It reminds me of you the most

Syed M. Rizwan

A sweetness that swells in the smell of a rose”. Thus wrote Soul star Lamar on the enchanting effect of fragrance. For centuries, fragrances have been encaptured in the form of perfumes, which have been essentially used by both men and women for refining the smell emanating from their bodies and attires. Across the Middle East, the Indian Peninsula and far East, perfumes extracted from herbs, flowers, spices and wood are called ‘Ittar’ or Attar, which has originated from the Arabic word ‘Itr’, meaning scent.

About 500 years back the ancient city of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh had become the hub of Ittar trade which had a cascading effect on one of its resident, Istefa Ali Khan, a descendant of the saint Khawaja Salim Chisti of Ajmer. When the family of Istefa Ali shifted to Lucknow in 1839 he established the firm M/s Asghar Ali Mohammad Ali Perfumers to pursue the business of Ittar manufacturing and trading.

The process of extracting aromatic oil or ‘rooh’ from herbs or flowers is through hydro or steam distillation. This requires skill and experience; for instance, rooh-e-gulab is extracted from rose buds, which are plucked pre-dawn and immersed in an open tank. By the time of sunrise, a thin layer of milky fluid appears on the surface which is carefully gathered and distilled into an oil base, sandalwood, to form the Rose Ittar. This is a tedious and intricate job requiring expertise. Similarly, the process of extracting Agarwood (Aquilaria) oil which is used to make ‘Dehn-al-Oudh (Balm of Heaven) requires years of experience. Over the years, M/s Asghar Ali Mohammad Ali perfected the art of extraction and distillation, which are primary requisites in Ittar manufacturing and trading, in a lucrative manner. They had been producing a variety of ittars, which have been their exclusive trademarks. Some of the highly popular ones are Hina, Shamama-tul-Amber, Mushk Hina, Nizam Seoti and Nizam Madan Mast. The historical visit of H.E.H Mir Osman Ali Khan, the Nizam of Hyderabad, to Lucknow in 1939 was a prestigious occasion for the elite of the city. Among the many celebrations that were hosted for his Excellency during his week long stay was also the Opening Ceremony of the new factory of Asghar Ali Mohammad Ali, which he inaugurated. Shemama-tul-Amber and Hina were especially created to present to the Nizam on this occasion for which he graciously awarded a Certificate of Merit to the firm. Some other achievements of the firm were the Gold Medal at Industrial Exhibition Calcutta in 1902, Medal and Certificate at Allahabad U.P Exhibition (1910-11), Gold Medal of the British Empire Exhibition 1924.

The region of Awadh has the good fortune of experiencing all four seasons and just as the attires change as per the weather conditions so do the choice of ittar. While Shemama, Hina, Mushk and Nizam Seoti are the preferred choice in winters, Khus, Gulab and Motia (Jasmine) are suitable for hot and humid conditions. Moreover, attars are used not only for their fragrance; they are being increasingly used for therapeutic purposes. Jasmine is known to cure ear disorders, Rose Water is used for refreshing and smoothening eyes and Hina keeps away cold and catarrh, while other attars are used in various ways to relieve stress and tension and promote wellness.

“Yeh tera zikr hai ya ittar hai
Jab jab karta hun mahekta hun”

The office of M/s Asghar Ali Mohammad Ali Pefumers was located in the architecturally majestic Hina Building in Chowk Bazaar of Lucknow and from this office the company reined over the ittar trade for more than 140 years. Unfortunately, the firm had to close down in 1989 and Hina Building, too, was demolished due to some litigation. Thereafter, Alam Ali Khan, grandson of Istefa Ali, established a new company under the name of M/s Alam Ali Azam Ali Perfumers and restarted the family business. Now M/s Alam Ali Azam Ali have not only revived the old and famous brands, they have added new fragrances bearing brand names as With Love, Ajmer, Ziarat, Beautiful, Mega Star and Sunnat. The company is also supplying cologne tissues to some leading airlines in India and would shortly be supplying to KLM, British Airways, Saudi Airlines, Lufthansa and Biman.

Ittar trade has a huge export potential because it is a quality product made from natural sources; it is non-alcoholic and costs cheaper than French perfumes, which dominate the market. What is lacking in the products of domestic manufacturers is the sub-standard quality of containers and packaging. M/s Alam Ali Azam Ali are already exporting their products to Middle East and some European countries. With better presentation and marketing techniques, ‘Attars’ can dominate the world market, and efforts in this direction should be made by private and government agencies.

Some relevant tips should be remembered while applying ittar. It should be applied at certain pulse points and rubbed in gently. Mild application is recommended as too much of it distort the smell. It does not last longer if too much is applied. Some perfumes give off its smell after applying on the skin, so it should be tested first by applying.

Writer is a freelance translator and an expert of Lucknow’s Heritage

(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 1 Issue 10, Dated 05 January 2015)

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