Can You Smell the Music?

An obsessed duo creates new perfumes to match Indian classical raagas.

To be honest, I had a tinge of cynicism as I read the snippet in a local Marathi daily about the launch of this new product. These are times when brands are built on the crutches of other, already more accomplished brands - when sportsters help sell cars and perfumes carry the names of film stars. Besides, there are few brands as bankable as classical traditions. An inquiry seemed due.

The Rushit Raaga Collection of nine attars (perfumed essential oils) was launched in December at the Savai Gandharva Mahotsav in Pune. One of India's premier congregations of Indian classical music, the Mahotsav is held on the Ramanbaug School grounds in the heart of Peshwa's Pune. It's seen as a place of pride for invited performers and as an institution of gentle smugness for Punekars. These nine attars were launched at a stall at the festival because each scent had been especially designed to match a classical raaga; each attar carries the name of the respective raaga and is priced at Rs 100 per vial.

The collection is an exploration of the possibility that the resonance of a raaga recital can be reflected within the unraveling layers of traditional Indian perfume, attar. The nine attars are: Lalit, Bahaar, Multani, Sarang, Darbaari, Chandrakauns, Marubihag, Bilawal and Hansadhwani. Each has a unique bouquet: the Bahaar attar is thickly floral while Multani is spicy and intense.

These fascinating objects were designed jointly by a professor of mechanical engineering and a merchant navy officer, who chanced upon each other at the Savai festival in 2012. "I have a habit of offering to apply my attars to everyone around me at a mehfil," says Dr Mandar Lele. Anand Jog, who happened to be sitting next to him, was delightfully surprised at the offer. In turn, Jog promised to get his own perfumed creations for Dr. Lele the next day, and they became friends. A few metres from the banks of the Mula-Mutha - the river confluence that makes Pune the city of bridges - these two explorers of music and scent, of raagdaari and attar, began their journey of building a bridge across their twin obsessions.

A PhD in cryogenics from IIT Mumbai, Dr Lele, 43, has had an illustrious career in technical teaching at the Maharashtra Institute of Technology (MIT) in Pune. He used to play the tabla actively and remains obsessed with classical music - he now has a 27-year-long unbroken streak of attending the Savai festivals. Never fond of spray perfumes, Dr Lele has also been passionate about traditional attars since his youth.

"The trees in my garden have begun to grow towards my house," smiles 31-year-old Jog. "I'd like to believe this is because of the raagas that play inside all day." He serves as a merchant navy officer one half of the year when he's often away in foreign waters for long stretches, and spends the rest of his time as a part-time performing flautist and keen perfume-adventurer. Jog inherited his love for perfumes at a young age from his grandfather. His passion blossomed after high school, when he found himself immersed in perfumery books that also gave him an international perspective.

Both men were already engaged in making their own attars and mixes when they met. As the two began to exchange old private recordings of the pandits and ustads of Indian classical music, they also began to test each other's tastes in perfumes by swapping notes on aromatic compounds. And since the impact of both, an intense raaga and a fragrant attar, can last for days, it was only a matter of time before the duo stopped being able to tell one from another. "Our partnership involves a fair bit of mind-reading. We [often] come up with the same ideas at the same time," says Dr Lele of their mutual attunement.

In their original Vedic forms, both scent and sound had purposes ranging from healing to spirituality. The popular sheen they received in the last few centuries also added angles of expression, emotion, and entertainment to both forms. Creators began to look at the range of cognitive responses their creations were capable of inciting. Craftsmen turned into artists, and there was a decided proliferation in the fields of both raagas and attars. Many contemporary doyens of classical music have had a deep and connected interest in attars. The likes of Ustad Rashid Khan, Ustad Shahid Parvez and Pt. Ajoy Chakraborty are all known to have armoires stocked with rich, rare and emotionally potent attars, collections of which they pursue with pride.

The two forms of sound and smell have co-existed for centuries, have lived in the same vicinity, and even attended the same schools. For a mind sensitive to these sensations, there certainly was common ground between the two forms. Could this common background provide that critical bit of relevance to go ahead with the attempt to mix the two? Can one make a scent feel like music?

Think Before You Smell

Jog insists that the Rushit Raaga Collection was an experiment, an exploration of a possibility. "There is no question of us claiming that we have decidedly captured the essence of the raagas in our creations - that is silly. All we tried to do was create the attars in such a way that it left us, as individuals, with feelings similar to those that a rendition of the raaga incites within us," he says.

Before they set off on this journey, the duo needed to find some commonality in the two forms to be able to set a course for their creation. The path was found in the form of an interesting, almost human aspect that both a perfume and a raaga share. Some call it persona.

"When we see someone, we often wonder what his voice would be like, his attitude, his vibe," explains Jog. "How his presence makes us feel. In short, his personality. And if you look closely, everything has a personality. Even a raaga." The concept of looking at a raaga as a living, breathing entity has a lot to do with how it is able to connect with people's emotions. Raagas have traditionally been bestowed with their own seasons, their own ideal time of day for flowering, their own colours, even their own objective visuals as depicted through Raagmala paintings. The point has invariably been to create or facilitate emotions that tend towards the ones that listeners feel during and after a mehfil - by attempting to bring out the personality of the raaga.

Perfumes have also been connected with the idea of persona since time immemorial. In fact, most good perfumes are designed with fixed briefs about the sort of persona they are to exude and enhance within the wearer. Just that fact - that one 'wears' a perfume and does not merely apply it - hints at the fact that one's scent is as much a part of the person's character as her or his clothes.

The starting point, then, was to find the persona of a raaga. Nine, actually.

Hard Work Plus Fumes

One may look at the experiment as an exercise in translation, in picking the message of one medium and transmuting it into another. Which also implies that both languages involved in the translation should be understood in entirety by the interpreters. That's exactly where Dr Lele and Jog began, even before the long and arduous process of mixing and remixing ingredients got underway.

"We [first] focused on hearing much more of the raagas we wanted to model the attars on. Lots of recordings from different artists, since every artist tends to shine his or her own unique light on the same raaga," says Jog. The effort was to understand the character of each raaga as holistically as possible, relying on the deep sensitivity, imagination and expression of stalwarts such as Kumar Gandharva and Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, amongst many. Artistes who wrote new raagas just so the emotion in a traditional bandish could be brought out in a more wholesome, human form.

Once the duo were fairly sure that they had got a grip on the emotional effects a particular raaga had on them, the process of creating its matching attar began.

An attar is a complex object, much like a raaga. A product of distillation and combination, the starting ingredients for an attar are essential oils gleaned from nature - roots, shoots, flowers, leaves, even glandular secretions when it comes to something like musk. After fixing the essential oil base for an attar, you add the notes of perfume - ingredients, each with their own note and character, that find their way on top of the base oil. Floral essences extracted from aromatic flowers such as rose, champa and chameli often come into the picture at this stage. Hina, itself a traditional mixture of more than 40 different herbs, is also used as a key ingredient to great effect.

To extract the essential oils through distillation, they had to first be dissolved in bases appropriate for this particular experiment - ranging from water and oil, and sparingly, alcohol - in order to stay as close as possible to the traditional method of attar-making. Since cost was a critical question, a rare and costly element like sandalwood oil (widely used as a base in traditional attars) had to be substituted with chemically synthesized alternatives that managed to approximate the same effect. Binding agents (the bases in which the concentrated essences are diluted and suspended) also play a major role in the character of the attar and had to be chosen just as carefully.

But just getting the ingredients in place was far from an accomplishment. Much like a raaga, where the variation and interplay of the same twelve notes in relation to one another creates drastically different emotional resonances, the placement of the perfumed ingredients within an attar and the manner in which they interact with each other changes the character of the perfume as a whole beyond recognition.

The only way to get this equation right is through trial and error. Since the emotional goal for each perfume was clear and fixed, based on the duo's extensive hearing sessions, the task was made more effective but no less time consuming. "The only thing we stayed true to was how the creations were making us feel, and if those feelings were commensurate with our emotions about the raaga" Dr Lele points out. The process extended for weeks, sometimes months for some particularly demanding raagas.

Raaga Bahaar proved the toughest and took the longest time to develop. It is a unique raaga that isn't performed frequently as a pure raaga and has no particular time of the day or year to use as a guideline. The quickest attars turned out to be Multani and Chandrakauns since those raagas have strong, defining emotional characteristics that lend themselves to fragrances quite effectively.

There remained technical issues, not just chemical but also musical. How does one recreate the emotional appeal of the interplay of the two nishads in Raaga Malhaar? Or the two chromatic madhyams of Raaga Lalit? These notes are milestones in the character of these raagas and certainly can't be ignored if one wishes to capture the essence of their mood. Dr Lele and Jog's solution, once again, was to not get caught in the technicalities of the medium but to attempt to reach the core of what the raagas stood for in spirit.

Thus, Raaga Lalit's morning call was given, in attar form, the fresh, almost devotional quality associated with the start of the day - two fresh and meditative fragrances of sandal and rose that are different in spirit, used to mimic the two chromatic madhyams of the raaga.

Raaga Hansadhwani is a sweet evening raaga that corresponded to a fresh, happy scent of vanillin, lavender and some fruity tones to secrete 'happy' rasas. Raaga Multani is an evening melody with a teevra madhyam (sharp fourth note), which meant an intense and introspective scent - its attar has sharp and spicy overtones. Raaga Bahaar is a festive raaga that represents the spring season, and so its attar has different floral, fruity and citrus notes alongside bergamot.

As they progressed, further grounds of commonality began to reveal themselves - not just between the effects of the two sensory experiences but also within the way these effects are created. A khayal performance begins with the aalaap that grabs the attention of listeners, moves into the bandish in a low tempo which creates the real character of the performer's interpretation of the raaga, and ends with a fast-paced taan play that listeners carry back home in their heads. In the olfactory construction of a perfume, there are three notes that work to approximately the same effect - the quickly dissipating top note that announces an entry, the middle note that forms the true essence of the perfume, and the bottom note that is known to linger on for days.

Scents & Sounds

Connoisseurs at the Savai festival who sampled the Rushit Raaga attars seemed to agree that the effort had been successful. Many were able to identify, with uncanny accuracy, the raagas the attars were based on. Dr Lele and Jog also found others working on similar lines: "My Bahaar didn't turn out to be this nice!" one visitor to their stall claimed. Many came back after the first day to congratulate them on their work.

While it wasn't a commercial effort but more to check if the experiment worked, the pair says they ended up selling around 2,500 bottles at the festival. Their website has some details about the collection and they plan to set up an online portal to help connoisseurs place orders.

The duo had originally planned to create 10 attars based on the raagas that appealed to them. The final one, based on Raaga Basant, with a saffron tinge and the freshness of spring, never resolved to their liking despite four months of rigorous trial and error. So they decided to let it be.

This lack of a sense of agency, of letting things be, is what sets their endeavor apart. "[Aside from] the efforts that we put in, we do believe that we have not created these scents. They have gotten created through us," Dr Lele says. "We are merely the mediums."

Sopan Sharma spent five years pushing pen and car tin at ZigWheels. He is now a media entrepreneur and freelance writer based in Pune.