Umaid Bhavan Palace, Jodhpur still has plenty of surprises in its cultural waistcoat pocket. Anyone who has ever lived here carries the palace, now partially converted into a hotel managed by the Taj, away in their head. While the architecture, the peacocks, the throne room and the Ramayana murals may glitter in your reverie;
what draws me back is the constant innovation. The latest being the warm response of Maharaja Gaj Singh II (who lives with his family in the palace wing adjoining the hotel) to the offer from Penhaligons, London to create a personal scent that would reflect his fondness for the Blue City, and be named for his newly born grand-daughter Vaara.
But how does one translate a city into a fragrance? Penhaligons - with their two royal warrants and a history of creating fragrances for the royal family, had just the right “nose” for the job. Enter Bertrand Douchafour. Douchafour, like many of his celebrated peers, trained at the Lautier Florasynth group at Grasse, the hot-bed of fragrance and flowers since the 18th century. Chances are you’ve run into Douchafour’s creations at Amouage, Comme des Garcons, Givenchy and Christian Dior. In 2012, he created a scent for Gulnara Karimova, the flamboyant daughter of
the Uzbek president Islam Karimov.
Creating for royalty and travelling around the globe to source ingredients is par for this olfactory magician's course. “I’ve stayed faithful to Jodhpur in the ingredients. It is easy to draw inspiration from Jodhpur—the flowers, the spices, the sandalwood, the vetiver. The Maharaja was an active participant, suggesting ingredients we should smell—for instance, flowers that reminded him of his childhood. We asked locals what aromas encapsulated the spirit of this land. Several felt it was the smell of mud or clay soon after the monsoon. Based on these experiences of the land and dialogue with its people, I created several accords (balanced blends of notes, which lose their individual identity to create new and unified odours) and presented them to the Maharaja.
Together we fine-tuned our ideas. Because we had the raw materials at hand, it was easy to work through elements we liked and didn’t like.”
In the tradition of most haute couture artists, Duchaufour is driven to create things that haven’t gone before. He says, “The fragrance has to be well-balanced. But most of all, it must be original.
When I arrived, I toyed with the idea of using frangipani but realized it was a heavy note and had already been done, so I abandoned it in favour of champaca with its multi-faceted notes—all-at-once spicy, fruity and floral.”
I close my eyes, take a deep breath and know that if they made scented candles of the aromas in the Bal Samand gardens, I’d buy them by the armload. That’s the easy part, to be swept away by the fragrance and feel connected with an elemental force. What’s wizardry is to train and order the chaos of scents into harmony and symmetry. To be able, after months of deliberation, to know with precision, that the headnotes of Vaara are going to be quince, rosewater, carrot-seed, coriander-seed and saffron. The heart notes - moroccan rose absolute, bulgarian rose oil, freesia, Indian magnolia, peony and iris. The base notes - honey, white musk, cedarwood,
sandalwood, benzoin resin and tonka bean. All notes that translate into luxury, freedom and expansiveness, which like the Mehrangarh fort rise elegantly above Jodhpur's heat.
“Everything is alchemy, irrational, a question of harmony; and harmony is a question of feeling.
The only rules I consciously follow are that the fragrance should be powerful, long-lasting, fresh and diffusive. I’m always keen to be surprised by my own work. The role of a good artist is to sustain a playful spirit and arrive at a harmony of notes and ingredients. Consciousness cannot be scientific. Feeling brings fragrance to life,” he says, squelching my thoughts about the scientific principles of creation.
The creative soul is happiest when not working within the constraints of a system.
Douchafour observes, “It is key is to be able to work without the limit of cost or price.
To keep going until I arrive at exactly the fragrance I’m seeking to create, without being limited to using only such and such quantity of rose or champaca, which can be extremely expensive. With Penhaligons, the best raw materials are at my disposal, and I can work without being constrained by either marketing or olfactory brief. With them, as with me, it’s more about the telling of a story.”
In some sense, Vaara is a tale of both East and West. Although inspired by India, its distinct lightness and wearability exude universal appeal.
Note: Vaara is exclusively available in India at the Umaid Bhawan Palace Collection
Shop. It is also stocked in Penhaligon's boutiques and with stockists in the UK.