Also known as ‘the scent goddess,’ Monika Ghurde shares how her journey as a perfumer and her obsession with jasmine began in Chennai
WHEN was the last time a scent triggered a childhood memory? Powerful olfactory experiences are common. Blame it on the many new odours we encounter in our youth before we start making associations. Now accidental perfumer Monika Ghurde will help you find out how a smell can influence your behaviour, consciously or subconsciously, at a workshop titled ‘The Invisible You’. Taking place in Goa tomorrow (it is booked out, incidentally), Ghurde will teach adults why ‘bad smells’ are just a case of conditioning. The project has been two years in the making, following research with a neuroscientist, artists and writers. As for the facilitator, the last six years have been an unusual journey for her as well.
Many of us know Ghurde as the visual artist who called Chennai home till a few years ago. Then she discovered her hypervigilant nose had a purpose. ‘‘I have always been obsessed with smells. Even as a photographer I would bring back an oil or a scent, something that reminded me of the place I had visited. My closet used to be crowded with fragrances and creams. I would layer these scents, try at least 20,000 combinations and remember them all. It was considered one of my quirks.’’ begins Ghurde, 38. Turns out, somebody had been talking. ‘‘One day the perfumer Bharat Kamte landed up at my doorstep in Chennai and said, ‘So I hear you have a nose.’’’ He had brought along a perfumery kit. Ghurde was well on to becoming a visual artist then, and hadn’t yet discovered olfactory stars like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the 18th century French perfumer, via the book or movie. ‘‘I wondered if I was too old to make the career switch. Plus, I had just had an exhibition in Geneva’s Mandarin Oriental and had found myself an agent in Paris. I had big plans as a fine art photographer,’’ she recalls.
But Kamte was persistent. He found it unusual that someone with a ‘‘regular’’ background had such an advanced understanding of fragrances. ‘‘‘To be able to identify and hold on to a smell, to be aware of it, that is a gift,’’’ he had insisted. With a factory and laboratory in Thailand and London, he arranged for Ghurde to learn from a perfumer. ‘Twenty boxes of lab material landed at my doorstep and I never heard from Kamte for the next few years while I trained under an English perfumer (for Picot Laboratories).’’ Over 18 months in Chennai, Ghurde familiarised herself with the ingredients and structure of perfumery even while the hot weather threatened to play spoil sport. Then the move to Goa happened. ‘‘I learned how to temperature control the lab. Six years and visits to London, Paris and Grasse made a difference. I started practising officially as a perfumer last year.’’ She also discovered the ability to dig deep in her quest to understand smells. ‘‘Gradually, I realised I had a responsibility bigger than making perfumes,’’ she shares.
Eyes wide shut
It wasn’t a coincidence that Gurde’s childhood nickname was ‘superdog’. ‘‘On an airplane, I would know if a man 10 rows in front of me removed his shoes. When I was growing up in Maharashtra, my father, a judge, had many visitors, and I would identify each guest from the person’s smell or the oil in his hair. My brother used to tease me mercilessly,’’ she recalls. With a father who was ‘‘a constant gardener’’ and a spiritual mother, Ghurde was raised in a home that was redolent of incense, oils and flowers. ‘‘Our house smelled divine. Every time my father was transferred, we would carry our pots of jasmine and roses to different cities. When a parijat or Indian night jasmine withered, it would seem as if a beloved pet had died,’’ she says. Living in small towns, she grew to appreciate the ‘‘clean and beautiful scent of sandalwood, milk and rose from different houses’’ on her way to school.
A sensory landscape
As French contemporary perfumer Francis Kurkdjian put it, ‘‘perfume is the art that makes memory speak.’’ So it was no surprise that when Ghurde began research on her own commercial fragrance, she turned to jasmine. It was around this time that she met odour artist Sissel Tolaas at the Kochi-Muziris Biennnale and accompanied her to Museum Tinguely, Basel. She helped Tolaas with her smell workshops for children, which were very popular. When she returned, Ghurde decided to put her perfume on hold and conduct the same event in Goa. Two weeks ago she had her first workshop for eight to 12 year olds at Sunaparanta Goa Centre of Arts. ‘‘I made a few tweaks to reflect our Indian sensibilities. The children’s workshop is as crazy and weird as a magic show and they were thrilled. We use a diluted strength of smell for kids. And while the adults’ programme is more scientific, informative and intense, the idea with children is to make them subconsciously aware of what they are smelling,’’ she says, adding, ‘‘I’m not going to conduct them too often but I have received enquiries and I may bring the workshops to Chennai or Bangalore soon.’’ The two-hour event includes a brief talk, a guide to smell in three stages, followed by a short film on the sense of smell. ‘‘I want them to think in a special direction. The children should be eight years to be able to write everyday words and 12 years is the upper limit because after that, perceptions begin to set in.’’
The lab code
That said, Ghurde observes that the Indian scent memory is spiritual, with the temples, mosques and shrines on most streets. ‘‘Different cities have signature smells and for Madras it is mallipoo, sambar, the distinct smell of the street leading to the Kapaleeshwarar temple. It smells ancient and smoky with incense, jasmine, green scents and camphor,’’ says Ghurde. Currently enjoying the monsoon in Goa, with long walks, kalari and yoga sessions, Ghurde is busy making plans to travel on research. ‘‘With about 1,700 perfumes launched every year worldwide, mine can wait,’’ she says. Her photography has also been put on hold. As a perfumer, she has to abstain from coffee, red wine, and spicy food. ‘‘I keep on practising and recalling smells,’’ says the woman whose favourite poem, no surprises here, is Rabindranath Tagore’s The First Jasmines. Her nocturnal life as a photographer has also undergone changes. ‘‘As a perfumer, I spend more time on my own, meditating, waking up and going to bed early. I like being around people but when you are driven by a passion, the change is inevitable,” she says.
According to Sissel
Ghurde calls odour artist Sissel Tolaas a phenomenon. Having followed her work, she met Tolaas at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014, where the Norwegian created the installation Fear, featuring the molecular profile of sweat. ‘‘I was very sure about making a commercial perfume but after my interaction with her, I put all thoughts of a perfume brand on the back-burner,’’ says Ghurde, adding that the artist’s radical work around the sense of smell appealed to her. Tolaas was a linguist before becoming obsessed with smell. ‘‘We spent time together, exploring the different aspects of smell. Later, when I visited her lab in Berlin, she gently reminded me, ‘It’s a different experience when you use smell as a medium, to convey an idea and to create a new language.’’’ At the three-day Basel Symposium on the Sense of Smell with her, she met archeologists, scientists and other visitors. Having named her brand MO Lab where – ‘‘Mo stands for Mother Earth, oxygen, and the first smell you experience as a baby’’ – she says MO is also a reflection of OM. ‘‘With research, my awareness grew and I conducted the children’s workshop with Sissel in Basel. It is her format. And when I returned to India, she allowed me to use it to express myself, ’’she acknowledges.
The jasmine trail
Ghurde visited Madurai, the capital of jasmine, in 2012, right after Uma Kannan (pictured left) of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, launched her book, Madurai Malligai. ‘‘I knew no one there, but wanted to collect some jasmine sambac absolute. Uma was generous with her information and time. From the jasmine fields to the goddess worship in the famed Meenakshi Temple, it was interesting to explore the connection between the flower and femininity. Jasmine is a versatile bloom, possibly the first to be planted by man for fragrance. It is one of the most difficult scents to recreate as a synthetic molecule and the quality of freshness dies when made into an oil.’’ She reveals that she has been contacted by big names in the industry to consult on new jasmine-powered fragrances. ‘‘All my childhood memories are intertwined with the bloom. My grandmother had a garden of French jasmine. And every time I catch the smell, I visualise her sitting on a swing, gracefully making a garland and singing to me. I have also researched jasmine in its other home, Grasse, in France. French jasmine is beautiful and delicate while Indian mallipoo is tribal and heady. But be it Chanel No 5 or Dior’s J’adore or hundreds of luxe scents, it is the 36-hour fragrance from the flower with hardy petals that calls the shots.’’
‘‘I am never loyal to any one perfume. Two of my first big fragrance memories are of Opium and Poison, the former being heavy, sweet and oriental. From, then on, it is a blur as perfume was not encouraged among children in our family. I began wearing perfume when I started working. Cartier, Anais Anais, Dior’s Fahrenheit were my go-to scents. I also loved Old Spice, categorised as a men’s fragrance but so refreshing. My father used it and now I keep a bottle of it for myself; one whiff and I feel he is around. I add a little twist like rose or musk to change the composition and people ask me what I am wearing. So it’s not what fragrance you have but how you use it. I have essentially stopped buying perfume since I have begun making my own, but right now I am wearing master perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour’s (pictured left) special perfume for 2016, which is a big rose cloud and so beautiful. It is in a non-glamorous bottle with a hand-written number.’’