Delving into scent as a cultural practice continues to be fruitful terrain, from decentralizing the subject matter to incorporating new technologies into exhibition spaces and building brand awareness.
Bharti Lalwani, an art critic and founder of Litrahb Perfumery, and Nicolas Roth, a research scholar in South Asian Studies at Harvard University and passionate gardener at All Gardens Inc., combined their love of historical horticulture and scents with the synesthesia-focused exhibition “Bagh-e Hind: Scent Translations of Mughal and Rajput Garden Paintings,” on display at The Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO) in Los Angeles until August 12. For visitors unable to make it in person, the show’s catalog is available to view online, including a behind-the-scenes look at the entire production process.
In Urdu, Hindi, and Persian, “Bagh-e Hind” translates to “Garden of India,” with the exhibit focusing on five paintings depicting South Asian gardens from the Mughal and Rajput eras in the 17th and 18th centuries. These illustrated scenes have been translated into bespoke perfumes (Rose, Narcissus, Iris, Smoke, and Kewra) created by Miss Layla, the perfumer and artist behind Fūm fragrances. Lalwani created bouquets of incense, soaps, and edible perfume for the display, such as a Bagh-i Babur soap in the shape of an octagon, reminiscent of a marble pool filled with clear blue water, as well as chocolate vetiver spread and citrus-, fig-, and jasmine-scented jam. Urdu poetry of the Mughal era, translated into English by Roth, and custom glass flacons are also a part of the exhibition.
BeautyMatter sat down with Lalwani and Roth to discuss intercontinental exhibition organization, accessibility in the art space, and the cultural heritage of South Asian gardens.
What inspired this exhibition?
Bharti Lalwani: For South Asian art history to be so triumphantly recontextualized through botany, smell, flavor, intellectual, and material culture, all at once, is a first. To present that sensorial atmosphere on a virtual platform is an impossible first. We had already launched Bagh-e Hind on 10 September 2021 as an open access online “museum” exhibition. The next logical step was to animate this spirit through a physical body. Since September 2021, I have been in discussions with senior academics, museum directors, and curators who could possibly open doors for us. By January 2022, Saskia Wilson-Brown, Director of the IAO, was the first to give us the green light.
As for the genesis of Bagh-e Hind, the concept appeared fully formed to me as an epiphany in 2018. That was the year I had decided to exit the art world to pursue happiness via research on fragrance and flavor that sparked my intellectual and creative curiosity. With tastes and smells on my mind, I was idly looking through the digitized collections of The Met[ropolitan Museum of Art]. One 6th-century Mughal folio caught my eye, but it was its margins that caught my nose and tongue. A richly illustrated frame recreated the dynamism of the natural world on paper, and I immediately thought of translating the atmosphere and experience of this painting into perfume and edible perfume that I titled “Bagh e Hind.” That paintings from this era should be represented in tandem with olfactive, botanical, and poetic elements of the period was so obvious to me, it is surprising such a methodology hadn’t been applied before. All of this is detailed in my essay, “Bagh-e Hind: Resurrected Scentscapes of 17th & 18th Century India.”
It took me three years to not only locate a suitable historian to collaborate with but also to shore up enough resources so I could fund this project myself. I exist in a context where public funding and grants are negligible. As I function outside the bounds of elite structures of art, academia, and the perfume industry in India and elsewhere, I rightly calculated that I would find little to no support for my experimental approach. But here we are with our first in-person exhibition at the IAO, only possible because individuals like Saskia grant us space and visibility. We couldn’t be prouder!
What was the process of doing the scent translations like?
BL: Nicolas, as my interlocutor and translator, selected five paintings for me to translate into scent and synesthesia. He would read each image for me, identifying all the olfactive cues: the specific variety of damask rose, the wild kewra grass and its historical significance, the ascetic with ash on his body, the jasmine flowers laid out in bowls, and so on. I would follow up with questions on the season or time of day depicted. For example, an evening scene meant foregrounding indolic night-blooming flowers, so, the scent of jasmines and tuberoses in the foreground, magnolia and frangipane at the back. Even the decision to choose jasmine sambac over jasmine grandiflorum extract was deliberate.
Nicolas has been a lifelong gardener who has an olfactive register of plants and flowers in his head—I want to emphasize how incredible and rare that is. As I have not grown up surrounded by nature, I relied on him for detailed descriptions of the scent of narcissus, lotus, iris, and champaca. For instance, when I wanted to recreate the scent of narcissus for “Chapter 2” of our exhibition as a flavor, he described the flower as having a floral nectar-like sweet-spicy scent; I would ask him to specify which spice, and his answer would determine my incorporation of saffron extract. Between June and September 2021, I sent him three parcels to evaluate. Based on his feedback, we would continue refining our concepts.
What were the challenges of putting the exhibition together?
BL: I wonder if audiences realize this but Nicolas and I are based in two separate continents, he in Boston (USA), me in Pune (India). When I invited him to collaborate in May 2021, we were practically strangers, and beyond our exchanges online, we have not actually met. On the one hand we found an easy rhythm towards building the project, on the other, the challenges, mainly during the first six months, stemmed from our expectations being out of sync. We have very different personalities, but in truth, it is our contrasting approach and combined range of expertise that adds a dazzling brilliance to our Garden. I wouldn't change a thing, and I think we are lucky in finding one another.
The planning and production for our exhibition at IAO was coordinated between Pune, Boston, and LA over six months. We virtually mapped out every possible detail with Saskia. She helped us in selecting that exact terracotta color for the window display, the exact shade of malachite and sandstone pink for the gallery walls, the range of plants to possibly include.
Saskia manifested our vision to the point that the gallery space was wholly transformed, radiating a warm sensual aura that visitors basked in. Photos of the opening night can be viewed on the exhibition website.
How would you describe your partnership with the IAO on this exhibition?
BL: It is significant that our first offline exhibition should be at the IAO. At its core, Bagh-e Hind is about access and transparency. Among the 30 paintings we digitally “borrowed” from institutions, none are on view. As for the numerous objects we selected out of museums for each chapter, the South Asian perfume holders and paan boxes, for instance, have never been put on display in the first place. The information in the catalog register for many such objects is incomplete or inaccurate. Our own working notes, virtually unedited, between June to September 2021 accompany each chapter so viewers can follow along with our process and rationale. Here I have systematically listed all the natural and synthetic raw materials I used to create the scent translations. The “Synesthesia” gallery in each chapter further expands on our process so that audiences, who may be amateur perfumers, can recreate the translations to experience the paintings, gauging their own ratios and measurements.
This level of transparency is in opposition to an industry that maintains a veil of secrecy that obfuscates exploitation at every level. The art world also hoards knowledge and power while exploiting cultural producers and younger academics; this demographic happens to be mainly composed of women.
Parallel to ours, Saskia’s mission through the IAO is to make perfumery knowledge and hard-to-get raw materials accessible to anyone who enters its doors. Apart from organizing classes that teach the basics of the craft, they also run an inclusive program of lectures focused on diverse historic and cultural practices around scent. The IAO is unusual in that it builds and educates a new audience by pulling in a community of classically trained chemists, flavorists, and perfumers, true industry insiders, away from the global centers of New York and Grasse, willing to challenge this form of gatekeeping.
As part of our collaboration with the IAO, we wanted to guide the LA audience just as we did in the online exhibition portal through our notes. We created a booklet that visitors could pick up to carefully read our descriptions on each painting, and then attentively locate the olfactory cues in the images at their own pace. I personally wanted to keep visitors off their phones, to slow them down in order to transport them to an atmospheric past. As curators, we also commissioned LA-based perfumer Miss Layla to recreate our perfumes so the audiences could see-smell the show.
As neither Nicolas nor I were present for the opening, we have to enjoy it all virtually, and so we bring global audiences back to the virtual portal where we share our curatorial process, our sketches, and a few ideas that didn’t make it, accessible here.
What are your views on the scent industry’s relationship with Asian culture? Are things too Eurocentric and at times colonialist or are things changing in terms of authentic representation?
Nicolas Roth: I think on the whole the viewpoint is still a fairly Eurocentric one, and more or less Orientalist fantasy is how a lot of fragrances with stereotypically South Asian or Middle Eastern components—oud, incense, sandalwood, damask rose, etc.—continue to be marketed. However, they are also framed that way by and for the market in those regions themselves. Efforts to preserve or promote traditional forms of perfumery, too, generally get this implicitly “exotic” branding, along with most other heritage crafts. In other words, it is a complicated issue.
My husband and I use some modern perfumes made for the Arabian Gulf luxury market, such as Amouage, because we like prominent oud notes and the fact that they are a bit sweeter and heavier than typical “sporty” or “fresh” men’s scents made for Euro-American consumers. However, we do not think of those in terms of “authenticity” or an unbroken continuation of historic regional practice. From a cultural perspective, I think “authentic representation” is always tricky with things like this, because practices evolve and pretty much everyone participates in globalized consumer culture to some degree.
Where I do think there is much greater scope for authenticity is in the evocation of natural products and experiences in fragrances. I would like to see more fragrances and scented products that actually smell like the plants they purport to evoke, or at least like their true absolutes. There is perhaps no greater pet peeve of mine than the myriad scented candles and diffusers and whatnot that claim to smell of gardenia or tuberose or fig and smell like nothing but vague soapy chemicals, relying on the fact that most consumers have never consciously smelled a real gardenia or tuberose or the dry, latex-tinged herbaceousness of a fig leaf, twig, or, indeed, fruit (they smell very different from how they taste).
How did you decide on the format for each scent?
NR: As Bharti has already mentioned, I selected the five core paintings that are at the center of the exhibition and that serve as the basis of the scents early on in our collaboration on this project. Next, I identified the plant materials in the paintings as well as any other olfactory and flavor references the works contained, and we discussed the cultural and literary context for the scenes depicted—the way they might allude to tropes from poetry, for instance, or to religious practices. All of that went into conceptualizing the respective fragrance.
In choosing the paintings, I sought ones that fit several criteria. Most importantly, I looked for pieces that contained at least one fairly obvious, deliberate depiction of a fragrant flower or other olfactant, ideally with larger cultural significance. These defining notes became the names of the five “chapters” and their respective scents: Rose, Narcissus, Smoke, Iris, and Kewra. I also sought works that were good representatives of particular genres in 17th- and 18th-century South Asian painting, and in the online exhibition we paired each main painting with a cluster of related works. This pattern in early modern Indian art, with multiple artists iterating on the same themes and compositions, is almost never highlighted in exhibitions or even art historical publications, but is in fact quite ubiquitous, and looking at the paintings in this context really helped reinforce meaningful features such as olfactory elements and poetic allusions that might otherwise escape the notice of contemporary viewers.
What is the unique meaning of gardens in South Asian culture?
NR: In the Mughal period in particular, gardens were a central cultural concern for South Asian elites, important both as lived spaces and as a form of representation in a way that I think is at times difficult to fully understand for people today. Extensive, formal gardens, commonly located outside towns and cities, were a quintessential marker of prosperity and social status, and they were also where much social and political life was ideally envisioned to take place. The latter we can see quite clearly in the paintings at the heart of our project, and innumerable others like them, which place everything from lovers’ clandestine meetings to royal audiences and gods at play within the same distinctive type of garden.
Some of that cultural heritage is still palpable in South Asia today in how actively parks and gardens are used to socialize, especially by young couples for whom they often serve as one of the few spaces of relative privacy away from the prying eyes of family and community. For the importance of the garden as a carefully calibrated status symbol, we find evidence in all sorts of writings from the period; one of my favorite examples is a short note towards the end of the 1782 biography of Tahmas Bayg Khan, who as a child had been enslaved in what is now Eastern Turkey and brought to India. He eventually had a successful career as a military man and administrator, managed to obtain his freedom, and settled in Delhi. In one brief passage that is somehow both modestly understated yet full of sincere pride, he explains that he has set up all of his adult sons and daughters with their own houses, horses, and domestic staff, and that he bought some land in a village just outside the city and laid out a garden with fruit trees, flowers, and proper irrigation. Both are clearly markers of stability, and of properly caring for what is yours.
Pre-colonial North Indian gardens, and especially those specifically built by the Mughal court such as the Taj Mahal complex, are frequently discussed under the broad rubric of the “Islamic Garden” and its supposed paradise symbolism. I have found little explicit evidence for this conception of the garden in my research using primary texts from the period, beyond a general, formulaic likening of garden to paradisical or ideal spaces commonly found in many cultures. In addition, both garden style and the ways of using, depicting, and writing about gardens cut across many of the major religious, linguistic, and other communal distinctions operative in early modern South Asia. Consequently, we have largely steered clear of such more symbolic interpretations of gardens, in favor of their socially embedded and historically contingent significance.
What are your thoughts on the future of scent in the cultural and art historical space?
NR: I think there is a great scope for innovation and exploration there, precisely because scent is so evocative, experiential, and visceral. There are challenges, no doubt—from strained budgets and limited gallery space devoted to non-Western art in cases like ours to concerns about preservation when bringing scented materials in close proximity to historic art works. However, I think we are really at the cusp here of something more and more people will try to engage with. Just this spring, for example, as we were preparing our own first physical exhibit, we learned that the Prado was opening a temporary “olfactory exhibition” which features diffusers dispensing 10 of the scents alluded to in Peter Paul Rubens’ and Jan Brueghel the Elder’s 1618 painting “The Sense of Smell.” I do think that conceptually this was not quite as daring and complex a concept as our project since it presented the scents individually, unlike our efforts to render the sensual and emotional complexity of entire scenes into their composite scents and flavors. Moreover, it mostly stuck to scents more familiar in the contemporary Euro-American context and not aesthetically challenging, save for civet. Nonetheless, it is definitely a sign that smell as both a facet of art and as a way to bring to life its historical context is a growing fascination.
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