For centuries, Kannauj has been India's perfume capital. The Mughals patronised the industry, and generations of locals made a living out of it. To this day, the town's romance with the world of fragrances and flavours endures. A look at the various factories, replete with their old-world paraphernalia, serves as ample proof of this unique 'scenti-mentalism'. However, times have changed. And all is not well anymore.
The industry that has thrived for long may be in danger of losing some of its fragrance if no steps are taken to give it a fresh lease of life. That is what those plying the trade here feel, and quite strongly at that.
A journey through the town, 126 km west of Lucknow, shows their apprehensions are not entirely misplaced. Many of the 125 perfume factories here are now not as busy as they used to be a couple of years ago.
“The industry is slowly declining. Exports are down. So is the demand within the country, especially for attars (natural fragrances extracted from flowers) thanks to chemical perfumes. This has happened even though our attars are natural, organic and healthy. They are mood enhancers and therapeutic as well,” says Abdul Malik Rauf, owner of the KS Shaikh Abdul Rauf perfume factory that was established in 1818.
The note of concern is not without reason.
“When it comes to food too, our flavours had a monopoly a couple of years ago. But slowly artificial flavours-that are health hazards too - have become popular. There has not been any patronisation, protection or sops for the industry at all by the union or the state government. We are surviving on our own, and this is becoming difficult gradually," he explains.
"We had some good times too when the paan masala industry all over used our fragrances and flavours. But with government going tough on the paan masala industry, for last couple of years, our sales dipped. Plus, they have started preferring chemicals. Chemical fragrances and flavours should not be allowed in paan masala. Because of this our sales have gone down by 70%," says Rauf. "There should be excise and other sops to save the industry which is unique and organic. Sandal oil that we utilised as a base used to cost us Rs 8,000 per kg in the 1990s. Now we buy it for R86,000 with excise involved," he laments.
The scenario is affecting the farmers as well. Kannauj and Kanpur farmers who cultivate flowers for perfumeries have begun switching to other crops. "Cultivating flowers used to be very profitable. The factory owners gave us cash on delivery unlike other crops. But now the demand has gone down. As a result, we do not get the kind of money we used to get. We used to sell the 'bela' flower for Rs 52 per kg a couple of years ago, now we get R18 per kg. So what's the point?" says Kulbhushan Shakya, a farmer with a piece of land in Araul between Kannauj and Kanpur.
Power crisis affects the various allied requirements of the industry. They include carton making, vials, bottles, canisters and drums (for bulk transportation of perfumes). The capacities of vials to drums range between 100 gram and 10 kilogram.
"Thank God, perfume distillation does not involve electricity or else the industry here would have been extinct. We get so little of power that other allied activities related to perfume making suffer," says Hari Prasad Yadav who manufactures vials for perfumes.
French connection and Mughal patronage
While the future may not look rosy, there is no doubt that the industry has had a glorious past.
Kannauj's rise to fame as India's perfume capital began a century before Grasse emerged as France's leading fragrance centre in the 17th century. Though the French city has now lost its traditional system of 'enfleurage' for perfume extraction from flowers to modern methods, Kannauj retains its ancient technique.
Not many know that Noorjehan, the Mughal queen, discovered and developed the process for the preparation of attar from roses. In a manner of speaking, this laid the foundation for distillation of all kinds of attars from flowers or herbs. Before that, sandal, musk, camphor or saffron were used as aroma or perfume with isolation and extraction of the scents in them.
Mughal patronage made the perfume industry in Kannauj flourish. It is also renowned for making natural fragrances like rose and kewra for adding flavours to food. "We (people from Kannauj) go to Odisha to make kewra perfumes, because the flower cannot be transported to Kannauj for processing. Only fresh flowers and herbs are used to distill fragrance out of them. We travel with our paraphernalia all the way (to Odisha) because our expertise, experience and equipment are not available anywhere else," says Abdul Malik Rauf.
Old world charm
KM Munshi, a poet and former governor of Uttar Pradesh once wrote: "Visit Kannauj. It is art, it is culture and it is heritage".
Indeed, it looks so when one takes a peep into the places where wood smoke emanates from under 'degs' (stills) and 'bhapka' (receiver) floating in water tanks wafting steam all around. Flowers or herbs are packed and sealed in degs. The sealing is so watertight that steam cannot escape through the lid when firewood heats it underneath. The steam travels into the bhapka, a little away from the deg. The deg and the bhapka are connected by a 'chonga', a hollow bamboo pipe intricately twined with coir thread for insulation. The bhapka has base oil (generally sandal oil) to receive essential oils from flowers-herbs that rise up with steam from the deg to the bhapka. Bhapka are put afloat in water tanks to condense the essential oil laden steam. Essential oil, when mixed in a base oil, is attar. Even the degs-that have capacities to hold floral/herbal materials ranging between 10 kilo and 160 kilo-made of copper are cast in Kannauj. So are the bhapkas and everything else.
"One can easily say that almost everyone in the town area is associated with the perfume industry in some manner. As many as 1.5 lakh people (including several flower and herb farmers in villages away from the town) are directly related to the perfume industry," says RM Sisodia, a schoolteacher who also manufactures cartons for packing perfume containers. The town has a population of nearly three lakh while the rural population is nearly 14 lakh.
The town situated on undulating land certainly has an old world charm about it. But it is shabby as well. It seems to be caught in a time warp-in both the good and the bad sense.
The old buildings, lanes, bylanes and perfume factories look charming, but the lack of amenities in the town pinches people.
Literate but not well educated
Kannauj's literacy rate is 74% but education is poor. "We have schools, but no good colleges. So you will find people literate, but not well educated. Those who desire slightly better higher education go to Kanpur," says Sisodia.
'Polls don't change much'
Though yet another election has come, the people do not harbour much hope that it will bring change to the town. "From one election to another. Nothing much changes-a road here, a school there," says Hashim Zaidi, 60, who claims he votes religiously. Why does he exercise his franchise if he is so disenchanted with the process?
Pat comes reply: "At least, I do my duty."