Making the scent of simplicity
The thing about mysteries is that they are only solved by those who wish to open their eyes, ears and minds to possibilities. The same principle applies to discoveries. So, when you come across something rather odd; don't step away from it but rather embrace it and try to discover the reason for it being where it is. If you don't, you might just miss the amazing surprises that a quaint little shop, with a hand painted sign saying 'Muhammad Perfumery', has to offer.
'Muhammad Perfumery', just like the numerous other shops with Perfumery as their surname, sells attars. But there is more to them than meet the eye. The perfume shops of Chawk Bazaar are not only famous for their attars but have also gained prominence for selling versions of famous branded fragrances such as Dunhill, Burberry and even Pond's. “Attars usually sell around Eid and Ramadan times. But to sustain ourselves we need to sell the fragrance of these popular brands,” Sajid, a salesperson of Jonpur Perfumery Emporium says. Of course, these fragrances aren't the real deal, but the expertise of the perfume makers ensure that they imitate the essence of the fragrance to the last detail. “We may not always have all the raw materials for the more popular brands so we import the compounds from India or France,” Sajid explains. Some of the essences come directly from France or India and are simply packaged in these shops. The packaging is not as impressive as an original would be, but the sellers resort to selling them in tiny traditional attar glass bottles with tiny roll-on tips.
The perfumery business of Old Dhaka basically makes the more expensive brands available to the lower-income groups. In fact, you can smell like Dunhill by shelling out a mere 120-200 taka, whilst an original bottle would set you back around 4000 taka, 20 times more expensive than the Chawk Bazaar version. However, here is where the insidious nature of the unscrupulous dealer arises. These dealers buy the imitation fragrances and repackage them in second-hand original bottles, which are easy to procure. Then, these are sold in certain markets, although the shop owners selling them maybe oblivious to the actual nature of the contents of the bottle they are selling. Hence, people are also liable to be easily duped. “This act has given our perfumery business a bad name of piracy. However, we never sell them from here pretending that they are original,” laments Sajid. Fortunately, it is easy to tell a knock-off from the real one. The imitation fragrances are always yellowish in colour and tend to last no longer than a few hours. Because of this lack of durability, they are packaged with the convenient roll-on tips, so they can be carried around and used anytime at all. Thus, with a little vigilance it is easy to not be duped.
“Legend had it that an amphora was once found in a pharaoh's tomb, and when it was opened, a perfume was released; a perfume of such subtle beauty, and yet such power, that for one single moment every person on earth believed they were in paradise”---- Perfume
Since the 1950s, when Chawk Bazaar was the shopping hub of Dhaka City, along with Sadarghat, the perfumery business has been thriving. However, with the sharp drop in interest in attar, coupled with a rise in demand for foreign perfumes and attar due to comparatively increased income, has led to a fall in the sales of these shops. Now, their main business is export of compounds and of course selling attar during the peak times. Another means of revenue for them is the extraction of oil from Citrus macroptera (wild orange), also known as Shatkora. They are mainly exported from Bangladesh at a high price because of their oil which is widely used in the perfume industry. “Now, with increased levels of skill and knowledge, we are able to duplicate any fragrance that is given to us.” Jamal, owner of Muhammad Perfumery informs. With a small payment, they guarantee delivering any fragrance at all, provided that a sample is given. “By doing this, we got to know the more popular brands and started providing them in more attractive packages,” Jamal informs pointing at the numerous boxes containing imitations of Axe and Zatak body spray, selling for 90-100 taka per piece.
With everything said, it's still a wonder to realise that the essence of your dreams can be manufactured almost perfectly right here in Bangladesh. However, the dwindling number of Chawk Bazaar perfumeries maybe pointing towards a future where that won't be possible. Fortunately, there still are shops in Bashundhara City doing brisk business in the trade so maybe it's down to people's lack of adventure and of awareness about the wonders of Chawk Bazaar. But whatever, happens the perfume business in Bangladesh has already made a name for itself. If not in Dhaka, then surely in Broadway, New York, where Nafiul Islam Panna pioneered the Bangladeshi Perfume business in the perfume capital of the world. But that's a story for another day. Right now, grab a bottle of your most expensive perfume, take a trip down to Chawk Bazaar and replenish your supply without depleting your wallet's lifeline.
By Osama Rahman
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed