'Gul Ishaboor' - Conversation with Seher Ali Shah
Updated: Feb 6
The sultry-sweet scent of fresh-cut tuberoses in a vase over the kitchen counter. Placed next to it, is a crate of ripe mangoes, the fragrance of fleshy fruit in combination with floral blossoms promise a slow and leisurely summer.
This visual and sensual cue prompted the Perfume of the Season for Winter 2020 - Spring 2021. Six months ago, curator Seher Ali Shah sent me a photograph of her summer kitchen in Karachi, as we indulged in the joy of familiar scents and smells over Twitter with scholar Nicolas Roth. I had just published my interview with the scholar on his research concerning Mughal gardening techniques and Seher responded with this beautiful image that had me captivated! Over the following months, I worked on a decadent formulation using up every bit of precious extract I had: Tuberose, sandalwood, tonka bean, jasmine sambac, oudh, ambergris...!
The resulting perfume, matured over 3 months, can be described as: A fruity, lush, synthetic mango lifts this perfume out of its dense resinous-woody darkness to airy green notes of familiar spice (nutmeg, bay leaf, cinnamon, coriander, and vanilla). More about our Perfume of the Season here.
I spoke to Seher about her scent-memories and cultural associations she had with tuberoses and mangoes.
So, what does Gul Ishaboor mean - is it Urdu for tuberose? Are these flowers seasonal or are they regularly cut and placed in your kitchen?
In Urdu the name of the flower is Gul Shab Bu, clearly a distortion of the Persian. In reality, few know this name, and it's commonly referred to as tuberose. I put vases of it on my kitchen counter, coffee table, powder room, and also small vases with just three trimmed stems on my children's nightstands. An elegant visual trick with tuberoses is to use long diagonally trimmed leftover stems alongside the flowers. They look bold and artistic.
The scent of it must be overwhelming in the evenings, doesn't are there other food and spice smells mixed in when you place them in your living and kitchen areas?
It's certainly intense. In my house the wonderful tuberose aroma mixes with the smell of summer fruit: mangoes, melons, guavas, all intensified by the heat! And magic happens when the cool air is turned on: the fragrance shifts subtly, the sweetness recedes and the green notes become more noticeable. Tuberose and fresh coconut scents in the kitchen are another mega mood-boosting combination. Cardamom too!
Do you have a personal smell history attached to tuberoses and mangoes?
My parents' house when I was growing up was filled with tuberoses on most occasions. They were locally grown, inexpensive and long lasting (as long as you trimmed the woody stem). I wasn't aware of the concept of lighting candles for fragrance until I lived in the US, and still prefer a cup of tuberoses to scent a space. Most flower bouquets contained mostly tuberoses, the deluxe ones added roses and gladioli to the base of tuberoses. My parents owned a plant nursery on the outskirts of Karachi, so surplus flowers would come home and be sent in glorious bunches to friends and family. The South Asian gift giving practice remains a serious business, and tuberoses wrapped in newspaper and ribbon are a chic and thoughtful gift to give the host of a dinner party, or to send a friend on their birthday. Also, they are great to weave into garlands worn at weddings.
Do you think there’s a national or political history associated with the cultivation of mangoes and flowers in Pakistan?
There is definitely a cultural history attached to mangoes. My grandmother used to say "Aam sab phalon ka baadshah hay!" It wasn't just her, the mango's position as the King of Fruit is undisputed in Pakistan. Sindh and Punjab produce some of the best mangoes in the world. The mango shines at every feast, on its own and in desserts and pickles. The desserts include: mango kulfi, mango lassi, mango mousse, and mango cake. It’s thought to be medicinal in alleviating the adverse effects of the intense summer heat.
Also, mango season triggers great generosity: people with mango trees at home will send a few pieces wrapped in newspaper to friends and family, and those with farms will send full crates - for no reason other than just the spirit of mango season. In fact the unwrapping one such crate of mangoes in the kitchen when there happened to be tuberoses on the counter, was when I first became aware of the delightful combination of the two scents and shared that picture with you.
What about some local Karachi-context?
In coastal, temperate Karachi, tuberose season stretches from March thru October. It's easily available at the corner phool wala (flower cart) for 9 months of the year. In the winter though, there's another fragrant treat in store: the indomitable Nargiss! Of course, it belongs to cooler climes and has to be brought in from the Lahore vicinity, but that's certainly another fragrance to lift one's spirits...hint for your future projects. Wink!