Images - Naveen Sekar

Illustrations - Sulakshana S

For a few months as a nine-year-old, I lived a couple hundred meters away from the beach. Almost every day, I would insist on paying a visit to the ocean; I loved lying belly-down on the shoreline and letting the sea lick my body with its briny tongue. 

To this day, when I pick up on the ocean’s brackish scent, I am transported to this period of my life. Over time, other experiences have piled on to this of course – I live in a coastal town and beach trips are an integral part of my existence – but with a mild whiff of the ocean, that feeling of weightless, childlike freedom floods me. Tensed muscles relax, my forehead automatically uncreases. After all these years, my body remembers. 

For Manan Gandhi, the founder of Bombay Perfumery, a home-grown fragrances brand, it is the smell of rose oil that transports him to his younger days. Growing up in Mumbai in a family that sourced and supplied ingredients to perfumers in the country, his senses were attuned to the purest and most exceptional ingredients from a young age, he said on a call.

“When we were growing up, we’d have small bottles of rose oil which our father would keep in the safe. We (his sibling and him) would wonder…people have money in their safe, why do we have aluminum boxes of rose oil?” Pure rose oil is an expensive ingredient used in perfumes, often costing as much as $100 (Rs. 7000) for a few milliliters. “So, smelling that, this is something I immediately think back to,” Gandhi said. 

The sense of smell can be a powerful evocation of memory. The Proust effect, detailed by French novelist Marcel Proust in his seven-volume collection “À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu”, talks about how olfactory stimuli can trigger vivid emotional and physical experiences. A possible explanation for this is how close the olfactory bulb is located to the memory-building sections of our brain, the hippocampus and the amygdala. 

Maybe this is why a concocted scent of agarbatti, coconut oil and jasmine flowers is more likely to remind you of your grandparents’ warmth than looking at an old photograph. Smells can help recreate experiences, some positive, some negative, but intense nevertheless. 

Given that smells have the ability to trigger such strong feelings and memories in people, why then has this stimulant been left out of popular artistic discourse? Auditory and visual mediums are common spaces that artists explore, but why not smells?

“We usually tend to think of art as more dimensional or physical, like a structure or a painting,” Gandhi noted. “But fragrance lends itself to a lot of art quite well.”

In 2016, Bombay Perfumery partnered with South Indian artist and product designer Lekha Washington to create an olfactory experiential installation. It entailed a wall filled with sketches of windows and a collection of stamps that represented smells of Bombay. Visitors were asked to imprint their reflections of the city on the wall. 

Gandhi’s perfume line is linked closely to many of these resonant Indian scents. ‘Seven Islands’ is an ode to Bombay, with its marine undercurrents and fruity, summer-like notes that can seem “like having ice cream” on a summer day. ‘Calicut’, a representation of Kozhikode, carries hints of black pepper while ‘Madurai Talkies’ is reminiscent of the namesake city’s ubiquitous jasmine fragrance.

“Perfumery is an art – the process of making a fragrance, like where you get your ingredients, what goes into it, making it in itself is art. How an artist uses it to express themselves, that’s totally dependent on the artist,” Gandhi said. 

Recreating Smells Through Smellscapes

As it turns out, olfactory creations are recognized as a distinct art form, including perfumes and other scent applications. However, sweet-smelling fragrances and perfumes cannot qualify as the only medium of expression in olfactory art. When we speak of art and artistic representation, more complex and deep emotions that humans harbour also need to find space. 

For instance, the smell of sweat and rust, though not entirely positive (and definitely not something we’d purchase in a bottle) can remind us of places that we hold dear, like crowded city markets or our ancestral family factory. Marcel Duchamp, a French conceptual artist, is often credited with making smells an integral part of his artistic experience. From coffee and burning hemp rope, he incorporated smells generously in his installations. 

While looking out for contemporary artists, I chanced upon Maeva Rosset. An olfactory and visual artist from Switzerland, Rosset undertakes this task of introducing people to unconventional smells and facing their reactions through smellscapes – an olfactive landscape of a plethora of unconventional smells, from cacao and blood to petrichor and florals. Often, these smells are accompanied by visual installations like photographs, paintings or projections that enhance the experience. 

“In 2016, when I was studying for a Master of Arts in Basel, I decided somehow that smell was actually my medium (like paintings for a painter). And for my Masters jury, I contacted a perfumer (Giovanni Sammarco),” Rosset said in an email. 

In 2019, she travelled to India with Sammarco as part of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia research residency program. The aim was to study mitti attar, the country’s very own “rain perfume” that captures petrichor. Rosset was astonished at the overpowering olfactory experience as she travelled from Delhi to Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh. 

“India is crowded, noisy and you can smell all kinds of smells that you never find in Switzerland,” she said. “Smells are everywhere, and very strong when compared to Europe, where we try to deodorize and make them go away. In India, you let it live. It was a big experience for us.” 

This interaction of smell, space and place became the base of their collaborative smellscape project in India. Using the techniques of perfumery, Sammarco recreated smells and Rosset took over the visual elements. “Perfumes are not a world I know, but the meeting with Giovanni Sammarco was very relevant for my practice.”

Rosset prefers not knowing the exact name of smell molecules and how to create them. “Maybe this lack of knowledge is my strength. I am like a kid in a new world,” she wrote. Rosset finds it much more interesting to experience a smell, like the smell of her dog when he swims in the Aare river in Bern, than to know that it’s a combination of specific molecules. Her work as an artist is to enable people to take in the olfactory experience completely without inhibitions, she said. Upon her return to Switzerland, Rosset recreated this smellscape using olfactory memories she collected on her trip to India. 

What Makes a Smell Memorable?

An evocative or memorable smell is not just about hedonistic pleasure, as in perfumes, Rosset said. Perfumes need to be pleasantly appealing, something that people can use to craft their own identity. When it comes to using smell in art, it needs to be reflective, she said. 

“I consider something being art when its aim is to make people think. For me, art is not dependent on form or any medium.” 

Gandhi believes that even in perfumes, there needs to be polarizing fragrances for them to make an impression and remain memorable. He tries to stimulate the olfactory sense by introducing certain ingredients in slightly heavier proportions than we, as humans, are used to. “For example, take pepper or ginger, which is not usually used in perfumes and we kind of overdose it (in certain fragrance lines). We use that to make it (the fragrance) get stuck in one’s mind.”

The global pandemic is bound to increase the relevance of smells, be it in artistic spheres or as a human indulgence, Rosset hinted. “After this pandemic, and semi or total quarantine, people will realize how natural and sensitive experiences are vital. Olfactory art can somehow also bring about that consciousness.”

“When the aroma of garlic sautéing hits, it makes me feel a sense of relief. Sounds weird, but that smell in my mind equates to a good dish. As a chef, I know what power that smell has and how transformative it can be. The lingering smell of garlic on my fingers equates to a good day at work, equates to comfort and equates to me finally unwinding because the day was worth it.” – Harshita Mirpuri, Chef

“There's a distinct scent of flowers or leaves (I don't recall the exact type) that I associate with my negative memories of middle-school years. I can still feel the emotions that it evoked back then. I remember going back to school to collect some documents for college, and I was hit by this scent as I walked through the school grounds. And it brought back the suppressed memories of bullying, feeling cornered, not having too many friends, being my anxious self. And once I returned home, it subsided.” – Harsh Shah, Media Manager 

“Nothing can beat my love for the Chennai monsoon. Don't even know if I can call it that because of how scarcely it rains in this otherwise fuming hot city. I wait for it the whole year and when the first shower hits the ground, I can't get enough of the wet Earth's smell. It just has so many happy memories attached to it. When school decides to take a rain check, the suspense in the morning, calling friends to ask if they've heard any good news yet, and finally the joy of going back to sleep in your uniform.” – Nidhi Saraogi, Musician and Make-Up Artist

“My dogs have this smell, you can't really smell it when you go and smell them. But it's there, and it hits me when I'm engrossed in something else or when they're sitting close to me. Every time I smell it, I always pause to look at them. Those five seconds are my biggest moments of peace, it's my understanding of the word ‘love.’ Sometimes, I can smell them even when they're not around. I remember smelling them in the mountains of Meghalaya when they were in Bangalore. I think I was missing them.” – Aditi Naik, Pet Sitter

“Every time I'm intimate with someone, there's a specific smell of saliva over skin that’s a constant. Sometimes when I lick some leftover dessert from a jar, that familiar smell comes off of my own fingers and those memories of intimacy come back in a flurry. I remember the kiss, the gentle caressing of her neck and recall just how messy and weird being intimate can be.” – Rajat Sharma, Creative Account Manager at a Production House