Scent-Memories of Kaleka
Updated: May 28, 2021
*Memories of Kaleka: A special perfume commissioned by Indian artist Ranbir Kaleka. I worked on this project from August through to November of 2018. The artist was filmed and interviewed by me on the evening of 30th November 2018 as part of the documentary 'Fragrantly Yours', produced by Asiaville News (Chennai). This digital news company eventually produced only three short episodes after following me on my research trips to Delhi, Kannauj, Agra and Satara. However, for reasons unknown to me, the channel has not produced the episode on 'Memories of Kaleka' – I also suspect the footage is lost. In order to salvage valuable art historical information, I have converted my notes into the following essay to which audio recordings of the artist's own smell-memories will be updated eventually.*
Remembrance of Things Past
The fragrance of a madeleine dipped in tea instantly triggered childhood memories in the mind of the late 19th century French novelist Marcel Proust. This sensory encounter – a phenomena known as the Proust effect – revealed to him 'like a stage set' his aunt's bedroom, her old grey house, the street it stood on and the country roads that led to it. Is it possible to create the smell of a place that doesn't exist any more? One of the first challenging fragrances I was tasked with creating in 2018 was the scent of a village that is lost to time and space.
When I moved to India early 2013, one of the first Indian artists I met were Ranbir and
his wife Rashmi Kaleka. Their practice consistently communicated something intangible – While Rashmi has recorded and archived the sing-song call of street vendors and hawkers over a decade not unlike an anthropologist, Ranbir's multi dimensional artworks transport the viewer to a different time and place through sensorial cues such as sound, stills and other cinematic elements. But some of his key works such as 'MAN WITH BHUTTA' (1999) – was inspired by the smell of corn toasted on an open charcoal flame on the streets during the monsoons. When I started creating perfumes, Ranbir and I had extensive conversations on how to express a series of memories through scent – A fleeting olfactive sensation so powerful as to pull the individual through time and space to a specific moment in history and memory.
Born in 1953 in Patiala, Punjab, just six short years after the Partition of India, Ranbir grew up in an atmospheric old haveli, dilapidated in parts but wholly infused with colourful characters, the village itself – a microcosmic reflection of the dramatic shifts within a new nation that had left many folks in devastating flux especially with regard to their personal, religious and national identities. In our conversations, he expressed a long-held wish to possess the smell of his village in some form or other. He showed me images of the ruins of his old home and spoke of the smell of cow dung, rain, petrichor, a wood fire burning, decay and rot.
Based on the artist's description of various smells, I thought of three natural perfumery materials that would be key ingredients in the blend: Oakmoss, Spikenard and Vetiver.
Oakmoss is a species of lichen, a fungus found in mountainous temperate forests, growing mainly on oak trees. Its strong earthy-mossy, true to nature aroma possesses a leathery undertone and evokes the 'scent of a wet forest floor'.
For centuries Spikenard oil has been used in religious ceremonies, as traditional medicine, as incense and as perfume! An ancient Himalayan plant, spikenard can be described as having an animalic odour. It has a pungent sharp opening that mellows into a sweet, resinous, woody fragrance. Before I tell you more about the third ingredient - Let's talk about Petrichor. Everyone knows this is the term that best describes the scent of wet earth but what is this phenomena and what is its cause? In nature, plants and soil-dwelling bacteria produce secretions that are released into the ozone along with a range of smaller, volatile compounds. This in combination with an organic compound known as 'geosmin' present in the air causes the scent we know as 'petrichor'. Pick up a bunch of muddy beetroots on a rainy day and smell it – that is what geosmin smells like.
As a perfumery material, geosmin is quite potent, even one drop from a 1% solution of this aroma compound has the ability to dominate a fragrance formulation in an unpleasant manner. So, to create Ranbir's special perfume, I used a CO2 Extract of Vetiver roots. Remarkably different from the essential oil (traditionally steam distilled), Vetiver extract is obtained at room temperature, which is why it retains the distinct earthy aroma of Geosmin. Blended together and kept to rest for a few months, this specially commissioned perfume took on notes of a freshly ploughed field, the pleasant smell of dirt and soil upon the first rain of the season with odours of manure, a cattle-yard, a wood-fire, rot and decay – everything Ranbir described and everything I hoped would take him back to the 1950s, to his ancestral home. 'Memories of Kaleka' is a perfume I made with the hope that it would give the artist his Proustian moment.