The Fragrances That Changed the Field

Of course, the reason it was so expensive only made me want it more. Oudh is an oleoresin, born out of a fungal attack upon the heartwood of a perfectly ordinary slim-limbed tree, native to South and Southeast Asia, known as Aquilaria malaccensis. Undiseased, the tree is a mere evergreen. But once the fungus has struck, gradually transforming the weight of the tree so that it can no longer float in water — “the Chinese name for the material is ch’en hsiang, ‘sinking fragrance,’ the Japanese jinko,” wrote Edwin T. Morris in 1984’s “Fragrance: The Story of Perfume From Cleopatra to Chanel” — the precious ooze, elixir of sickness and decay, appears, turning the woody innards of the tree to liquid gold. The fungus only strikes certain trees, and one must wait up to half a century for the highest quality yield. That is why oudh is so expensive, and why many years would go by before, thanks to the generosity of a family friend, I would acquire a few meager ounces of the precious resin — some oudh of one’s own.

To grow up in India in the wake of colonization, as a child of the 1980s, was to learn to balance multiple societies in one’s mind, without ever quite achieving resolution or overlap. “When you have a double culture,” Francis Kurkdjian, 52, a French perfumer with Armenian roots and the creator behind such evocative scents as Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male (1995), said to me recently, “you are more open, because as a child you experience something on the side, which allows you to have another window on the world.”

In terms of fragrance, what this meant for me was that I occupied two worlds that remained separate, unassimilable. There was traditional India, the world of the attarwallah, with all its smells: of the moist matting screens of vetiver in old houses in the summer; of cool sandalwood paste, or chandan, in the temple, smeared on one’s forehead after a ritual; or of the smoking brass vessel of frankincense, or luban, carried through the house in the evenings to purify the air. What I could not have known, as an “oriental” boy growing up among oriental smells, was that, from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, a movement was underway in Western perfumery, in which the scents of my childhood, known in fragrance as the “orientals” — ambers and aromatic woods, vetiver, patchouli, musk and sandalwood — were being repurposed. Their rise, culminating eventually in the popularization of oudh in our century, spoke of profound societal changes in the West, such as women’s liberation, sexual freedom and the global dominance of the United States.

Of these new strong scents that represented the arrival of the independent woman, not unlike my own mother — who was among the first female journalists in India to cover conflicts — none perhaps was as distinctive as one belonging to a particular bottle that sat on her dressing table. It had a strange burnt orange casing, shaped (I now know) like an inro, one of the small Japanese boxes, with tiny compartments containing medicinal herbs, seals, spices and opium, that the samurai wore on their belts. On the curvilinear face of the bottle, like that of a hip flask, was a glass oculus through which a rich, amber-colored liquid was visible. Dull gold letters on the front read “Opium Parfum Yves Saint Laurent.” I remember its heavy, intoxicating odor, all spice, patchouli and balsam. In its baroque suggestion of luxury, it was of a piece with the gold-bordered silk brocade saris my mother wore out on winter evenings in Delhi.

In 1978, the year after Opium was first released, a Palestinian-American academic named Edward Said published his seminal work, “Orientalism,” which posited the idea of a newly rapacious West, arising out of colonialism, taking ownership of Eastern culture and history as a means to have authority over it, to speak for it and, as a consequence, to better control it. “Indeed, my real argument,” Said wrote, “is that Orientalism is — and does not simply represent — a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world.” Said’s study concerned itself mostly with art, literature and history, but what was true of other aspects of culture was true of perfume, too: The rise of the orientals in the late 1970s, of which Opium was emblematic, marked one of many moments when the West was speaking through the East of things that had more to do with the West than with the East. There is something fascinating to me (though rarely benign) in the idea of another, more powerful culture, expressing itself through yours — cultivating, as Said writes, “one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.” In this way, the rise of the so-called orientals is not merely a story of a particular vogue within perfumery; it is the story of seduction, power, history and legacy. Above all, it is inextricably tied to the birth of modernity in Europe.

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