A set of incense that represents the five paintings translated to synesthesia; audiences in India can purchase the set in order to have a tangible scent-reference to the exhibition Bagh-e Hind.

PUNE, India — I have been reflecting on the odd trajectory that brought me to the charmed landscape of Bagh-e Hind Scent Translations of Mughal and Rajput Garden Paintings — virtual exhibition that came to be in 2018 after three years of searching for the right historian to work with, and gathering resources for this self-funded project. Trained as an artist at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, my career began as a carpet designer for one of the largest companies in West Africa between 2002 and 2008. In 2008, I trained to be an art critic at the Sotheby’s Institute in Singapore and specialized in Southeast Asian Contemporary Art. By 2018, I had established a perfumery practice that functioned as an extension of my art criticism and brought me to Bagh-e Hind.

Hand-blown glass flacon for perfumes produced for this project; each flacon is unique. This is the vial produced specially for Nicolas as part of our exchange (image courtesy Nicolas Roth).

I habitually browsed digitized South Asian art collections in the repositories of Euro-American museums. I marveled at how many of these artifacts have never been on display and how South Asians can only glimpse such wondrous objects from their own cultures in pixelated form. As I browsed the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, I chanced upon a 17th-century painting, “The Emperor Shah Jahan with his Son Dara Shikoh,” (ca. 1620) a folio from the Shah Jahan album. The image illustrates the sumptuousness of court life in intricately painted details of jewels, gilded furniture, and textiles, but it is the extravagantly painted frame around the image that caught my eye, nose, and palate!

In the margins, the wings of doves disperse tiny clouds as they zip past a tree with heaving, oversize peaches, while winged insects tend to flowers in full bloom. Peacocks strut about lush foliage and vibrantly hued flowers. I could practically smell the air just as the flavors of overripe fruit and sherbet inexplicably appeared, tantalizing my tastebuds. The resulting perfume translation, Bagh-e Hind, is a decadent bouquet of floral notes with a touch of mouthwatering scents (mango, honeysuckle, frankincense, and sandalwood). In this instance, the medium of “fragrance” functioned as a conceptual alliteration that matched the bhava and invitation of the painter to the audience: Come and drink in the imagery through your senses!

The margins that inspired Bagh-e Hind: Nanha, “The Emperor Shah Jahan with his Son Dara Shikoh” painting in the folio from the Shah Jahan Album verso: ca. 1620; recto: ca. 1530–50; (image in the public domain, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In that breathtaking moment in which a painting can almost be smelled and tasted, I thought: If access to these artifacts is always going to be virtual, then can novel methods draw out their experience? Is it possible to recontextualize historical South Asian paintings and objects through lyrical olfactory interpretations? Moreover, how has this not been attempted yet?

Bagh-e Hind wasn’t meant as a perfume commodity, but as the sensual lens through which to perceive the highly charged art history of South Asia. This bagh (garden) appeared to me as a fully formed exhibition concept that would draw out the sensuality of this period for the first time via fragrance, 18th-century poetry, gardens, and flavor interpretations that reflect the intellectual and romantic dimensions of this period. In June 2021, I invited Nicolas Roth, a United States-based scholar of early modern South Asia, to explore, define, and co-curate with me the understudied, under-evaluated, but integral fragments of South Asian history. 

Garden of Delight Edible Perfume (TM):  Flavor translation of painting 4 (Mughal period garden scene); the key notes are iris/orris, orange blossom, and cedarwood in the perfume translation, but for the Edible Perfume the trees and fruits in the garden: figs, citrus fruits, marigold flowers, jasmine and cedarwood are centered. They are best enjoyed with dark chocolate (image by the author)

Bagh-e-Hind invites audiences to take pleasure in the aesthetic constructions within five historical paintings, to inhale and taste the painterly signifiers that reveal dynamic beauty and power. In order to develop a series of olfactive bridges to gardens of the past, five types of synesthesia boxes are produced as artworks that include fragrance elements such as edible perfumes (™) and functional vintage objects. Bagh-e-Hind will expand into physical exhibitions via art and botanical installations with the intention to reimagine new dimensions of love, pleasure, and abundance.

Bharti Lalwani is an art critic and perfumer.