UNCERTAINTY AGAIN AFFECTS everyone’s travel plans, and 2021 was the first year in decades I was unable to visit India. We have all become adept at dealing with the irritation and relief that accompany video calls and social media to stay in touch with close friends we would have seen regularly in India and on the Great Indian Summer Migration to London, but the subcontinent itself remains elusive. Films and some amazing television series offer nostalgia and imagined itineraries, and I suspect—and hope—I’m not alone in poring over “Trains at a Glance” meticulously, planning journeys I will never embark on. Retirement meant I had to empty my office at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) which I’d been using for 40 years. So, although there’s barely room to move in the home study, my eyes roam the shelves of novels, history, natural history, travel, and film books about India. I should sort out the old photographs from pre-digital days, where I had to eke out rolls of film while travelling in India. I can look at clothes unsuited to the British climate. I can eat Indian food but it’s not the same, and it’s very hard in early January to imagine the feel of the sun.
The best way to travel is by smell. I wrote over a year ago about the importance of smell in Indian culture (https://openthemagazine.com/columns/the-scent-of-india/). Sometimes, opening a cupboard filled with Mysore sandalwood soap or an old book or some agarbatti (incense) or the smell of block-printed fabric can stop me in my tracks and transport me to another place. At this time of year, I usually spend some time in Mumbai. So, I was intrigued when I read about a number of perfumes with Mumbai/Bombay in their title. What would encapsulate the smell of that fine city? The sea (good and bad), drying fish, street food, or the brilliantly, if not aptly, named Love Grove pumping station?
Many perfumes are named after places, often languorous ‘holiday’ destinations—Sicily, Zanzibar, Madagascar, Timbuktu, Coromandel, while another group evokes cities such as Paris, Venice, or Edinburgh. The first is mostly wood/musk or floral or perhaps fruit— mostly citrus. But how does one evoke the smell of a city? Edinburgh (Paris-Édimbourg) has fresh and woody notes of juniper, cedar, and lavender to evoke the rugged countryside of the Scottish Highlands rather than the city; or Venice (Paris-Venise), which has no trace of the smell of the canals, but rather the citrus of the Mediterranean blended with amber and spices that evoke its trading connections with the East.
I found three scents with Bombay/Mumbai in the title which excluded Byredo’s Chembur. Chembur is known for its refinery flares; in the western suburbs, it is called “Gas Chembur”, though I associate it with RK Studios and friends’ (fragrant) houses. Two of the perfumes use Bombay (Radio Bombay, Bombay Bling) while one is called Mumbai (Mumbai Noise).
The three scents are niche/boutique/artisanal, all from the
₹ 18,000-25,000 range for 100ml. The companies’ founders all have links to India. So, Sweden–Byredo, was founded in Stockholm in 2006 by Ben Gorham, whose Indian mother is from Chembur; Neela Vermeire, was named after its founder who lives in Paris, while DS and Durga are the team of Kavi Ahuja Moltz, an architect, and David Seth Moltz, a musician, based in Brooklyn, New York.
Radio Bombay (2016), by DS and Durga, was created by the Moltzes with perfumer Rayda Vega, who made fragrances for Joya perfumes in Brooklyn.
Its top notes are woody, cedar notes, then floral (orris root, the iris smell in perfumes), fruity then sandalwood before drying down to woody smells, including musk, coconut. This perfume has a lovely smell but not the complexity for me of the other two, the wood notes dominating the others, and not particularly ‘Mumbai’.
Over the years, I have rented flats in Bandra and for me, its smells are associated with the sea promenade, the autorickshaws, the fishing villages, the bakeries, and ice-cream shops, the shops on Linking Road, the restaurants, the florists—tuberoses, in particular, Prithvi Theatre and churches.
The blurbs on various websites said Radio Bombay was meant to evoke the smell of copper tubes on a transistor radio that heats up as one moves around Bandra, the former “Queen of the Suburbs”, probably the coolest or most hipster part of Mumbai, of which I’m no judge at my age. If I were to think of radio, it would be Ameen Sayani and his Geetmala, and I believe this fragrance would be in harmony.
Byredo’s Mumbai Noise (2021) was created by Gorham with perfumer Jérome Epinette, to evoke his own memories of the city where he lived as a child. The opening note of davana is familiar from Estée Lauder’s ‘Knowing’ to Jo Malone’s ‘Honeysuckle & Davana’. It’s a herb from the Artemisia family, known in Sanskrit as damanaka or davana, Hindi daunaa and is used in Ayurveda. It is native to India and smells of tea, liquorice/aniseed/saunf. Davana is one of Lord Shiva’s favourite flowers, used in garlands offered to him and placed on him as mallikarjuna of srisaila in the full moon of Chaitra (March-April) ‘davanada-hunnuve’. Did Gorham smell it in a temple? Maybe, I smelt it in the Babulnath Temple near Chowpatty?
The drydown is woody, based on agarwood (as in agarbatti) smelling of incense that is so redolent of India, and reminds me of sandalwood soap. There is also labdanum, which is musky and leathery, used in perfume as ‘Eastern’ or ‘exotic’, even though it is from the Mediterranean because it smells like amber (Persian ambar). It replaces ambergris, the substance made by whales, whose sale and possession were made illegal in India after Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.
Then there is a strong smell of coffee, which is very much a smell of parts of Mumbai for me, and of coumarin, a chemical found in tonka beans and cinnamon, all evoking smells of food though the wood element lingers longest. It’s a long road to get there but it definitely evokes India, if not particularly Mumbai, and definitely not its noise (which I don’t miss for more than 30 seconds). I think I’ll be wearing this one.
Neela Vermeire’s Bombay Bling (2011) is one of her series of perfumes with Indian names which evoke different eras: Trayee—the Vedic period, Mohur—the Mughals, and the British, Bombay Bling— contemporary India. (I was delighted to see one called Rahele, but that’s another story.)
Vermeire’s perfumer was Bertrand Duchaufour, who has worked with major houses such as Jo Malone and Amouage, and created famous fragrances which evoke travel for L’Artisan Parfumeur, including Timbuktu (2004) and Dzongkha (2006).
Bombay Bling, as the name suggests, is about excess. Yet, it is cleverly composed, so it layers in a more organised manner into an opening of fruit (mango, lychee, blackcurrant) and spice (cardamom, cumin), then the heart is a floral bouquet of white flowers— jasmine, tuberose, gardenia— as well as rose, frangipani, and ylang-ylang, before a drydown of wood, tobacco, patchouli, and vanilla.
Bombay Bling is really very Mumbai/Bombay, being a dazzling and loud perfume. It is youthful and fun and evokes a bright and beguiling city. It’s intriguing and complex and almost unbelievable. It smells very much like Bombay and is quite challenging to wear; yet, its wonderful fragrance makes me nostalgic for the city.
These are three new perfumes that aim at capturing the contemporary city. They are all fascinating, strange, and delightful. These scents are unlikely to be worn by most Mumbaikars. I wonder how many of them wear the fragrances created by Yuri Gutsatz (1914-2005), a perfumer who founded one of the first niche perfume houses, was vice president of the Société Française des Parfumeurs, and a founder of Osmothèque, the conservatory for perfume. He worked for six years in Bombay for Tata, creating Lakmé’s perfumes (unrelated to Lakmé by Roja Dove). The scent leads to another story.