Scent Trail: How Fragrances Evoke Remembrances And Emotions
New Delhi-based journalist Divrina Dhingra's recent book, “The Perfume Project” released on September 18. It is an olfactory journey that blends laboratory sciences, the smells trapped in the annals of history, the scents of cities, and the scent of memories.
Dhingra's book describes her "scent library," which consists of various fragrances that have left a lasting impression on her memory. Unlike landmarks and sights, she recalls memories through her sense of smell. For her, even as "the names of places visited, the people encountered and the important sights started to melt down like a Dali painting... the memories of the scents stayed singularly unmarred."
For instance, New York is not Central Park or rapid life but the smell of a combination of hot asphalt, sweet coffee, lilac, rain, wheat, and her perfume. In contrast, Delhi's essence is flowers on saptaparni trees, burning leaves, and harshringar trees.
Dhingra's accounts explain why scents and emotions are biologically linked and how "odour has no meaning until it is experienced." She also provides insights into various psychologists' views on this topic.
From modern cities with a "pervasive non-smell" to the medieval techniques and practices of scents described in Ain-i-Akbari, Dhingra takes her readers on an enlightening and deeply personal journey through olfactory genealogies while creating a contemporary map of fragrances and perfumes.
Dhingra spoke to Outlook Traveller about her interest in fragrances, perfumes and city smells and how it came about, among other things.
What inspired you to write a book on perfumes and what sparked your deep interest in fragrances?
I have written this book driven purely by my own curiosity about fragrances and my desire to learn more about them. I wanted to convey the rich history of fragrances and their use, and to show that much of this history is still very much alive even today.
My mother's perfume, YSL Paris, is my earliest olfactory memory from childhood. I realized very early the importance of my sense of smell and started using it more consciously. This eventually led me to study perfumery after reading more about the topic.
In your book, you link cities and music to specific smells. Tell us more.
Associations are subjective, so there is no definitive list of them. For instance, I associate the fragrance of cashew flowers with Goa, while the smell of orange blossoms mixed with cigarette smoke reminds me of Paris.
Although I cannot recall any specific songs, I have playlists that remind me of particular smells based on where I was, what I was doing, or who I was with while listening to them. For example, I had a playlist that I listened to while surfing, and now many of those songs bring back memories of the smell of board wax and sunscreen.
What did you learn from the people you came across in your journey?
I consider every person I interviewed for the book—growers, producers, karigars, and perfumers—experts in their field. I’ve also met a few through the work I’ve done as a journalist, and the important thing I learnt from them was to not be scared off by the industry’s veneer, which can be somewhat forbidding, to continue to follow my curiosity.
What was the pre-Mughal scent scene in the Indian subcontinent, and how did it evolve? Can you recall any anecdotes?
My research shows that fragrance has always played a significant role in Indian life, even before the Mughal era. However, the Mughals were well-known for keeping detailed records, which is why we have a better understanding of how they utilized scent. One popular anecdote, for instance, is the story of how Shah Jehan's mother-in-law discovered rose oil. (Legend has it that she collected droplets of rose oil from a canal flowing with rose petals.)
What challenges did you face in translating the olfactory experience of perfumes into a written format? Are there any tips you would like to impart to readers who want to explore and appreciate perfumes?
Olfactory experiences are, as I mentioned, so subjective that it is hard to write about them in a way that other people can relate to, and that’s just a limitation I had to accept. I try not to lapse into PR or perfume advertisement speak, which is to say overly embellished language that conveys very little.
My only advice would be to begin smelling more consciously and more often.
Are there any specific perfumers, perfume houses, or iconic fragrances that you would like to enlist for our readers to explore?
In my opinion, the fragrances mentioned in the book serve as an excellent starting point. Most of them are readily available as bottled perfumes or as flowers grown in gardens. If you're up for some adventure, I recommend visiting shops like Gulab Singh Johrimal and other itr-saaz located in the Old City.
Lastly, what is your all-time favourite perfume or fragrance, and why does it hold a special place in your heart?
The answer to this question changes quite often, but the fragrance mentioned on the first page of my book—"En Passant" by Olivia Giacobetti—holds a special place in my heart. It marks the beginning of my fascination with fragrances and my book.