Hit by rising raw material costs and GST, heritage perfumeries are diluting tradition to get their distinctive fragrances to travel far in the modern market
Muhammad Ayaz plans to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca with his family next year. “I will take bottles and bottles of my best oudh and gulab attar to smear on the ghilaf (the cloth covering of the Kaaba),” he says, seated behind his marble desk at Md Daud Md Yaqub, a perfumery in Kannauj that Ayaz runs with his three brothers.
For generations, his family has been producing attar — oil-based perfumes prepared with flowers and other natural ingredients. For Ayaz, attar is not just a business, but a way of life — and one that he has been modifying to battle rising prices and shrinking markets.
At Ayaz’s factory nearby, workers stack logs of wood under a line of copper cauldrons mounted on mud ovens. Dried, musky smelling roots and flowers of Mantri, Jatamansi, Charila, Kapur Kachri, Barmi, Nagarmotha, Bala and others make their way into one, even as a smoky fire rises under it. These have been sourced from Uttarakhand, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Nepal. After 12 hours of boiling in water, their distinct vapours pass through a long pipe and distil into a round vessel submerged in a tank of water. By the end of the day the oil will separate from the water, which is drained away. After a month of repeating this process over and over again, the fragrance will grow in strength to become what is known as shamama attar. Stored in a large leather cask, or kuppi, to retain its aroma, shamama is prized for its spicy, musky notes, which have come to be associated with the distinctive smell of winter in Kannauj. Ayaz swears by its potency to cure colds too.
Located 220 km from Agra in Uttar Pradesh, the small town of Kannauj is often called the perfume capital of India.
There are several stories about the origin of attar, including one involving Mughal emperor Jahangir, who is credited as the first patron of the industry because his wife, empress Noor Jahan, used to bathe in water perfumed with rose petals. Soon people began experimenting with natural scents, with the encouragement of Jahangir, leading to a culture of attar-making that continues to this day. The town’s traditional havelis may have been knocked down to make concrete houses, car showrooms and malls may be mushrooming in what was once a green expanse, yet almost every second household in Kannauj is still engaged in producing attar.
The city may have altered radically over the years, but 10 or 12 traditional fragrances — including gulab, mehendi, bela, hena, shamama, motia, kewda, champa, khas and mitti — remain unchanged. Each of these attars is meant to soothe your senses at different times of the year or to be worn for different occasions. So, while the minty fresh khas makes the scorching summer more bearable, the spicy notes of hena and mehendi infuse warmth and festivity in winter weddings. Motia smells like wild jasmine cascading down a woman’s hair, while the floral kewda, champa and gulab are perfect round the year. Mitti attar is the most special of them all, evoking the scent of the earth, specifically petrichor — the fragrance of first rain on parched earth. It is a scent that evokes memories of rain-laden grey skies, cool fertile mud and washed khullads or clay cups ready to hold steaming chai.
Nearly 4,000 people in the town are engaged in the attar industry in some form or the other, according to the 27-year-old Fragrance and Flavour Development Corporation (FFDC) Kannauj. They could be farmers growing flowers for attar, or workers at the 400-odd manufacturing units, wholesalers, retailers, labourers and packaging workers.
The country’s fragrance and flavour industry is estimated to be worth ₹10,000 crore annually, and is overseen by the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises. Fragrances and essential oils, including attar, make up half of this. Globally, India commands 10 per cent of the fragrance and flavour market.
Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Odisha, and UP are among the attar manufacturing centres in India. Since this is a largely unorganised sector, industry figures are hard to come by. Insiders estimate Kannauj’s attar industry to be worth over ₹100 crore. An average unit produces 2,000 litres of attar and essential oils each month, exporting 20 per cent of it to Gulf countries, where there is a significant market for non-alcoholic perfumes.
Today, many of the manufacturers are worried. “The industry is seeing a downturn,” says Om Prakash Pathak, president of Kannauj’s Attar and Perfumers’ association, comprising 45 manufacturers. And the reasons are several.
Sifting for a profit
Nearly 95 per cent of the attar sold in Kannauj goes to food industries and manufacturers of gutka, chewable tobacco and paan masala,says Pathak. The scent of crushed roses and other flowers in paan masala comes from the attars of Kannauj. A decade ago, however, many states began banning the sale of gutka, paan masala and other forms of chewable tobacco, as their use was increasingly linked to oral and mouth cancers. In UP alone, of the estimated 2.5 lakh cancer cases, 75,000 are oral and mouth related.
An added worry for the attar industry is the rising cost of raw material, especially sandalwood oil, which is the preferred base as its own scent lingers on the wearer long after the infused fragrance has faded away. From ₹650 for a litre of sandalwood oil in 1970, the price has shot up to ₹90,000 today. This explains why a litre of pure gulab rou (rose oil) costs up to ₹12 lakh. The industry is now using a liquid paraffin base oil called DOP to produce cheaper variants that cost ₹2,000 to ₹10,000 for 10 ml of gulab attar.
Gaurav Malhotra, owner of the 100-year-old wholesale attar manufacturer Puja Perfumeries in Kannauj, says the attar business has halved in the last two to three years. “We used to thrive supplying to paan masala manufacturers. We now supply attars, essential oils and rosewater to ayurvedic, cosmetic and herbal lines,” he says. He sees better prospects in retail selling. One room in the building that doubles as his home and manufacturing unit has been converted into a retail outlet for attar. He plans to sell online too. “People like to try out (the attars) in smaller quantities. Who knows, some of my retail clients may turn into wholesale ones,” he says.
He and other manufacturers also blame their losses on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) that was introduced a year ago. GST brought many of the unorganised perfumeries into the tax-paying organised sector. From 28 per cent initially, attar makers now pay 18 per cent, after a recent reduction.
“GST isn’t the problem. But the rate should be business-friendly,” says Shakti Vinay Shukla, director of FFDC.
The FFDC recently proposed regulatory standards for the industry to ensure better prices and consistent quality.
“With the increasing use of chemical and synthetic products in attar, it is becoming more and more difficult to tell the real from the fake,” says Malhotra. “Also, the industry lacks unity. Even one seller undercutting prices jeopardises us all.”
Gopal Krishna Saini owns four acres of rose and jasmine plantations in Kannauj and is among the primary suppliers to the local perfumeries. His rose cultivation has even won national awards, but the past few years have been rough on him. “Kannauj hasn’t seen good rainfall for a couple of years now. GST is an added worry for farmers like me,” he says. From ₹60-70 a kilo two years ago, his rose petals fetch merely ₹30 today.
Former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav had announced plans to open a perfume park in Kannauj to give the local industry a firm footing, as also attract foreign buyers and market linkages. That plan, however, has remained only on paper so far.
Shukla jokingly suggests a quick-fix in the meantime. “We could use Baba Ramdev as a brand ambassador to boost the industry,” he says, referring to the yoga guru and his money-spinning Patanjali brand.
The pull of the new world
At 320 Dariba Kalan, in the Capital’s Chandni Chowk area, the air redolent with the aroma of ghee-fried gulab jamuns suddenly fills with the subtle scents of Gulab Singh Johrimal’s attars. Praful Gundhi and his brothers are the seventh generation in the family business, which was founded way back in 1816.
At the counter, 42-year-old garment shop owner Amit Arora is sniffing his arm with concentration. “I’m searching for some sexy notes to make ‘212 sexy men’ popular in the market,” he says, as a salesman dabs his arm with various synthetic attars. Notes are the building blocks of a fragrance. Arora makes Vodka-based perfumes as a hobby and is hunting for his raw material in this attar store.
“Earlier people used to buy attars for themselves. Today customers want a strong-smelling scent that will attract the attention of those around them,” says the 55-year-old Gundhi. Of the 150-odd fragrances the shop stocks, only a dozen are traditional attars. Here, you can map the trajectory of the old world to the new, through fragrances — from the bottled-up aromas of roses, jasmine and wet earth to the Davidoffs and Dunhills that smell of money, desire and the highs of city life. In this jumble, it can be hard to discern the subtle scents of the old-world attars. Gundhi blames it on the pollution in the big cities. “They cripple our ability to smell subtle fragrances. To experience mitti attar, you will need to go to Kannauj,” he says.
But Kannauj is hardly as untouched as it once was. At Ayaz’s shop, there is a fresh stock of aluminium cans labelled in English and French — 212 sexy men, Terre de hermes, Dunhill and more, with prices ranging from ₹300 to ₹1,000. Ayaz has decided that in order to survive, one must be willing to go beyond tradition. He has a partner in France with whom he collaborates to manufacture a range of perfumes suited to the Indian market. These also find buyers in places such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where there is a large presence of Indian expats. His pure attars, also used to flavour food, are bought by manufacturers of Indian sweets, beverages and masalas. With one foot in the old and the other in the new, Ayaz is unstoppable.
In the Quran it is said that jannat (paradise) smells of kasturi or musk, an aromatic glandular secretion found in the musk deer. While musk is banned today, Ayaz can be counted on to find a ready market replacement.