Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 4, Issue 26, Tuesday July 03, 2007


scents and sensuality

The universality of a fascination for fragrances coupled with an ulterior interest to pay homage to personal favourites paved the way for a semi shopping guide centrefold, but luckily (or sadly), the negative cooperation of sales personnel at perfume counters across the city posed some very severe obligations. Their disinterest to disclose prices and particulars meant that an entirely novel approach needed to be adopted; good in that it made for innovation, bad because it meant more mind work and straying away from conventions.

But in literally searching the mind’s blank crevices for words to write and mannerisms in which to handle the article, the physical scope of the word (fragrance) was perhaps realised anew.

Be it its implications on religion, its significance on history or its symbolic enhancement of purity and femininity, there are more ways to appreciate the aspect of scents than simply catalogue quoting of prices and availability (that will of course, not be entirely excluded either). So with all due credit to grouchy salesmen and uncalled for innovation…the story unfolds…

Perhaps the right angle to begin with and fodder for much unawarded respect lies in the longevity of fragrances; a lifespan that can be traced back to just as far back as we will care to search. And if time is indeed the virtue first to be dissected, then where better than the ancient Egyptian civilisation to break ice with? With queens and goddesses who have continued to epitomise beauty scores of centuries after their time, there is little need to emphasise the lasting impressions that they have left, impressions- solidified by appearances and visual imagery. Since beauty, the kind that forms the basis of analogy for civilisations to come, is no easy feat to achieve, one cannot be faulted in assuming that rigorous regimes were part and parcel of everyday life for status-worthy Egyptian women and even unexhaustive study of that time frame will prove none to the contrary.

The importance of appearance was of such mammoth importance that the prospect of portraying oneself as appealing was thought to have been essential in achieving the ranks of divinity. Attention to beauty was as technical and thought-provoking as most other processes and dating back to the times of Nefertiti, we find the grinding of malachite for eye make-up or rubies and plant extracts for lipstick. In an age when seductive ploys made the difference between queen and princess or mortal and immortal, the use of fragrance was important stratagem, thus endorsing the Lotus, important for its scent, as iconic of ancient Egyptian traditions.

The role of fragrances also stands undebated in religious contexts, all the more identifiable in Islam. Despite the thousand and one interpretations and personal perceptions that every religion suffers over time, some forms of imagery still stand to signify what they did eons ago. The use of ator before Friday prayers still bears testimony to the fact that however far we may be from Mecca or however long it may have been since the inception of this scent, attachments of purity still hold strong. Neither fanaticism nor the need to emulate our Prophet (PBUH) would as strongly provide incentive as the fact that even today, with all our religious digressions, some things still physically invoke an impression of chastity.

Endearing also is the fact that the role of scents not only has different connotations in different contexts and time periods, but variables lie according to geographical segmentation as well. For generations, poets, critiques, writers and thinkers alike have romanticised imagery in their respective works by depicting goddesses, apsaras and princesses of Asian mythology by set formulas of fair skin, dark eyes, long hair and the likes. And even if not for mythical beauties, quick looks into the culture of beautification processes of women this far South would bring to light the use of such products as sandalwood and chandan/uptan. Although they were essentially products for the betterment of the skin, dual purpose, especially for the former, lay in aroma as well. And expectedly, preference from this region would call for something just that bit more exotic, undeniably, with a hint of spice.

An interesting anecdote from the locality in question. At the peak of political turmoil in the Mughal dynasty, when the emperor Humayun was ousted from his throne and in hiding, came news of the birth of his son, Akbar. With little else to give, he spread his joy by distributing kosturi (musk), a rare and expensive scent extracted from deer internal organs, among his comrades. Symbolism, he drew from the hope that Akbar’s reign would hold strong through all of their kingdom just as the fragrance had seeped through the aura.

Scent significance however, lies not only in times or places far beyond our own. It would be mighty unreasonable to believe that in the not-so-distant past, before the raze (antonym for all those in favour) of globalisation firmly had Bangladesh in its grip, the mystique of fragrance went completely ignored because Gucci and Ricci failed to make their way across and beyond our borders. The use of rose water or korpur (camphor) in bath water may have been much simpler answers to chemically composed, factory produced, animal tested products, but they worked wonders nonetheless. Certain fragrances were designed for exclusive occasions as well, for example the use of shohagh tel for brides which lasted for days at a stretch would distinguish a newly-wed bride by the sheer smell of her hair.

And of course, should all else fail there is always the evergreen, never-go-wrong solution of flowers to fall back on. Aside aesthetic pleasures, the dominant use of flowers in the beauty regimes of numerous sects of people rests upon olfactory qualities. Whether we bring into inspection the tribal people of our own land or the South Indians of our neighbouring counterparts, strong scented flowers are invariable contents (that need to be freshly picked everyday) of a make-up kit.

Because any three lines about fragrances would be grossly incomplete without mention of contemporary times and trends, final note to that which we practice. Whether our usage commands such strong thought processes as our predecessors cannot be determined, but the fact that the importance of scents has catapulted to the status and rage of becoming fashion statements is for certain. Our defining mark comes in that no longer do we have one smell or one aura that we hope will help identify our personas. Fragrances have become the final flair to any outfit for every purpose and occasion, and yes we ponder and think and read and act on the differentiations of 'which for which'. With not one but a myriad of scents showcasing an entire globe of by lines, surely such obsessive behaviour cannot be brought into question?

In comparison to civilisations previous, yes we may shy in appreciating the sensuality and romanticism of scents. We may not use it to enforce subtle shades of seduction (or do we), to reinstate our faiths or to rejoice the arrival of heirs to the state, but then another two centuries later maybe they will write about us...and then, maybe romanticism will mean our wardrobes of scents...

By Subhi Shama Reehu
Photo: Munem Wasif
Location: Etc. Pvt. Ltd, Dhanmondi


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