Making Scents of Empire

An artist turns the gardens of Mughal paintings into fragrances that tell a story

By Naib Mian

Photos By Dylan Hausthor

Photograph of purple flowers
Four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa). Though originating in the American tropics, this night-flowering plant had become common enough in South Asia by the 17th century to appear frequently in paintings and even textile designs.

Tucked away within the vast storage of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a 17th century folio of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his son, depicted in dazzling watercolor and gold, admiring emeralds and rubies. It’s a gorgeous representative of the rich tradition of imperial Mughal manuscripts and miniatures, and when Bharti Lalwani came across the image on the Met’s website, she was immediately drawn in. “I’m salivating looking at this,” she recalled. But it wasn’t really the painting that caught her eye. It was its border: a sumptuous menagerie of birds, florals, and fruiting trees. 

“This uncontrolled, wild, dynamic movement is happening outside of the border, like beyond the emperor’s control, beyond his purview,” she told me. “I thought, oh, there’s a saffron crocus right here, so the taste of saffron is in my mouth, and there’s a peach tree right here, so, oh, stone fruit.”

A photograph of a dewy pink rose
Four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa). Though originating in the American tropics, this night-flowering plant had become common enough in South Asia by the 17th century to appear frequently in paintings and even textile designs.

An art critic and self-taught perfumer, Lalwani immediately wanted to turn her own experience of looking at the painting into a perfume. The result was “Bagh-e Hind,” originally a single scent drawing on an imagined South Asian pleasure garden, which grew into a larger project: a study of Mughal and Rajput garden paintings as a sensorium of scent, edible perfumes; Hindustani classical music; and poetry — all drawing on the elements, themes, time periods, seasons, and time of day depicted in the works. The exhibition ran at the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles last summer, and lives online at

Lalwani’s scents are an extension of her work as a critic. “The perfume is not a commodity,” she told me. “The perfume is a lens through which to access knowledge.” Just as her fragrances include the complex, at times putrid, indolic underside of flowers and gardens, Lalwani invites her audience to scratch the surface of these exquisite paintings to expose darker questions about access, extraction, and exploitation in the art and perfumery worlds.

Lalwani grew up in Nigeria and spent several years in Singapore as an art critic before moving to India, where she’s now based. Her first genuine experience of nature, she says, came during a stay at an artist’s house in Vienna with a rooftop garden filled with walnut, plum, pear, apple, and chestnut trees. “I’d wake up to a thud and panic, and then realize, ‘Oh, that’s a pear,’” she said. It was a far cry from the tightly controlled environment of Singapore or the petrol, pollution, and sweat that defined Lalwani’s olfactory associations from her childhood in Lagos. 

“Water shortages, military coups, electricity, shortages, like that kind of concrete urban insecure childhood and adulthood,” she recalled. “I started thinking more about myself: how I could enhance my own life, how I could access pleasure given my lack of resources.” 

After coming across a masala chai perfume that piqued her interest until she smelled and hated it, she realized perfumes weren’t being made for a South Asian context or palate. She began experimenting, starting at her local attarwala shop, picking up cheap copies of brand name perfumes or various scent elements. She set out to craft something familiar but surprising: a green chutney perfume. She found a limey knock-off cologne and added coriander leaf extract, ginger oil, and black pepper extract to elicit chili — the key ingredients of a green chutney. She used those same ingredients to create an edible perfume as well, which could be sprayed over food. A mango murbo perfume followed, with extracts of saffron, cinnamon, and nutmeg — the spices that lace the recipe for Sindhi mango jam — mixed into a local copy of an Escada perfume with strong notes of mango. She realized this was something she could do.  

By the time she crafted the perfume based on the Shah Jahan folio, Lalwani not only wanted to make scents that spoke to South Asians, but that also engaged their art and history in a meaningful way. “All of these other perfumers are doing the same thing,” she said. “They stamp the Taj Mahal onto their perfume bottle. They stamp a painting onto their lifestyle brand and say, ‘Here’s the incense, here’s the furniture, here’s the shawl, and here’s the outfit you can buy.’”

A close-up of a dewy white flower
Sacred datura (Datura wrightii). In South Asia, this hallucinogenic plant has traditionally been associated with the Hindu god Shiva, and often appears in paintings of shrines dedicated to him. The scientific genus name Datura is an adaptation of the Sanskrit name for the plant, dhattüra.

Bagh-e Hind is a collaboration with Nicolas Roth, a scholar of early modern South Asian horticultural practices, who grows historically precise varieties of the flora he studies in his own garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In an interview with him for her blog, Lallani asked Roth what painting he’d choose to translate into a perfume. The painting he selected, which later became a part of the Bagh-e Hind exhibit, depicts two elegantly dressed men sitting face to face on a marble terrace, each holding up delicate stems of narcissus to smell. “It’s such a quiet painting. There’s no garden in view. It’s just about these men, their gaze across each other, enjoying the smell of the flower,” Lalwani reflected. “And then Nicolas went into detail about the significance of the smell of that flower which completely blew my mind.” The flower is symbolic of gazes and glances. A controversial scent in Western perfumery, narcissus in the South Asian context was understood as an exhilarant, both antidepressant and intoxicant, opening up the senses, and imbued with a flirtatious eroticism. 

The colonial legacy of the art world has its parallel in perfumery.

Roth chose five paintings, and Lalwani crafted perfumes from each. Her scents embody the whole world of the paintings, departing from the fresh, sanitized florals of European perfumes. In one painting from the show, a royal entourage arrives at a rose garden. In celebration of a festival of flowers, the king and his guests sit and smell rose garlands and platters of poppies and larkspur while being entertained by performers. In addition to the florals, in her accompanying perfume Lalwani layered in earthy notes of fertilizer and hay from the depictions of horses and elephants. A blue-skinned sadhu (a Hindu ascetic) in the painting, and the heat of summer, when roses are in full bloom, made her think about body odor, and so she incorporated an element of musk. 

All of the paintings and decorative objects Lalwani and Roth used in Bagh-e Hind are, like many masterworks of South Asian art, housed in museums or private collections in the West. When Lalwani began work on the project, she was disturbed by the large-scale extraction of these paintings from their geographies of origin. Only later did she realize that even in the West, they are equally inaccessible. Many works are not on view: at times for conservation but in some cases left uncatalogued in boxes that haven’t been opened for more than a century. In researching paintings to include in their work, Lalwani and Roth were limited to whatever cataloging and digitization the museums had undertaken. 

For Lalwani, bringing these pieces to a wider audience is an attempt at reparations. She recalled visiting the Louvre Abu Dhabi and noting the Filipino waitstaff at the restaurant and Sri Lankan security guards and bathroom attendants. Meanwhile, European curators did little to differentiate between the diverse array of Asian art lavishly on display. “Our culture is prized and displayed in these spaces, but our bodies are not welcome. Our minds are not welcome. Our questions are not welcome,” she said. “If we are given the chance to see these objects, the power to engage with them, if we are given the agency to interact with our history, what would we come up with? That’s what this project is.”

Without funds or institutional backing, Lalwani had to be creative. “There’s something in my DNA that draws me to this stuff. If these objects are going to remain behind vaults, is there an imaginative, artistic way to bring out their experiences?” she thought. “Can I eat them? Listen to them? Taste them? Can I offer interesting, playful, subversive experiences to my fellow Brown people?”

A nighttime photo of a cluster of small flowers
Musk rose (Rosa moschata). This rose begins blooming much later in the year than most other roses and has a distinctive, musky-sweet fragrance. Thought to be native to the western Himalayas, it appears frequently in Mughal-era descriptions of gardens, though not commonly in paintings.

The colonial legacy of the art world has its parallel in perfumery. “We cannot talk about perfume without talking about the ingredients and where they actually come from, how they are harvested,” Lalwani said. “Perfume is very much political.” The extraction of ingredients has made room for smuggling, violence, and exploitative labor practices.  

In Madagascar, where global demand sent the price of vanilla soaring, thieves often kill farmers for their valuable crop. Local militias have sprung up in response, catching thieves and in some cases beating them to death. But these life-or-death stakes, and the speed with which fresh vanilla spoils, often lead to vanilla pods being picked early and small, and the middlemen who peddle the crop to exporters get away with paying farmers low prices. The global market has begotten violence in Madagascar, generating vast profits for a few while maintaining cycles of poverty.

In India, global trade of sandalwood, which is harvested from the core of 30-to-50-year-old trees, has, over the last few hundred years, led to overharvesting and the decimation of forests. Despite efforts to regulate production and reforestation projects, smuggling enterprises commonly cut down young trees to get whatever they can out of them. 

“I feel like we are in this ever-expanding loop of violence,” Lalwani said. “You have very precious, rare objects that have been extracted out of these post-colonized geographies. And everything that’s extracted goes to fragrance companies overseas and is repackaged and sold back to us.” 

In many cases, these markets operate only in a business-to-business capacity in places like India, and key ingredients are only available to independent buyers in the West. For the show in Los Angeles last summer, she worked with an L.A. perfumer because it was easier for someone in the U.S. to get ingredients sourced from India than it was for Lalwani to do so herself. 

Lalwani once visited a scent distillery in Kannauj, the perfume capital of India. “The visuals were brilliant and magical: smoke and fires and roses. It’s all very romantic, but it’s troubling,” she said. She met laborers toiling in front of open furnaces with no controls on the heat. “I couldn’t stand there for, like, a second because the nose, the eyes, everything hurt. You can’t breathe, you’re choking,” she said. But “these laborers stay in there for an hour or more without break, without any safety gear.” Some workers she met had been at it for 30 years, and the jobs had passed from generation to generation, becoming something like a caste. Now, as younger generations resist such punishing conditions, the distilleries are bringing in labor from surrounding countries like Bangladesh. 

“I’m not interested in supporting this,” Lalwani said, “so I don’t buy from them.” Many independent perfumers striving for an ethical position find themselves caught between natural and synthetic ingredients. Synthetics, often cheaper and more potent than their natural counterparts, also lessen the burden on natural resources and workers but may introduce harmful chemicals (advocates on either side of the debate argue whether the quantities in perfume are enough for that to be a concern). But in turning to synthetics, perfumers end up complicit with the profit interests of the biggest companies in the industry. 

An image of a carnation with a pink glow
“African” marigold (Tagetes erecta). Though originating in the American tropics, this night-flowering plant had become common enough in South Asia by the seventeenth century to frequently appear in paintings and even textile designs.

If they intend to sell internationally, perfumers must comply with the International Fragrance Association, a consortium of the largest multinational fragrance companies and other groups, which effectively establishes regulations, especially in the European Union. Lalwani likened it to a cartel. “The minute one of them develops a good synthetic, [IFRA] will come out with a rule saying this natural ingredient is banned, [saying] it’s a skin irritant or toxic,” Lalwani said. “You’re left with no choice but to buy chemical materials from them.”

“It’s a completely opaque industry for a reason,” Lalwani said. Like other purveyors of luxury goods, perfume brands want to keep their product untarnished by the truth of exploitative labor practices and environmental degradation. Additionally, to protect profits, research into new synthetics and perfume formulas is kept secret. In their exhibition, Lalwani and Roth attempted to counter that secrecy, making the development of their perfumes transparent. Thousands of miles apart, the two discussed the paintings, perfume chemistry, scent elements, what ingredients to use, how to combine them, and in what quantities. They published the notes from their correspondences for each section in full. 

In many regards, Bagh-e Hind was an opening of doors, a deliberate effort to provide access — to the artwork and to the world of perfumery — that had been locked away. But at its heart, it offered audiences what Lalwani had determined to offer herself: access to pleasure. 

“What I’ve enjoyed most in introducing people to this project is watching their eyes light up,” she said. “Look at the life we live now, politically: Our rights are being robbed day after day, the air we smell is so bad, water is contaminated. The real evil is how we’ve been robbed of our imagination.”

The paintings are a window into a bygone era, but the milieu of synesthesia developed around the art is Lalwani’s invitation to imagine what a lush, abundant world — a contemporary pleasure garden — could look like. 

Naib Mian is an editor and producer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a senior editor at the South Asian Avant Garde Anthology. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, The Nation, and Catapult.

Captions by Nicolas Roth