Walking through the tightly packed lanes of Chandni Chowk, an aged and sweet scented shop grabs my attention. Nestled in old Delhi’s Dariba Kalan, the famous Gulab Singh Johri Mal has been selling ittar, or attar, for more than 200 years. The cupboards and shelves in the shop are loaded with huge and colourful glass jars, containers, bottles, and decanters of perfumed or fragrant oils, and the place is always crowded with customers – such is their love for ittar!

The word has Persian ancestry and emerges from the words itr, itir, or itra, literally meaning perfume, fragrance, or scent. Falling in the categories of natural, blended, synthetic amongst others, they come in a variety of scents such as rose, mogra, oudh, khus, and geeli mitti, to name a few. Ittar is made using fresh flower petals, herbs, spices, water and oils; ittars today cater to a vast section of society and are applied by many.

Once afforded only by the royals, the rich, and religious places, ittars have now become accessible to all, says Kushal Gundhi, the eighth generation perfumer in his family. “Our shop’s name is based on the first two generations of our family. Gulab Singh Ji started this business with his son Johri Mal in 1816. They have also catered to the Britishers and the royals, and the main reason our business has grown as far as it has today is the love of perfumes.”

Trained in the art by his father and grandfather, Gundhi feels that no online course or school can teach you what your family can. “I’ve done a couple of online courses on perfumery here and there, but I got to learn a lot from my family.”

A postgraduate in organic chemistry from the University of Delhi, Gundhi chose to continue his family business so that he could spread good fragrances to people and continue the legacy bestowed on him. Having grown up in a family of perfumers, his interest in scents and fragrances is a given. “My main interest since childhood was in perfumes and I always wanted to be a perfumer. I grew up loving perfumes so much so that my grandmother would apply perfume on a handkerchief to console me whenever I cried! It has been eight years that I am in the industry and it’s a blessing for me, as nothing could be better than this.”

Natural ittars are a direct extraction of flowers and only a small quantity of the product is yielded after hours and weeks and months of work and skill. Explaining the tedious, labour-intensive method of making ittar, Gundhi explains, “All our distillation and manufacturing process happens in Hathras village in Uttar Pradesh. Each year during the flowering season, we go there and set up everything. It takes months to prepare the ittar as we hand pluck the flowers, clean them properly, put them in the (copper vessels or) degh, mix them with water and essential oils, heat the pot, and repeat the distillation process twice before finally bottling the liquid.”

With a vast variety of scents to offer, Gundhi shares, “Ittars can be sold for as cheap as Rs 45 and it could also cost several hundred and thousands. It all depends on the flowers one is using. The cost of flowers and the quantity of ittar yielded from those flowers is what determines the price of ittar.”

Natural ittar, especially when made of desi gulab or the light pink rose petals and jasmines, costs more than synthetic or blended ittars. “The shahi gulab ittar is the most expensive of all, as it is made using special rose flowers which are not easily available in the market. It is an expensive flower, and ittar made using it costs as much as Rs 28,000 for 10ml.”

While most of Gulab Singh Johri Mal’s ittar-related products are manufactured in Hathras – not far from India’s fragrance capital Kannauj – other fragrant goods such as incense sticks, reed diffusers, room sprays, and soaps are made in a factory in the industrial area of Delhi.

In times of beautifully packed and readily available Ellie Saabs, Jo Malones and Chanels, what makes these simply packed tiny bottles of perfume still significant is their longevity and their origin. As people become aware of this heritage, they increasingly want to use Indian fragrances.

For Geetika Raheja, a product and interior designer from Delhi, it is the purity of ittar that draws her in. “They stand out different due to their natural and pure essence, which I love the most. The traditional and unique aspect of ittars is also what appeals to me.”

The main difference between ittars and western scents, says Gundhi, “is in their lasting power. Ittars are pure fragrances and their longevity is more as it has no alcohol in them. It’s in its pure concentrate form, while perfumes and body mists are made by diluting attar into alcohol.”

He adds that western perfumes don’t last that long here because of the humid climate. “Customers today want a good quality fragrance that they just have to apply once and its smell lingers on the entire day. The lasting power of our Indian scents is way beyond and much more than western scents, and that’s what makes them unique.”

“Our old customers have always had such strong trust in our products, and they have passed on the same to their children and grandchildren. Those who once used to come with their grandfathers are now coming with their kids and it feels great to see this!” Gundhi exclaims. He says most of their products and fragrances have been in the running for years, and are manufactured following the same conventions and formulations. “That’s how the trust has built up over time. The quality of our products is what holds them and makes them trust us."

While the art of making ittar is all about having a good nose, maintaining the quality, and creating new and lasting scents, Gundhi adds, “With time we have added new products to our scent library, by playing around with ingredients, so we can diversify our offerings and create something for everyone.” Yet he feels that it is important to maintain continuity and consistency while experimenting. “Our existing customers love us and come here for certain scents, so we can’t mess that up, as people associate with certain scents.”

For many, ittars are like a ‘memory project’, a reservoir of memories, emotions, feelings, and time. Explaining the close connection between smells and memories, Gundhi says, “It has a scientific reason to it as the senses in our nose are directly linked to our brain. So, when we smell something familiar, our brain takes us back in that specific time.”

A fan of rose, tuberose, sandalwood and lotus ittars, Geetika Raheja agrees. "Ittars do have elements of emotions and I use them according to the occasion." Divjot Singh, a Delhi based perfume connoisseur and a Youtuber, too feels that certain smells take us back in time. "The beauty of perfumery is that it captures the moment. I remember which perfume and attar I was wearing on my important days and if I want to relive those moments, I just apply that scent."

This association of certain scents or smells with a person, an event or a moment is what makes fragrances important and worth focusing on, says Gundhi. “If you associate your childhood with a certain fragrance and if you smell something similar somewhere later in your life, you will go back in time and start thinking about the old days. Like this, we automatically go into a happy or sad zone and the memory related to it gets recalled.”

Having been in the business for years, Gundhi has seen people’s love, craze and desire for these desi scents grow, and he says that it isn’t fading anytime soon.

Calling social media and the online space a boon for perfumers, he adds, “People don’t get to know about a certain product until unless it’s on the display or they’ve been introduced to it. Fortunately, in the case of ittars, some got to know about it through their families, while others got to know about them through the social media.” Awareness of certain Indian traditions, history, and novelties has massively increased, and the digital space is a major force behind the spread of information.

"At this moment the trend is moving towards natural perfumes and attars as a majority of the perfumes in the market are nothing but chemically compounded aromas of natural smells.” According to him, natural attars are better and easily available in India and have a "charm of their own” as they sooth, help one relax. and last for long.

Hopeful of seeing more perfume lovers and buyers in the future, Gundhi concludes, “I have only seen an upward rise in the demand for ittar ever since I joined the industry. It feels nice to see young people wearing ittars and showing interest in knowing about the art.”