Fragrances broadly categorized as “Oriental” contain notes we associate with sensuality and headiness such as ambers, spices, woods, and balsams. Many of these ingredients are part of a cultural imaginary whose origins date back to the ancient caravans of the Silk Road, where Europeans would obtain exotic goods and bring back stories of other, stranger worlds. The enormous popularity of Oriental-style perfumes attest to the enduring fascination we continue to have with the story of the mythical East that offers an escapist narrative of distant lands where time stands still, where the people live in pre-Edenic bliss. (Cue paintings by Paul Gaugin and Jean-Léon Gérôme.)
A few months ago, the lawyer and art promoter turned perfume creator Neela Vermeire sent me samples of three scents from her new line, each inspired by her native country of India. I had already heard much fanfare about the line through the lively chatter of the perfume blogosphere, and the fact that each perfume was made by Bertrand Duchaufour, one of the most esteemed noses in the business, already predisposed me to liking what I was about to smell. What intrigued me most though was the ambitious undertaking of making perfumes about one of the most diverse and rich cultures in all of human civilization. India is the home of approximately 1700 languages, is the birthplace of major world religions, and is the second most populous country on the globe. How does one bottle the scent of India without reducing it to a clichéd and formulaic Orientalist fantasy?
Neela Vermeire has figured out how to do it extremely well with the first three scents of her line, Mohur, Trayee, and Bombay Bling!. Two attributes of her success: a) evocative and very personal narratives about the culture and people of India, and b) an uncompromisingly specific use of high quality aromatic materials to compose the fragrance. I enjoy thinking about perfumes as bottled information, of smelling as a form of reading clues in a detective story. Neela Vermeire’s fragrances are masterfully “written,” containing sensations that evoke realistic narratives while still providing a bit of space for fantasy and whimsy that makes for a complete and satisfying experience of beauty.
The story behind Mohur is most compelling. It is inspired by the life of Mehrunissa (1577-1645), who was given the name Noor Jahan by her husband, the Emperor Jahangir, one of the most important rulers of the famed Moghul Empire. Spanning from 1526 to 1739, the Moghul era is known for its great contributions to all forms of Indian culture, from art and literature to architecture. Noor Jahan was a well-educated for a woman of her time who exerted considerable influence over her husband’s realm. She was so powerful, in fact, that she minted coins in her own name, the Mohur. While Noor Jahan was not masterminding the political affairs of her empire, she was known to also be creative and artistic. Her tastes influenced fashions at court, including the use and creation of perfumes, an art she learned from her mother. Built into the story of the empire that gave birth to such artistic treasures as the Taj Mahal is also its decline, for it was during Noor Jahan’s reign that the British East India Company took hold over its first dominions in India, sowing the seed that would grow into hundreds of years of British economic and political domination.
Vermeire takes this story of the opulence of the Moghul Empire, celebrates its most stylish and powerful woman, and intersects it with the introduction of British colonial culture in Mohur. Writing about the experience of smelling it is a self-defeating act—the linear progression of words on a page cannot begin to hint at the complex emergence of notes as the perfume evaporates from skin. As a tribute to Noor Jahan’s innovative experiments using attar of rose in her own perfumes, Vermeire created a rose-heavy flowerbomb tempered by cool cardamom and the freshness of coriander. Leather is there to evoke a “bouquet that can only be imagined during high tea at a polo match” (according to Vermeire’s website), and it works alongside the lilting oud note to hold this composition together.
What I appreciate so much in Mohur is its ability to evoke truth in experience, while skewing it enough to give our imaginations some space to expand its meaning. Mohur is well-crafted, highly imaginative poetry, and the other two fragrances in the series are no different. Trayee is a sober invocation of Indian spirituality viewed through the lens of the Vedic era, another grand moment that changed the story of the world. It begins very bright and invigorating with berries, basil, jasmine, and clove, placed there to stimulate the mind. Then the rich incense takes over—heady sandalwood, ganja accord, elemi oil, and myrrh evoke the richly fragranced ambience of a temple, a place of stillness. According to Vermeire, Trayee contains a high percentage of natural materials used in Vedic ritual, and this is very clear with the way that the perfume blooms on the skin like a flower in nature.
If Mohur is a solemn tribute to one of the most powerful women in Indian history, and if Trayee is an homage to the spiritual doors opened by Vedic religion and philosophy, Bombay Bling! is a stiletto-heeled, Kelly-bag toting, Gucci-clad member of India’s new fast-living middle class, living high on the economic boom of contemporary times. It’s a buzzing, spiced bouquet of sweet tropical fruits like mangoes and lychees accompanied by syrupy berries. Roses, tuberose and jasmine reign in the tendency for this to go over-the-top gourmand; they elevate the fragrance to a very high level of sophistication. The dark base notes of patchouli, sandalwood, and vanilla temper the fun-loving, vivacious top notes into a smooth, sensual blend that lasts for many hours on the skin.
 Ellison Banks Findlay, Nur Jahan: Empress of Mugal India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) p. 114-115