How to Smell a Mughal and Rajput Miniature Painting

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In an 18th century miniature painting from Rajasthan, now housed at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, a dressed Radha, seated on a bed of flowers in a clearing framed by thick forest, awaits her lover Krishna. It is dusk. Will Krishna show up for this appointment? Or will he put her on her feet?

The painting is part of a ragamala (a set that illustrates Indian classical music ragas) and conveys the pain of longing. Radha’s desire seems to be projected onto the forest, set with flowering shrubs and birds in the branches. Instead of vague floral decorations, Kota’s artists opted for detail and specificity – creamy frangipani and champaka, oleander, thick sheaths of plantain, velvety celosia and spiny pandanus blossoms, called kewra in parts of India . We can see the fragrant forest, but what if we could also smell it?

Pune-based independent perfumer Bharti Lalwani, 40, and Nicolas Roth, 32, a researcher in South Asian studies, launched a virtual exhibition, “Bagh-e-Hind” (Baghehind.com), on September 10, allowing spectators to explore the lush nature. worlds of Mughal and Rajput miniatures through perfumes and smells.

From the “Narcissus” section: A prince having an audience, Mughal painting of the school of Jahangir, 17th century. (CREDIT: Denman Waldo Ross Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The idea was born a few years ago after Lalwani saw a 17th century painting of Emperor Shah Jahan admiring jewelry and ornaments with his son Dara Shikoh. The ornate frame around the scene was an explosion of flora and fauna, as elegant as the subjects in the painting, but wild and uncontrollable. The king of the world might have his jewels, but the natural world was beyond his competence, it seemed to Lalwani, who said, “These paintings impart a lot of smells. The contemporary public would have known them – this idea of ​​a summer garden, a pleasure garden, abundance in nature – parrots rummaging in mangoes or bees drunk with honey.

The curators categorize the exhibit into five sections, not all of which are flower-based. Rose (led by a gulab bari garden), iris, narcissus and kewra are themes here, but so is smoke (a firework display). It’s a layered idea of ​​what olfactory might mean in Indian paintings.

Bagh-e-Hind, Bagh-e-Hind virtual exhibition, Mughal and Rajput miniatures, scents and smells, perfumes, paintings, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news From the “Rose” section: “Mahārāṇā Jagat Singh II Celebrating the Flower Festival in the Gulāb Bāṛī Garden”, by Raghunāth, Udaipur 1750; National Gallery of Victoria AS144-1980

Roth, based in Cambridge, USA, holds a doctorate from Harvard University on the garden culture and horticultural writings of Mughal India from the 16th to 18th centuries. He chose paintings with prominent olfactory elements as well as those representative of a particular genre convention. In the Narcissus section, for example, the lead has two aristocratic young men sitting opposite each other on a garden terrace, sniffing sprigs of narcissus, with a bowl of, perhaps, jasmine between them. “The allusion to perfume is clearly a central aspect of the image, with narcissus rendered beautifully and naturally. Narcissus are frequently referenced in Persian and Urdu poetry, where they usually represent beautiful eyes and thus allude to vision and insight, but also flirtatious gazes and drunkenness,” says Roth. Yet this exceptional painting is an example of a large body of similar compositions – pairs of men or individuals, on terraces garden, surrounded by various accoutrements of the good life, as envisioned by early modern South Asian elites, Roth adds.

Olfactory associations, more than visual, are known to be instantaneous and instinctive. It’s the smell of pastry at our neighbor’s that reminds us of a deceased grandmother; or the hint of cologne that reminds us of a former lover. They elicit emotions and nostalgia, like (the novelist Marcel) Proust’s madeleine moments, and at the very least there’s something primal and pheromone about them. In view of the vivid details of Indian miniature paintings, one might think that the olfactory aspect is therefore obvious. Yet, among the small number of scholars who study Indian miniatures, there is virtually no research to date on this aspect.

Bagh-e-Hind, Bagh-e-Hind virtual exhibition, Mughal and Rajput miniatures, scents and smells, perfumes, paintings, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news From the “Smoke” section: Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks. Attributed to Muhammad Afzal (active 1740-1780), of Haryana. (CREDIT: Freer Gallery of Art)

It is difficult to confirm whether the original audiences for these paintings approached the works in the way the exhibition invites us to. Roth says he has yet to find evidence of painters specifically trying to evoke olfactory experiences. But the wealth of detailed depictions of fragrant flowers, perfume bottles, incense burners and similar objects, and the frequent and extensive references to perfumes and perfumery in contemporary literary texts strongly suggest that it was something something very intentional on the part of painters, he adds.

It’s ironic that the exhibit opened virtually during a pandemic, a pandemic in which we are desperately trying to protect our noses and mouths. In an attempt to overcome the current fate of humanity, the curators aim to tease our noses and taste buds using a language loaded with olfactory references, snippets of their conversations, poetry, historical objects associated with paintings and flowers from Roth’s personal garden. Additionally, the sound design was created by Berkeley-based landscape architect Uzair Siddiqui.

Bagh-e-Hind, Bagh-e-Hind virtual exhibition, Mughal and Rajput miniatures, scents and smells, perfumes, paintings, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news From the “Smoke” section: Fireworks on the night of the Shab-i Barat festival, mid-18th century. (CREDIT: The Met Collection)

The highlight – at Rs 27,000 each – is Lalwani’s ‘synesthesia box’, tailor-made for each section. Lalwani, who has been creating perfumes since 2018 under the Litrahb Perfumery label, has collected trademark attars and “edible perfumes”. These respond to cues from the paints, mixing and matching them with other notes. The edible scent in the Rose section, for example, translates a hot and muggy summer in India using a dark chocolate spread created with vetiver, peanuts and jaggery.

Bagh-e-Hind, Bagh-e-Hind virtual exhibition, Mughal and Rajput miniatures, scents and smells, perfumes, paintings, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Flasks designed by Lalwani for the attars of each section as part of the exhibition

Much like the history of South Asian art, where some of the finest works were smuggled or looted out of their native lands, perfumery also has a problematic history. Lalwani explains how the raw materials used in perfumery are often exploitative in nature, such as natural civet musk, which is extracted after great pain for the animal. Additionally, perfumers often cast an orientalist eye toward South Asia and Mughal gardens to draw inspiration for their products. Take Guerlain’s Shalimar, created in 1925, inspired by the love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. Their ad from a few years ago features a Russian model waiting for her lover and the Taj Mahal gushing out of a lake in Rajasthan. While the trade in perfumes and paints is inconvenient, Lalwani hopes “‘Bagh-e-Hind’, on the other hand, offers a lot of beauty and a lot of stillness.”

Bagh-e-Hind, Bagh-e-Hind virtual exhibition, Mughal and Rajput miniatures, scents and smells, perfumes, paintings, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Bharti Lalwani and Nicolas Roth, curators of Bagh-e-Hind

The exhibition assumes that the public is familiar with smells. So if we’ve never seen or inhaled a narcissus, a lot is left to the imagination. And, it’s also possible that our familiarity with certain scents means the paintings evoke associations far removed from their original intent. Kewra, for example, is used today as an inexpensive biryani flavoring, unlike its historical use, as Roth discovered, when it was a coveted fragrance ingredient. So while kewra intoxicates a Radha with longing for her missing date, it is perfectly fine if the audience remembers the best, or worst, biryani or korma they have ever had.

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