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Using scents to tell stories

Using scents to tell stories

Fragrance king: Serge Lutens’ latest perfume is based on sandalwood. Photo: Francesco BrigidaPremium

Fragrance king: Serge Lutens’ latest perfume is based on sandalwood. Photo: Francesco Brigida

Perfumer Serge Lutens and I are sitting in a suite in the Ritz Paris hotel, discussing scents and their origins. An interpreter sits between us, translating between his French and my English. “The raw materials for most perfumes came from India," Lutens says. “Indian and Arab cultures have a deep-rooted tradition of perfume."

Seventy-year-old Lutens is the founder of an eponymous line of perfumes that has an “extraordinarily devoted cult following", according to perfume blog Now Smell This . His life has been just as extraordinary. After growing up in the north of France (Lille), Lutens trained as a hairdresser and moved to Paris. Vogue magazine hired him as a stylist and make-up artiste.

Fragrance king: Serge Lutens’ latest perfume is based on sandalwood. Photo: Francesco Brigida

I had read about Lutens in fashion glossies when I walked into his swanky shop at the Palais Royal, near Musée du Louvre. I didn’t know that perfume blogs breathlessly dissected his perfumes; or that scent cognoscenti heralded new releases with near-feverish anticipation.

The dim-lit room has tester bottles of the 50-odd scents that Lutens has created. Each bears a poetic name, written in the Latin botanical style, with the first word in capital and the second, not. Ambre sultan is a best-seller; El attarine has oud; Tubéreuse criminelle smells as potent as it sounds; De profundis uses chrysanthemum, a rarely used flower that signifies death in many cultures. It is the one I end up buying. After an entrancing hour of being engulfed by myrrh and sandalwood iris and mandarin, lilies and musk, I ask the shop attendant if I can meet the creator. I know Mr Lutens lives in Marrakesh, I say. I just wondered if he might visit Paris in the next few days.

As it turns out, he is visiting Paris to launch a new perfume: Santal majuscule, based—serendipitously— on Indian sandalwood. I ask for an appointment. A few days later, I am ushered into a suite at the Ritz by his attendants. Since Lutens speaks only French and I don’t, there is an interpreter at hand.

Frail and birdlike, with an aquiline face and sharp features, Lutens is a compact man with the bright eyes of a sparrow. He walks in and greets us with a polite “Enchanté", and talks in poetic sweeps about scents and identities. Later, when prodded, he discusses sandalwood, the scent of his new fragrance. Sandalwood trees are like vampires, he says with a mischievous grin. “Their roots spread out over 30ft," he says. I describe the protected sandalwood tree on a street in Bangalore. Policemen come to check its status frequently, I say. Nobody is allowed to cut it.

Lutens loves “Inde", or India. He doesn’t travel much but is incredibly curious about other cultures. His friends go on voyages, he says, and bring back souvenirs or memories. He stores them all in his mind where they become fodder for the stories he tells through perfume. “Writers use words to tell stories. I use scents," he says.

Psychologists say that of all our senses, smell is the most intangible. It plumbs deepest into our hearts and souls. Try articulating how something smells and you’ll confront—very quickly—the limits of language. The language of perfume is the language of the soul; of memories; of gestures and heart. It takes us back to our deepest selves; to our childhood; to the storehouse of sensations. Lutens thinks that we store 550,000 sensual memories—of taste and smell—by the time we are 7. The reason we are drawn to different scents is because they evoke memories from our past. “The earth is the original perfumer," he says. “Through wind and rain; through rivers and water; through trees and flowers, nature reveals her scents and secrets. Man just translates. If you are good, you create a scent that causes good vibrations; you create something sacred."

Indians are naturally drawn towards perfume. They inhabit our most ancient texts where heroes and heroines adorned themselves with fragrant champak and jasmine flowers; cooled their bodies with sandal paste; massaged oil infused with musk into their hair; and chewed on cardamom and clove before kissing their lovers. Perfume is part of our original sin, and we were adept at blending essential oils to evoke different moods: incense for spirituality; tuberose garlands on the “first night" after marriage; floating marigolds for beauty and harmony; and scented jasmine strings in the hair.

Lutens thinks blending perfumes is like creating stories. “It is like a new language with a different syntax and colour," he says. “It is how we connect with our past."

This is why he has little use for today’s fashion. Suddenly, he gets up and does a hilarious imitation of fashion models strutting around the room with “stark bodies and cold faces". He thinks fashion, beauty and art ought to be anchored with our past—both personal and cultural. “Indians and Arabs still have that connection," he says. “Your saris are so chic, so elegant. It tells the world who you are. In Europe, we’ve lost that connection to our identity. It is all about luxury brands and marketing. We’ve lost our identity; our soul."

What touches your soul, dear reader? Sari or shift dress? Bandhgala or Hugo Boss? Airy dhotis or tight denims? Sandalwood or Sisley? In your answer lies India’s fashion destiny.

Sandalwood is all very well but the smell that touches Shoba Narayan’s soul has to do with hot lemon rasam and strong filter coffee.Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read |Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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Published: 08 Jun 2012, 10:17 PM IST
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