By Juhi Baveja
Perfumes are more than keynotes of elegance, fashionable currency or social emblems — they are personal, powerful and poetic. There are stories behind each ingredient, and it is these stories that Indo-French perfumer Jahnvi Nandan seeks to chronicle and keep in her library of fragrances.
The Paris-based scent-maker is a unique blend in herself – a PhD in architecture, a lifelong Bharatnatyam dancer and a lover of travel, her interests reveal a quest for exactitude, sensory indulgences and meaning at the same time. And it is this fusion – of structure, composition and pleasure – that defines her perfumes too.
But it isn’t just perfumes she blends; she also creates spaces for them, a sacred haven, a library for fragrances. And this is why her brand The Perfume Library is more than a label – it is a journey, a record of Jahnvi’s experiences and stories she wishes to share with the world.
Trained under famous French perfumers at the renowned ISIPCA in Versailles, Jahnvi spent over a decade perfecting her smells, like a genius scientist in a research lab, hovering on the brink of a perfect discovery from an experiment without a set hypothesis.
“In perfumery school, my mentor asked me to re-create Chanel No. 5. I had to guess its composition by smelling its various ingredients – there are perhaps around 70 to 80 of those and the composition is top secret. So I tried to guess it,” she narrates, adding, “I was completely lost. Then my mentor said that in every broken smell there is a good smell. In every mistake, there is a good smell; keep that.”
The 40-year-old Paris-based perfumer has now retailed and showcased her aromas across the world, from Delhi, Mumbai and Goa to Florida and Athens. The Perfume Library, founded in 2014, came from her desire to create a new tradition of bringing back traditional Indian smells and making it a performance art, a way to tell tales.
To her, perfume is poetry.
“A fragrance isn’t just a sensory experience; it is an expression of desire and love, a way of peace and forgiveness, a wholeness of form. A perfume is more; it is an amazing gesture, an aesthetic product that can be enrobed with design,” she says.
Her own scents have taken her over a decade to create, and also involve her travelling once a month to distant places to interact with different artists. “I had a discussion with a Cambodian artist, and her vocabulary of smells included one of a duck’s cage,” she says. “It reminded her of her childhood.” The association of memory with smells is primal, after all. “You recognise people through their smells, whether it is your parents or friends. In fact, it is this realisation that I can attribute to the beginning of my fixation with scents.”
Jahnvi recalls an unusual assignment while doing her PhD in architecture. Students were asked to give their best friends fresh T-shirts to wear, and after having worn them, each would try to identify those of their friends. “Turns out, all of us could. It shook me, this realisation that smell is really powerful,” she says. It also led her to start the ‘Memory Pod Project’, which asks people to share their first memory of smell.
There isn’t any objective criterion for what is a good or bad smell. It is as individual as the song you like, or the dish that appeals to you. “When I became a perfumer, I found that people chose a specific fragrance because they saw themselves reflected in its smell and the perfume, and that they would have this physical feeling and a strong reaction. I realised that they were smelling themselves in the fragrance and, in doing this, they were seeing themselves.”
It is this nature of perfume, the ability to translate beauty, memory and emotions, and to distill it in all in a delicate vessel with exactness and art, that Jahnvi gravitates towards.