Will At­tar Bring Sa­ma­jwadi Party Sweet Scent of Suc­cess?

The Economic Times - - Economy & Companies - Vikram.Doc­tor@ times­group.com

Mum­bai: The Sa­ma­jwadi Party’s launch of four per­fumes to mark four years in power is an in­no­va­tive ex­am­ple of po­lit­i­cal brand­ing. Chief Min­is­ter Akhilesh Ya­dav said each scent is as­so­ci­ated with a par­tic­u­lar re­gion of Ut­tar Pradesh – the in­cense and marigolds with Varanasi’s ghats, the jas­mine with the old Nawabi Luc­know, the roses of the Taj Ma­hal in Agra and the kewra ex­tracted by the at­tar mak­ers of Kan­nauj.

Sa­ma­jwadi Su­gandh, as the lim­ited edi­tion per­fumes are called, is cer­tainly un­usual but not unique. Per­fumes have been used to make po­lit­i­cal points at least from the time of Cleopa­tra who ex­pressed her in­ten­tions to Mark Anthony by go­ing to meet him on a boat with sails “so per­fumed that/ the winds were lovesick with them…” as Shake­speare wrote.

More re­cently a per­fume called Lead­ers Num­ber One was launched in Moscow, in­spired by Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. Vladislav Rekunov, the per­fumer who cre­ated it, de­scribed it as “warm, tex­tured and rounded… del­i­cate, but at the same time very firm.” Kom­so­mol­skaya Pravda news­pa­per quoted a per­fumer de­scrib­ing it as smelling of pines and fir-cones, but also musk and, oddly, mung-beans. The 100 ml black and plat­inum bot­tle has a pro­file of Putin and sells for a whop­ping 6000 rubles ( .₹ 5,800).

Per­fumers need to sell their cre­ations, just like any other man­u­fac­turer of not strictly essen­tial con­sumer prod­ucts, so it isn’t sur­pris­ing that they seize on pop­u­lar per­son­al­i­ties and themes.

Na­ture’s Gar­den, an Amer­i­can sup­plier of fra­grances for can­dle and soap, has a line of po­lit­i­cal scents in Repub­li­can, Demo­cratic and In­de­pen­dent ver­sions. A Cana­dian per­fumer called The 7 Virtues, which vir­tu­ously touts how it sources in­gre­di­ents at fair prices from farm­ers around the world, launched a per­fume called Mid­dle East Peace — the real thing may never hap­pen, but at least we can wear the per­fume.

Yet as Alain Corbin noted in The Foul and the Fra­grant, his pi­o­neer­ing book on the role of odours in his­tory, there were times like the French Rev­o­lu­tion when per­fumes re­ally did have po­lit­i­cal mean­ing: “Un­der the Ter­ror, choices of odours re­vealed po­lit­i­cal al­le­giance; per­fume, given a new name, be­came a ral­ly­ing sign.” One re­ac­tionary fac­tion was known as the Mus­cadins, from the costly musk scent they wore. Napoleon is said to have poured a bot­tle of cologne over him­self ev­ery day, and was par­tic­u­larly stim­u­lated by the an­i­mal-like per­fumes – musk, am­ber­gris, civet – that his wife Josephine wore.

Politi­cians can use per­fumes to make po­lit­i­cal points. Mar­garet Thatcher’s sup­port of all things Bri­tish meant that she es­chewed the cre­ations of fa­mous French per­fumers like Guer­lain and Chanel, in favour of old Bri­tish firms like Pen­haligon’s and Floris (for the film The Iron Lady, the de­sign­ers got the same scent for Meryl Streep to wear, an ex­am­ple of de­tail­ing that wouldn’t be ap­par­ent on the screen, but per­haps helped Streep achieve her Os­car­win­ning de­pic­tion of Thatcher).

Thatcher’s great ally, Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, kept to his sunny, old-school mas­cu­line im­age with a clean-smelling cologne called Royal Briar. The more mod­ern Bill Clin­ton re­port­edly pre­ferred a fra­grance called Gen­darme, de­scribed on an on­line per­fume dis­cus­sion site as cit­rusy and flo­ral, though also a bit soapy. John F Kennedy is said to have used a per­fume called Amer­ica One 31, first launched in 1931, and also used by one of the Pres­i­dent’s favourite writ­ers, Ernest Hem­ing­way.

All these Pres­i­dents were

just users of per­fumes, but if Don­ald Trump be­comes Pres­i­dent, he would be the first Pres­i­dent to have not just one, but three fra­grances to sell. (In an in­ver­sion for those who still be­lieve per­fumes are more a woman’s thing, Hil­lary Clin­ton’s per­fume choices are lit­tle known). Trump’s per­fumes are called Don­ald Trump The Fra­grance (launched in 2004), Suc­cess by Trump (2012) and most re­cently Em­pire by Trump (2015). On­line re­views are mixed, but many users say they ex­pected just a cheap celebrity scent, but found it was a bit more than that.

For re­ally un­in­hib­ited and knowl­edge­able use of per­fumes though one has to go not to Europe or the US, but the Mid­dle East and specif­i­cally the Ara­bian penin­sula. Per­fumes are much used by both Arab men and women as a deeply tra­di­tional prac­tice that goes back to the cen­turies be­fore oil trans­formed the re­gion. Aro­matic resins like frank­in­cense and myrrh were among the few prod­ucts of com­mer­cial value pro­duced there then (which is why they were both of­fered to the Christ child). One name for South­ern Ara­bia (cur­rent Ye­men) is the Coast of In­cense and the cities of the penin­sula, like Mecca, were long known for their trade in in­cense and aro­matic spices. What Is­lam did was to take this Arab use of in­cense and make it a favoured so­cial part of the re­li­gion across the world, with cer­tain scents be­com­ing par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar. One of them is Oudh, a scent much used in Mecca and through­out the Gulf re­gion and which pil­grims on Hajj take back with them across the world.

This is a prac­tice that has ram­i­fi­ca­tions in In­dian pol­i­tics. Oudh is de­rived from a fam­ily of trees known as Aquilaria which is na­tive to North­east In­dia, though vari­ants are found through South­east Asia. If Aquilaria trees are dam­aged in some way they pro­duce a pro­tec­tive resin that per­me­ates the wood, and which con­tains the essen­tial oil of oudh. Col­lect­ing it means cutting the trees, but Aquilaria takes time to grow again and even then there is no guar­an­tee that it will de­velop the oudh resin. As a re­sult it is hard to grow com­mer­cially, and the trade re­lied on col­lect­ing it from the wild.

Over time this has se­verely de­pleted the stocks of oudh, but rar­ity, com­bined with Arab oil-driven pros­per­ity, have in­flated the cost of oudh. One of the big ben­e­fi­cia­ries of this has been the Aj­mal fam­ily which, com­ing from the town of Ho­jai in east­ern As­sam, had built a dom­i­nat­ing po­si­tion in the oudh wood trade. The busi­ness was cre­ated by Aj­mal Ali, who moved from As­sam to Mum­bai and then Dubai, and it is now con­trolled by his sons.

Three of the Aj­mal sons, Amirud­din, Fakhrud­din and Nazir are based in the UAE, run­ning the per­fume busi­ness there. Of the two still in In­dia, Si­ra­jud­din con­trols the char­i­ta­ble trusts that have built a con­sid­er­able pro­file for the Aj­mals in As­sam. But it is Badrud­din Aj­mal who is best known for build­ing the As­sam United Demo­cratic Front into a po­tent po­lit­i­cal force in the North­east and as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Mus­lim com­mu­nity across In­dia. Badrud­din Aj­mal is usu­ally de­scribed as a ‘per­fume baron’, but it might be more ac­cu­rate to say that he is the politi­cian that oudh has built.

And from this per­spec­tive, the launch of Sa­ma­jwadi Su­gandh makes more sense. It al­lows Akhilesh Ya­dav to pro­mote his state (and party) in an in­no­va­tive way. It sup­ports the lo­cal it­tar in­dus­try in Kan­nauj, which is the con­stituency Ya­dav rep­re­sented in the Lok Sabha and is now rep­re­sented by his wife Dim­ple Ya­dav who took it over in a no­to­ri­ously un­con­tested elec­tion. Ya­dav must be hop­ing that Sa­ma­jwadi Su­gandh rep­re­sents the sweet smell of suc­cess in more ways than one.

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