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Fading Fragance

The fragrance of Anarkali, which once attracted tourists, especially NRIs, by thousands to the aroma-streets of Kolkata, is fast fading.

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The fragrance of Anarkali, which once attracted tourists, especially NRIs, by thousands to the aroma-streets of Kolkata, is fast fading.

Hardly anybody ventures to its ittar streets. Overseas Indians, who thronged to these aroma-filled streets as recently as the 1980s, now venture here only to buy Meetha Ittar for cooking or floral-essence for aroma therapy.

There is no bhir (Bengali for crowds) in the perfume shops dotting Beadon Street, Park Steet, Sova Bazaar area, Marquis Street, Burra Bazaar, Canning Street, Ezra Street or Pollock Street. Once a regular hunting ground for rare ittars and exotically designed ittar-dans catering particularly to Indians in the diaspora, these shops, some of which date back 200 years, now wear a deserted look.

The tiny-crystal-cut-glass bottles and exotic Oriental designed tiny Ittar-dans (containers of ittars) were once popular among overseas Indians, who carried them as gifts to friends and family in the USA, Canada, England and Germany. NRIs living in the United Kingdom were partial to bottles of Anarkali, invented four centuries ago by the Mughal Empress Noor Jehan. The Nizams of Hyderabad procured their Jasmine ittar and later Mughal Emperors ordered Anarkali or Morakka-e-Gulshan wholesale from these shops.

The perfume most commonly sold today is Meetha Ittar, the sweet essence used in Indian culinary dishes of biryani, dum biryani, murg-mussallam, shahi kebab, Hyderabadi biryani, polau and home-made sweets to add an aromatic touch. A few drops of Kewra Ittar in bhoona gost (fried mutton) make the taste exotic, indeed! The traditional Indian sweet dish of gajar ka halwa sizzles if it is scented with Black Musk Ittar.

Since the aroma of traditional Indian cuisine is pervading all over the world, the demand for Meetha Ittars is rising. The edible ittars are also going to Beijing, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

More recently, many NRIs are coming to buy distilled essences for Spiritual Aroma Therapy, which works on the theory that body, mind and soul are interconnected and aroma can play a heavenly role in it. For a balance in the realms of physical, mental or emotional conditions, essence is a must.

Occasionally researchers flounder into the streets to explore Calcutta’s bygone era of Sham-e-Mehfil, in which ittars were essential intoxicating ingredients. The evening programs of dance, music and songs in the Kothas of Baijees of Calcutta around Bowbazaar Street, Lower Circular Road, Chitpur, Belgachhia, Chowringhee, Sealdah, Metiaburuz, Sovabazaar and Shyam Bazaar areas were popular from the 18th Century till the 20th century.

When Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow was exiled to Calcutta in 1856, the aroma-streets of the then Imperial Capital of the East India Company got a boost in as the ladies of his harem and the nautch girls of his dancing troops ordered ittars in bulk.

These aroma-streets were also an integral part of the night-life of Calcutta as the fragrances imprisoned in ittar-bottles would be set free in Jalsaghars (music-rooms), Bagan Baris (garden houses), Kothas where Baijees (professional dancers and singers) performed and Sham-e-Mehfils. Niki Baijee who performed in Raja Ramohun Roy’s Bagan Bari would come in a palanquin to the aroma-streets to buy ittar-dans and ittar bottles.

The very famous Baijis of Calcutta’s Bagan Bari era, from 1796 till the 1960s, such as Roshan Ara, Nasim Bai, Neelam Bai, Jaddan Bai, Gauharjan and Zeenat Begum came regularly to the aroma streets. During the British Raj, the white Memsahibs also thronged there.

Interestingly, the ancestors of most of the ancient ittar-traders in Calcutta had served in the armies of Tipu Sultan of Mysore and Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi. After their defeats many soldiers fled away to imperial Calcutta and settled in the perfume business.

But times have changed. Western perfumes have displaced ittars and many second and third generation NRIs are unfamiliar with even the word ittar. The once thriving streets that attracted officers of the East India Company, Rajas, Maharajas, Zamindars, Nawabs, Bengali Baboos and rich businessmen for 250 long years stand virtually deserted now.

Photos Abhishek Home Chowdhury

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Tagged as:

Food | Lifestyle | July 2013 | Life

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| JULY 2013 Little India | 29 | JULY 2013 n PHOTO ESSAY The bustling trade in ittars is a hollow shadow of its glorious past. Ittar daans are popular as gifts among NRIs. Ittars remain popular with some NRIs. Meetha ittars are popular in Indian cooking

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