no imports were allowed. The only choice for Indians who wanted a western brand was either to beg friends who were going abroad to bring it back from duty free or to buy a fake at home.

The fakers now have an easier time of it, thanks to the advent of gas liquid chromatography, a technology which identifies, in minute detail, the exact composition of a fragrance so that it can be duplicated to near perfection. Customers who cannot afford to spend 4,000 rupees (Dh264) on a perfume can now pay 400 rupees.

For ittar makers, this revival of their traditional oils, now that they can offer famous fragrances, is good news. The 5,000-year-old art has suffered occasional periods of decline from the days when the Mughal Emperor Akbar used to keep 100 bottles of this distilled and concentrated essence by his bedside, stored, as it always is, in coloured glass bottles or jewelled decanters.

Among the Indian Muslim nobility, ittar was an essential feature of their toilette, whether it was a whiff of fresh forest, the scent of baked earth before the monsoon or the aroma of exotic flowers. Muslim families have been making it for generations.

It's even believed that the Prophet Mohammed used to apply ittar to his head and beard. It was also a custom among Indian Muslims to offer ittar to guests when they left. Some Hindu families also make ittar and apply it to their idols.

Ittar takes five to seven years to mature. It improves with age, assuming a darker hue and a more pronounced aroma.

"I was never keen on traditional ittars because I found them too heavy, but when I tried Pleasing [the ittar version of Estee Lauder's Pleasures] recently, I thought it was great. You can't tell the difference and it's so much cheaper," says the New Delhi student Rekha Aggarwal.

Mumtaz Rabbani, who lives in the old Muslim Quarter of the capital, says she had no choice but to use ittars, as her parents forbade any item containing alcohol in the house. "I like the fact that I can now have a famous fragrance in ittar as well as the traditional scents," she says.

In Mumbai, Husain Attarwala, who exports natural oils to Europe and the Middle East (although he does not make fakes), says business for the imitators is booming. "Why talk only of India? It's a big business in the Middle East and in France, too, where customers are happy to get something that's excellent and one-tenth the price of the real thing."

Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Styled with bleached bobs and pale skin, the models wore clean and sporty separates reminiscent of the chic workwear of The Hunger Games. Courtesy Getty Images

Fashion Forward: Thoughtful tailoring at Asudari

The womenswear label Asudari showcased a collection that featured sharp masculine tailoring, but with feminine silhouettes.

Styled with bleached bobs and pale skin, the models wore clean and sporty separates reminiscent of the chic workwear of The Hunger Games.

Designer Lamia Asudari says she was influenced by Delftware ceramics from the 16th century, as well as the imagery of weaponry and artillery. Indeed, pistols, grenades and guns were emblazoned over jackets and dresses.

 Several of Jo Baaklini's pieces featured fruit prints. Courtesy Getty Images

Fashion Forward: At Starch, watermelon shirts, anyone?

“We need to cultivate our own fashion heroes — our own regional brands,” stressed Fashion Forward’s honcho Bong Guerrero in a press con two weeks ago.

Aptly, the slot for this season’s opening runway show was given to two newbies: Jo Baaklini and Timi Hayek, whose talents were scouted by Starch, a group dedicated to launching emerging Lebanese designers.

Between the two, Mr Baaklini had a stronger showing.

 Jean Louis Sabaji’s collection was very good when the tricks were toned down — like the simple white jumpsuit with a sculptural neckpiece. Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images

Fashion Forward: Jean Louis Sabaji’s debatable debut

Jean Louis Sabaji’s collection was very good when the tricks were toned down — like the simple white jumpsuit with a sculptural neckpiece, the floral crop top, and the radiant yellow pleated skirt.

But most of the time he went too far. There were bell-bottoms, separates that looked like costumes from The Jetsons, and a yellow dress reminiscent of Bjork’s infamous Oscars swan dress — several disparate elements in one multicoloured, multilayered show.

 Launched in 2009 by childhood friends Arwa Abdelhadi and Basma Abu Ghazaleh, Kage bills itself as a label whose “ultimate goal is to design a collection appealing to all.” Courtesy Getty Images

Fashion Forward: Kage pleases all palates

Did the designers of Kage aim to showcase every type of basic clothing on their latest show?

Because there were skirts, shorts, trousers, off-shoulder tops, short dresses, cocktail dresses, long flowy dresses, spaghetti straps, jackets, hoods — and even pyjamas, which with the incoming summer heat, looked especially appealing.

Launched in 2009 by childhood friends Arwa Abdelhadi and Basma Abu Ghazaleh, Kage bills itself as a label whose “ultimate goal is to design a collection appealing to all”, they said in their statement.

 The standout was a grey hooded cape that created a tension between edge and elegance. Courtesy Getty Images

Fashion Forward: Polish, craft (and fur!) at The Emperor 1688

The best show of Day 1 at Fashion Forward was delivered by the three Golkar brothers behind The Emperor 1688.

The coats and capes were the clear winners: they came in all sorts of interesting colours and sizes — and featured exceptionally tailored proportions. There was a lot of volume, but also stiffness.

And whimsy: two favourites were a green double-breasted suit and a blue overcoat with a red clover pattern and gold buttons.

 Midway through Ezra's show, snow started falling from the ceiling. Ian Gavan / Getty Images for Fashion Forward

Fashion Forward: Ezra stuns in snow-covered show

Turns out the Filipino designer Ezra, known for his dreamy couture, still had a few surprises up his sleeve.

Midway through his show, snow started falling from the ceiling.

It created a starkly beautiful atmosphere for his intricately constructed gowns that seemed to be designed for an Ice Queen transported back to the 1950s.

He showed a collection that had a lot of technical firepower behind it: glittering iridescent fabrics paired with head and neckpieces that were moulded and stiffened to stand out in odd angles.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National