Sense of a scent: Author Divrina Dhingra’s project of fragrance

New Delhi, Feb 22 (IANS): When she went to the US, a part of her time was spent walking in New York where she discovered several fragrance boutiques, where one could experience perfumes in diverse ways, and not just through bottles. At Columbia, where she was studying journalism, the class that fascinated her most was ‘The Journalism of Ideas’ which encouraged students to follow stories deeper, do elaborate research and go to the sources.

In short, both these elements came together and the book ‘The Perfume Project: Journeys through Indian Fragrance’ (Westland) was conceived.

This narrative blends the science of aromatics with travel writing, history and insights into India’s contemporary perfume trade, and the author investigates the idea of scent as a powerful trigger for memories and emotions, as well as a mode of self-expression and identity. In her telling, aromatic ingredients are not a mere indulgence, but instead, the backbone of the country’s struggling perfume industry and a source of livelihood for many.

“I was quite sure I wanted to come back home and do this project. The research started and the stories came together for me, as well as the tales that fragrances can tell. It involved a lot of travelling, meeting people across the chain -- the growers, karigars and others,” says Dhingra, whose book took eight years -- from when it was conceived, to getting published.

For someone who also went to a summer perfume school, she smiles when asked what fragrance does to her.

Dhingra said now, at this stage, maybe a little different than if this was asked a few years ago.

“I try to approach it the same way. It might spark something in the mind. And I may like it or not. But now, I try to remain neutral and deconstruct it. I try to pay more attention to it. Yes, it makes me pay attention...”

Talking about the elaborate research process, she says the first part involved getting comfortable with the elaborate research as during her previous avatar as a journalist, one mostly relied on interviews for research.

“Here, I needed to spend a lot of time in the library and chasing down things online. Also, the scope was extremely elaborate and I needed to dig deeper into every aspect. Besides a lot of reading on what people had written on perfumes my research also relied on historical sources,” she added.

When travelling to different places by herself was sometimes challenging, the Pandemic also meant that at times she did not have access to many places for records.

Even as multinational fragrance brands are now easily available in India, a land that’s home to 18,500 varieties of aromatic plants with all-natural perfumes, it’s the question of sustainability. Primarily in terms of the growing side of it -- the agriculture side of it.

“It is becoming harder to grow these things and several factors come into play. Traditional perfumery needs marketing help. But we must not forget that it has a strong fan base,” said the author, who also had a session at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival.

But will we see a new generation of karigars emerging? She said if this is asked of them, the answer will be a ‘no’ as they do not want the next generation to get into this craft.

“It is a skill that’s only acquired through the doing, and it is a lot of hard work. And most cases, it is seasonal labour. Of course, there are some which have some permanent workers. I think in general, we are spoilt when it comes to the craft that exists.”

Replying to what is next for her, she said: “I am not sure, but I would like to keep writing and exploring fragrance, and not just through writing.”



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Title: Sense of a scent: Author Divrina Dhingra’s project of fragrance

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