Perfume sales have slowed in the last two decades largely because of the arrival of canned deodorants and high-end perfumes from the West.
Traditional Indian perfumiers scent their demise
HYDERABAD // In a corner of Hyderabad's crowded old city, the Purandas Motilal perfume shop sits innocuously, nearly bereft of customers on a busy afternoon.
Its sleepiness belies its history. For nearly 120 years, Purandas Motilal has been at the vanguard of the old city's boutique perfumeries. In the early 20th it was named one of the official supplier of fragrances to the former Nizam of Hyderabad , declared by Time magazine in 1937 to be the richest man in the world.
But sales have slowed in the last two decades largely because of the arrival of canned deodorants and high-end perfumes from the West, said Shantilal Sugandhi, whose grandfather Purandas started the business.
"There's no growth. It's at a standstill," Mr Sugandhi, 52, said. "The younger kids today like spray-on deodorants. It's a generation gap. It's like classical music and pop. You can't do anything about it."
Only during Ramadan does business come back to life. Purandas Motilal makes about 25 per cent of its annual sales during the Holy Month, the younger Mr Sugandhi said. The reason is not hard to fathom. In another perfumery around the corner, Bhagwan & Co, a young lecturer at a local college, explained why sales were up as he contemplated buying a bottle of musk-scented attar, or essential oil.
"In Ramadan, we aren't supposed to use fragrances with alcohol bases, like deodorant sprays," Taz-ud-din said. "And since we wash up before every prayer through the day, we use these fragrances instead."
The perfume industry in Hyderabad has a long and rich history. Edward Balfour, a Scottish surgeon posted in India during the 19th century, recorded 10 different kinds of attars on show at the Hyderabad Exhibition of 1854 in his Cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia.
Balfour called rose attar, in particular, a "delightful perfume", and so valuable that "it is rarely if ever used even by the wealthiest" people.
The handful of old-school perfumeries remaining in the old city still make their wares in the traditional way, as Mr Sugandhi's grandfather did decades ago.
"For floral and herbal scents, we buy the crude extracted oils, and then we blend them in our factory here in Hyderabad," Mr Sugandhi said.
Roses in Aligarh, a town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, will be harvested by mobile distillation units, which use 8,000 kilograms of roses to produce one kilogram of pure extract.
The Sugandhis then buy that extract - at a cost of 600,000-800,000 rupees (Dh40,000-Dh53,000) - and refine it further, adding it to a base like sandalwood oil. The resulting perfume, depending on its ingredients, can cost anywhere from 100 rupees to 2,000 rupees for a 10-gram bottle.
For herbal fragrances, the perfumers use oils extracted from nutmeg, cardamom, fruits, lavender and grasses.
"It's an art," Mr Sugandhi said. "We experiment a lot, and we have had to train our noses to judge fragrances."
He said he can tell apart the constituent oils of a mixture of four or five ingredients, and even figure out their ratios. "Sometimes we mix two unfortunate things, and smelling that will set off an allergy or a cold," Mr Sugandhi said, referring to his persistent, low cough.
Despite being sticklers for tradition, the old city's perfumeries have had to allow some concessions to modernity.
Behind the glass panes in one cabinet of Purandas Motilal, are stacked cans of branded deodorants. In Bhagwan & Co, the proprietor Dinesh Kothari - also a third-generation fragrance-master - has tried to replicate, in his own perfumes, the scent of leading deodorants like Axe.
One attar bottle, in fact, is even labelled "Axe", promising to provide the same scent. "What can we do? The customers ask for this," Mr Kothari said.
Mr Kothari, whose shop has been open for 84 years, links the demise of attar to the wane of the genteel culture of the old city in general.
"In the olden days, if you were well-dressed and were on your way somewhere special, you could come by here, and we would dab some attar on you for free," Mr Kothari said. Now, life has become too hurried and thoughtless for such niceties to survive.
Mr Kothari and the Sugandhi brothers may well be the last generation of perfumers to work in Hyderabad. Mr Kothari's son is still in school, but the Sugandhis' children are grown up, and none want to enter an industry in decline.
"My son is studying civil engineering in an IIT [Indian Institute of Technology], and he wants to go to the United States after that," Mr Sugandhi said. "And my brother's sons are in the jewellery business, which is far more lucrative. They're not interested in this line at all."
So how will Purandas Motilal survive?
"Well, we'll keep it open for as long as we can, because we are passionate about our work," said Mr Sugandhi. "But after us, I don't know what will happen. It may all just come to an end."