Scratch 'n' Snuffed
A woman takes a sneak peak of an advance copy of her mentor’s self-help guide “The Smell of Success” by Nepoleon LeNez, a famous olfactory scientist. She opens it to the chapter that lays out smell-visualisation techniques to quit smoking. All she wants is to access a smell-memory of her chain-smoking grandmother so she uses a pique to scratch the smell-molecules on the page that ignite and…Boom!
Fun is a thing I want to have, and delight is a thing I want to hold. To that end, this space of fragrance and flavour permits pure self-indulgence as I run around chasing stupidity and stupendousness - worthless if you say so, but worthwhile if I feel so.
I found fun by revisiting Pushing Daisies (aired between 2007-09) because I found everything currently on TV so bleak. This show, cancelled after two seasons, was a vivid, colour-saturated, delirious-sweet detective drama in which people got murdered in the best ways imaginable! A comic book sequel was promised but never delivered.
The over-the-top dialogue, set design, costumes and the make-up on the corpses were consistently fantastic! Watching it again after a decade, I realised how imaginatively this show visually drove the point of smell in every episode, especially in Season 1 x 07: The Smell of Success. There’s the protagonist, a permanently anxious pie-maker who bakes pie but never eats it. He surrounds himself each day with the scent of butter and tart fruit because it is the last thing his mother made for him as a child; his love interest whom he brought back to life, carries upon her the scent of death; the olfactory scientist and his rival who differs in ideology and parts ways — LeNez preserves himself within a hermetically sealed luxurious environment, and Oscar takes to the sewers! There’s the pair of grieving sisters who need to be coaxed out of their depression with the scent of chlorine so they may splash back into their legendary careers as synchronised mermaid-swimmers. Ah! And the bomb-victim’s charred body is still exuding smoke!
This episode brought my focus on two things I enjoyed as a child — scratch’n sniff and pop up picture-books! I loved pop-ups so much I even tried crafting them. This made me think about my research exhibition Bagh-e Hind — why do I invent delightful-delicious encounters with history? What does it mean and why does it matter? I can respond with what institutions want to hear and curators like to claim: “The intention of our public-access research project is to decolonise, appropriate and redistribute knowledge through forms of tactile art and immersive experiences that interrogate South Asian history through novel yet contestative methodologies across disciplines of art, literature and science”. This is true, but it is also true that I was so bone-achingly bored with this field that I decided to build my own world. All I needed was to search for an academic who would agree to come out and play with me a little— we could happily make up the rules and rewards as we went along. I also surmised that if I am to exist with what I diagnose as “a late blooming wall-flower’s non-starter-non-career”, then I might as well have things my way. Play, argue, delight, fight, topple, fix, build— this episode of Pushing Daisies brought out all my latent daring to hatch a plan for a scratch ’n’ sniff-pop-up book as an exhibition catalogue! The intention is fun!
Love Language, yours and mine:
As co-curators of Bagh-e Hind completing a year of our collaboration this June, Nicolas and I co-wrote an essay for Aeon Psyche. For the first published piece that fuses our language and practice together, we chose to highlight our favourite painting with its perfume and flavour translations. What still makes my pupils dilate with wonder is how so much meaning lies hidden within the eye of the flower. If one does not know the fragrance of narcissus, then one does not see the full context of the painting. As for the perfume representing this painting, I refrain from inhaling the concentrate as the principal ingredient, narcissus extract, makes me high (but I like cheap thrills and I cannot lie).
Marigold & Coriander: This concept has been a dream in my notebook since 2019. I finally stopped overthinking and composed it with CO2 extracts of marigold and coriander among other quieter ingredients; a minimalist perfume that let’s the flower be. It is not sweet, it is slightly green-bitter-crisp-savoury with notes of green-apple and smoothness of saffron and sandalwood. It also reminds me of sancho, a Japanese peppercorn that possesses a citrus aroma-profile. Super-micro batch available on request ($70/5ml). I might decide not to share as this is finally the type of perfume that speaks to my bright-salty nature.
Frankincense & Coffee: In stock. Typical responses: “It smells expensive!” ($70/5ml).
Mitti: I had set myself the task of formulating “Mitti”/petrichor every summer and monsoon season but this year, I have not felt quite motivated to make it again. However, inspiration struck over the weekend- like ignited aroma molecules on the scratch’n sniff page rigged to a bomb- when I devoured a forthcoming paper by Nicolas on the early modern history of soil through his analyses of a 16th century text that proposes the literal tasting of dirt to determine its suitability.
I then searched for the “soil” perfume I had made in 2018 as a prelude to Bagh-e Hind (originally a perfume-translation of a 17th century folio). This soil-scent exists on my favourite spectrum of repulsive-attractive that sensorially implies the earth being prepared for emperor Babur’s garden where nothing has taken root yet (as illustrated in the Baburnama while Bagh smells of an established garden in full bloom several generations later).
Last year, I had made a mild to intense version of soil-as-chocolate for our synesthesia exhibition but I was too timid about the result and eventually dropped the idea altogether. His essay on the other hand brought some fresh context and specificity that I felt keen enough to try again, this time with ingredients that introduced a real sense of damp-earthiness. Now, this particular Edible Perfume™ chocolate-spread represents the essence of Nicolas’s essay that can be licked no more than thrice (for the number of times I read it, and for caution). This version of “soil” reveals its literal “flavours of fertility” in waves of sweet-salty, amber-nutty, musky-muddy grittiness. It makes me unreasonably gleeful that now he gets to taste the depth of his flavoursome writing (differently subverted cheap thrills).
From soil to perfume — I am formulating this concept into a Mitti with carrot seed and cardamom; less petrichor, more dry top layer soil rich in spores awaiting the rains. Pre-order it now and it’s ready in 4 weeks ($70/5ml).
Reply to this Newsletter to make your enquiries because I am still procrastinating about organising my website.
A Fragrant Bouquet of Art & History: A Conversation with Bharti Lalwani
On June 27, 2022 curator Nuri McBride and I discuss the development of the Bagh-e Hind exhibition opening at the Institute for Art and Olfaction on July 15th 2022. This talk will go behind the scenes of the exhibition to discuss the olfactory landscape of Mughal-era South Asia and the art created in this cultural sensorium. Tickets.