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This perfumer’s art brings alive Mughal-era paintings through fragrance translations

Art critic and perfumer Bharti Lalwani's art exhibit Bagh-e-Hind features floral scents to evoke the olfactory landscape of Mughal and Rajput paintings of India.

Mughal-era paintings were replete with sensorial references to flowers and plants interwoven with human gaze and emotion. What if one could get a whiff of the floral scents from those artistic depictions? Now you can. Starting today, July 15, until August 12, audiences in Los Angeles, USA, will get an opportunity to smell their way through Mughal-era India at an uncommon exhibition being held at Institute for Art and Olfaction.

Titled ‘Bagh-e Hind: Scent Translations of Mughal & Rajput Garden-Paintings’, the exhibition is part of a synaesthesia project that grew out of a collaboration between India-based art critic and perfumer Bharti Lalwani and US-based historian and literary scholar Nicolas Roth.

Originally conceived and produced by Bharti as an online exhibition, Bagh-e Hind is conceptualised around the olfactory landscape of Mughal-era South Asia.

Bharti Lalwani

It began with Nicolas, who is a specialist in Mughal-era horticultural writings, selecting five paintings depicting garden scenes from the 17th and 18th centuries for Bharti to translate into fragrance. Sectioned into five chapters, the five paintings each represent genre conventions from Mughal and Rajput courts: Rose, Narcissus, Smoke, Iris, and Kewra.

Based in Pune, Bharti drew up the original notes and ingredients for making perfume translations of the five paintings, as well as flavour-interpretations trademarked as ‘Edible Perfume’. She commissioned Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary artist and perfumer Miss Layla to produce them for the present exhibition.

Bharti also came up with other synesthesia elements, and since then, their project has expanded into a multi-disciplinary archive that she has made free for public access, and also to physical exhibitions across various museums and garden spaces, starting with Los Angeles.

Trained as an artist at Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design in London and later as a critic with a special focus on Southeast Asia at The Sotheby’s Institute of Art in Singapore, Bharti is the founder of Litrahb Perfumery, which she founded in 2018 as an extension of her artistic practice.

We caught up with her about her unique exhibition and her artistic and literary inspirations.

All images courtesy Bharti Lalwani

Tuberose perfume in a handblown glass flacon

eShe: What inspired you to add an additional sensorial perspective to Mughal-era paintings?

Bharti Lalwani: In 2018, I entered the field of South Asian history through the literal margins of a 17th-century Mughal folio by distilling its hand-painted flowers, fruits, birds and insects into a perfume. I wondered, if all we could access of our history was through museums’ digitised collections, then were there ways to draw out their experiences in ways that would be meaningful and worthwhile?

Could we approach this historical knowledge through plants, flowers, floral extracts, Persian and Urdu poetry from this period? Could we place the gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries on our tongue?   

The past is a place so exotic, I was careful to not take an orientalist approach. This is why I chose to work with Nicolas who is a historian with a lifetime of gardening experience. Our curatorial choices are never random; Nicolas is the expert, so he selects the paintings, he identifies the flowers and plants, and he curates the corresponding flowery poetry.

Perfume flacon and tray; hand-beaten silver, late 19th century, possibly crafted in Kashmir; private collection

In turn I ask questions that will lead to their synaesthesia translations – is the painting depicting a season, or a time of day? What is the significance of the painted figures or garden layout? What was happening, socially or politically, the year a certain painting was made in?

Every minute detail we pore over determines the materials with which I interpret the image, as perfume, tea, chocolate, or soap! Every synaesthesia iteration we have produced thus far is rooted in context and specificity.

The intention is to allow the viewer to experience the atmosphere of each painting to its fullest extent possible; to use smell, flavour, and sound as the mediums through which to see better.

Vintage brass bowls each bearing hand-beaten family names; custom-made limited edition “Gul Ishaboor” chocolate bars produced for a synesthesia project

What were your greatest influences in your early years that later led you to your current profession as art critic and perfumer?

There’s a confluence of contexts that have shaped my point of view be it on art, perfume or politics. I think I have internalised many of the difficulties attached to growing up in Nigeria through political and financial instabilities of the 1980s and early ’90s.

Even as a pre-teen I knew the name “Idi Amin”, I knew he had expelled South Asians from Uganda and was hyper-aware that this type of displacement could happen to us at any moment.

Around that time, I remember accompanying my parents to visit relatives who had just landed in Lagos from Liberia with nothing but the clothes on their back. These were middle-aged people who had rebuilt their stability over one or two generations after Partition, only to lose it all over again.

I grew up with a sense of insecurity that smelled of petroleum.

All these aspects encoded in my mind, surfaced for scrutiny only once I began writing art criticism. In 2011, I saw a spectacular exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum that presented a survey of contemporary art of Southeast Asia from 1991 to 2011. The art radiated power. I interviewed the curator, Dr Iola Lenzi, and so, in my early 30s, I found my first role model, who assured me I was already asking the right questions around aesthetics and politics.

“Water held still and made to hold”, a sliver of transparent soap stamped with an 18th-century Urdu verse by Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810). Translation: “So intimate have we become with the colour and fragrance of this garden’s flowers / That filled with desire we roam with the breeze / Becoming just like the wind” – Mir Taqi Mir

Towards the end of 2017, I turned to perfumery and flavour as I wanted to explore different ways to engage with not only such complex themes but also to broach this idea of pleasure, a quality we are so deprived of these days.

I looked at the resplendence embedded in the artistic and material culture of South Asia and thought scent may be a more powerful medium, one that crosses boundaries to seep into hearts and minds.

Which is your favourite scent of all time? What does it remind you of?

Cake! Specifically, the cakes my mother used to make for us when we were growing up. I am not partial to the fancy stuff, just plain vanilla sponge cake with orange rinds takes my breath away. I am a sensitive salty artist who gravitates towards sweet. Unfortunately, I am a disinterested cook, so friends who bake for me are inundated with sensory pleasures in return – a new perfume, a new soap, or flavour to try and it is always fun to see their expressions of joy!

Handblown glass incense holders

Tell us about the books and movies you enjoy and recommend.

On South Asian art history, the magnificent publication by scholar Dipti Khera, The Place of Many Moods: Udaipur’s Painted Lands and India’s Eighteenth Century has left an indelible impact on my practice. This richly illustrated volume delves into the sensorial complexity of beauty and emotions encoded in paintings commissioned by the Udaipur court. This book is among the many in the Reading List my co-curator Nicolas Roth and I compiled for those interested in the history of gardens and scent.

For my pleasure reading, I locate newly published essays, art criticism, and long form think-pieces online. Once I considered myself a full-time perfumer devoted to creating opportunities that prioritised my happiness, my friend and critic Meenakshi Thirukode observed that I had “exited the Vampire’s castle” – which was a reference to the essay written by her late mentor, the cultural theorist Mark Fisher. I highly recommend this as well as Eqbal Ahmad’s Confronting Empire, which I revisit whenever I need clarity and courage.

Handmade soap wrapped in cotton fabric, placed in a vintage brass bowl for a synaesthesia project

As for TV, my preferences haven’t changed much since I was a child who enjoyed watching Dr. Who and Star Trek TOS. I revel in a certain type of campiness, dorkiness, and optimism that I later found in Pushing Daisies, a colour-saturated, delirious-sweet show where people got murdered in the most imaginative ways possible.

The anxiousness of the three socially awkward misfit-protagonists in The IT Crowd also appeals to me. Recently, I also appreciated how Egyptian director Mohamed Diab pushed back against orientalist Hollywood tropes through his deft direction of Moon Knight. Their curation of the soundtrack introduced me to some brilliant Arab musicians.

These days I enjoy the optimism of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds that returns to TOS-era retro design and colourfulness. I follow that up with podcasts by Trek FM that take a deep dive into the science and philosophy of this realm. The political podcasts I listen to mainly are East is a Podcast and Chapo Trap House.

All images courtesy Bharti Lalwani

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