The way to find Gulab Singh Johrimal, Delhi’s 200-year-old perfumery, is to navigate the narrow lanes of Old Delhi’s Dariba Kalan on foot. “Bas khushboo se pata chal jaayega ji (let the fragrance guide you),” is the sound advice of helpful shopkeepers on the way. As one dawdles, trying to sniff this legendary shop out, rickshaw pullers, usually grateful for a slight push to make life easier, jostle for some space.
Established in 1816 by a man named Gulab Singh and carried forward by his son Johrimal, the shop itself is quite unassuming, contrary to the many distant lands its fragrances summon. The walls of the single-room shop have ornately carved wooden shelves bedecked with painted glass vials of attar (the Persian word for perfume derived from the Arabic ‘itr’). An old 19th-century wall clock at the entrance has watched over the shop for two centuries. The shop has an open, inviting presence. The cushioned seats are essentially for customers but even casual passersby stranded in the intermittent Delhi showers are welcome to wait the fickle weather out.
Mukul Gundhi, 48, is the seventh generation of the Gundhi family, along with his two older brothers, Praful and Atul, to run the business. His nephew, who runs another branch, also in Chandni Chowk, is the eighth. “We don’t know much about how the business began. No documents or piece of evidence survives, only the knowledge has been passed on orally and through experience, over generations,” says Gundhi, while attending to the incessant ringing of the telephone. He’s a busy man.
Gundhi supposes his forefathers migrated from Jhajjar, in present-day Haryana, at the turn of the 19th century. He’s not even certain if Gulab Singh started out as a perfumer or if he was involved in some other businesses before. All he knows is how to make attars and he knows it well.
Scents of the Seasons
There are at least 15 varieties of attars made of pure flower extracts or using sandalwood oil as the base. The Ruh-e-Gulab, their specialty, uses pure extracts of the rosa damascena flower – a bright pink, highly fragrant variety of the rose. The key to acquiring the attar’s intoxicating scent, says Gundhi, is to pick the flowers at the right time. Fresh roses, cultivated in a belt near Mathura, are picked even before the break of dawn, during the bumper crop between 15 March and 15 April. The flowers are then processed and distilled at the Gundhis’ seasonal factory, right next to the farms, and brought to the shop in Delhi. “If we run out of stock midway through the year, we have to wait for the season to come back. There’s no other way,” says Gundhi.
Other fragrances in the pure variety include motia (Arabian jasmine), chameli (royal jasmine), khus (a type of bunchgrass native to India), harsringar (night jasmine), kewra (a flower native to Odisha) among several others. One that sounds especially stirring is the mushq-e-ambar – a perfume made from blending a variety of spices, perfect for the winter.
Seasonal availability, limited stock and the cost of pure sandalwood oil make these attars an expensive affair. A single 10 ml bottle of the ruh-e-gulab, the most expensive attar the shop sells, starts at Rs 4,000. The price can even go up to Rs 30,000 depending on how extravagant the container is.
The shop also receives patronage from several known figures and celebrities. During a trip to India, General Pervez Musharraf, former President of Pakistan, is known to have purchased a few bottles of the gil mitti. The attar, made from the fragrance of wet (gil) earth (mitti) after the first rain following summer, was a gift for his mother who lived in Old Delhi’s Daryaganj before partition in 1947.
Something for Everyone
There are synthetic blends too that are much cheaper. A 10 ml vial could start for as little as Rs 120 and have fragrances just as exciting as the pure oils, like Kashmiri Hina (henna), Oudh-Rose (resin derived from the Agar tree blended with rose), Jasmine-Sambac, etc. “We have something for everyone. It doesn’t matter if the customer is working class or upper-middle class. Even if someone wants to buy a fragrance for Rs 20, he or she will not be turned away. We will find something for them,” Gundhi says politely. The price is secondary, what matters the most to him is the art of making the perfumes.
“Even a small percentage of a new fragrance added to the base note shows its effect. There are so many permutations and combinations – there’s an art and a science involved in knowing which fragrances will work well together,” he says.
The ‘notes’ are the elements coming together to form the fragrance. The top note is the fragrance one encounters immediately after applying the perfume, the middle note is the heart of the perfume and should last the longest and the base note is the scent that emerges once the middle notes start to fade away. “Each attar smells different on different individuals. This is why we show it by applying it on pulse points and on the skin because individual body oils enhance certain scents. It may not necessarily smell on your skin the way it does in the bottle,” Gundhi clarifies.
Changing with the Tide
While the 200-year-old legacy persists, staying relevant in the age of instant gratification is not always easy. The shop has a website with a detailed price list, as well as a modest presence on social media. But Gundhi admits it’s hard to keep up with drastically changing times. “Sometimes even our customers know better, the internet has provided that knowledge to everyone,” he says with a slight smile. “Even the street outside used to be different. Two decades ago you’d find everything here. Now it’s only jewellery shops. The traditional old Delhi street vendors have been replaced by McDonald’s,” he adds.
By the 2000s, oriental notes in perfumes – spicy, exotic flavors like vanilla, cinnamon, etc – began to make way for aqua notes – fresh, delicate flavors, invoking the ocean or rain. The production of Gulab Singh’s fragrances has also changed according to these trends.
The family has also diversified into manufacturing soaps, agarbattis (incense sticks) and essential oils for aromatherapy. Gradually, however, Gundhi is noticing an optimistic shift back from alcohol-based sprays to the traditional attars. “People want to go back to their roots, perhaps,” he says.
The Gundhis have so far been fortunate that like their family legacy, the art and science of perfumery have been passed down through several generations of workers too. Several of the shop’s employees today are second or third generation workers who have stayed loyal to the family. He believes their knowledge and skills make this labour of love so rewarding.
In recent years, however, it has proven more and more difficult for the family to retain labour, as the children of most workers now want to follow their own path instead of their forefather’s occupations. Gundhi hopes to have dependable and knowledgeable people to work within the years to come. But for now, he continues to strive to keep this inheritance prospering. “It has been a 200-year journey of evolution,” he says humbly.
Photographs by Kirti Narain for Homegrown.
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