With Nagercoil’s lotus as the centrepiece of her latest work, the Paris-based perfumer reconnects with memories and art
The desire to create a fragrance where one of the ingredients is the mythical lotus; this makes it the most personal of all my fragrance creations. Perhaps because the analogy of the flower blooming from muddy waters is the way I see myself currently — a deeply felt meditation on life in a flux, punctuated by perfect memories. It is a journey that took me in different directions, travelling from Tamil Nadu (where the lotus fields are) to Delhi, Paris, London and finally Mexico City, a journey full of surprises and learnings, both olfactive and philosophical, quite like the lotus.
Certainly, while creating it, I never thought of all these references because a composition is almost always intuitive. I did not think either that the lotus from Nagercoil and Kanyakumari would find its way to Mexico City in June via Delhi and London, a sort of passing the baton from me to my friend, artist Olivia Fraser — for her show dedicated to the lotus at the Grosvenor Gallery — and then to Mexico, in conversation with the writer Alberto Ruy Sanchez.
Flower and the serpent
In doing collaborations, the most vital idea was the pursuit of a common goal: the landscape of the flower at its most meditative, evoking an intensity and concentration, and, in the case of Alberto, memories. With the composition, Lotus Absolue, I tried to do just that. The powderiness of the blossom combined with Madurai jasmine and the healing qualities of sage; this was my scent input at Olivia’s show, a conversation between the lotus and the jasmine. We had a tiny perfumery studio set up at the gallery because the site and the works inspired the diffusion. With its creation, I hoped to create a mix of emotions that lingered and wended itself into the subconscious — people responded sharing that it helped them visualise the works better.
With Alberto, we worked around the notion of memories. For him, “memory is a collage that we make or modify”, and it shares a similarity with how I construct a perfume. With every creation, I become responsible for the memories of the wearer and these become the annotation of every subsequent fragrance. The title of Alberto’s latest book, The Dreams of the Serpent, took me back to an Aztec sculpture, The Serpent Lové — a coiled serpent in stone — at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. It also served as the subject of the composition, Padma. A snake is often present in the natural landscape of a lotus, so the notes for this fragrance comprise oak moss from the forest, algae from the waters, and the floral and spicy lotus note to evoke the consciousness of the self. The composition was diffused at the book store, Cafebreria El Pendulo, in the Condesa district of Mexico city, the long storied corridors of which, like the book, are evocative of memories.
Adding spice to the mix
My first memory of the lotus is neither the beauty of the flower nor its scent. I was seven, travelling through South India, through the very regions where the lotus absolue is extracted, and the stillness of the landscape struck me — as if time itself had come to a stop. It is such moments that constitute the definition of happiness for me, and my interest in the lotus.
The bloom is fascinating when extracted because it combines elements of the lily, the dewy quality of the rose, and a slight spicy note. These are fascinating to work with because, while composing fragrance, they lend an immediate sumptuousness and a smooth texture. I had the privilege to be present while the absolute was being extracted, the entire extraction unit submerged with that characteristic warmth reminiscent of the tonka bean. This warmth is something that I have tried to evoke in all the fragrances.
The lotus is not a very common note in fine fragrances because we are as yet trying to mould its beauty and find that rare character it can acquire when its absolute is used in a composition. There are some scents that have lotus inspirations among their notes — the veritable Hasu no Hana from Grossmith is my favourite in this category — but none that I know of uses it as an ingredient. My creations seek a different form for each story that I want to tell. A fragrance, like all art forms, does not have a blueprint. But, unlike other perfumes, it is a demonstration of rebellion against accepted cultural forms forcing us to digress and reflect.