New Delhi: Legend has it that Mughal emperor Akbar had 100 bottles of `itr`. Jasmine, rose, kewda or mogra...the many splendoured potion of the past, once edged out by international perfume brands, is unleashing its heady scents in India once again.
Tagged as the purest non-alcoholic natural fragrance, itr is made with flowers and takes five to seven years to reach maturity. Packed into tiny colourful glass bottles, itr like wine gets better with time, says its growing tribe of aficionados.
"I used to wear high-end perfumes till I visited a friend`s place. The moment I entered her room, the air was redolent with exotic traditional natural perfume, which she had bought from Lucknow. I was so fascinated by the smell that I started using itr, especially the herbal fragrance," Bangalore-based model Dipannita Sharma told reporters.
Deep Gupta, whose family has been in the business of making itr for the last 30 years, participated in The Itra & Sugandhi Mela organised by Delhi Tourism at Dilli Haat in the capital. He says the first-of-its-kind fair attracted buyers from both India and abroad.
Aaruti Kongo from West Bengal said the fair provided an ideal platform to take the business forward.
"Business-wise those three days were excellent. We sold itr worth Rs.4,000 per day and the profit was of 40 to 50 percent. People were curious to know about the making process and after-effects and we were there to guide them. There were about 40 stalls with opportunities for both trade and retail business," she said.
The most sought-after itrs were the Avadhi Scent Of Romance, the Fragrance of Lucknawi Petals and Part of the Mughlai Perfume. One has to shell out Rs.450 for 10 grams packed in exotic bottles.
"We say wines taste good when they get older, the same holds true for itr. As they grow older, they go thicker, darker and develop more pleasant aroma. These natural fragrances present the original qualities of the plant. They have no side effects," said Gupta.
Until the 1960s, its making was restricted to a few family-run perfumeries. But with the government promoting it, many distilleries took the plunge.
"It is said that during ancient times, a princess` toiletry would be incomplete without itr. It was also a customary practice among the royals to offer itr to their guests while saying goodbye. Mirza Ghalib and Mughal emperor Akbar used to have 100 bottles of itr," the 85-year-old Naquib Husain from Lucknow told reporters.
Queen Noor Jehan too was known to use it.
The itr-making process requires deep concentration and hard work and if not followed properly, it can have harmful effects.
There are different methods for making varieties like the Avadhi Scent Of Romance, Mushke Amber, gulab and kevda, jasmine, khuskhus, and mogra.
"For a simple itr, we put 50 percent charcoal and 30 percent babul powder with jigat(wood bark glue), which helps in sticking things. We mix all three and keep it in a steel utensil. Then we heat it up on slow fire so that the mixing becomes easy," said Prem Saxena, a shopkeeper.
The containers are equally important, he added. "Half of the beauty of the itr depends on its container known as the itradaans. They are preserved in air tight bottles."
In the capital it`s available in Chandni Chowk, Dilli Haat and Palika Market. Villages near Aligarh and Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh also sell them.
Khayan Tiwari from Bihar says itr is good for sensitive skin. "One drop on cottonwool can last a couple of months if kept in a purse or bag and itras are very good for sensitive skin. One can also apply them to idols or deities," he said.
Tiwari agrees that the influx of international perfume brands affected the itr market.
"That`s true, but no brand can match the essence of itr. There are many brands that ask us to make fragrances for them. And sometimes these itrs go by different brand names," said Tiwari.
But some say working with brands is not a profitable venture.
"The money we get after making these bottles is very little, so we participate in events where the government supports us. These big brands give us Rs.60 to Rs.70 on daily wages and keep the profit with themselves," he said.