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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.

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

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."

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