Attar confusion

She is like a gentle breeze; just before she transforms to a hurricane. She remembers every interesting anecdote; until she forgets that one name, which even Google fails to find. She hurries to Subbammana Angadi one day, or hunts for Madhubani paintings on another day. She is – my aunt.

She was back in Bangalore with lots of love and a big shopping list, with me in tow. I am not really the shopaholic, my knowledge of jewelry is limited to the less-than-Rs.100-roadside-necklaces, and my fashion sense could be Neanderthal. But, for some reason, she trusts me (bless her), and off we went in the direction of Commercial Street, Bangalore.

A friend had gifted her a tiny bottle of Attar (perfume, also known as Ittar), that of Frangipani. In Bangalore, we are more familiar with Firangi Paani, the restaurant 😉 Of course, we do know Frangipani by its other common names of Temple Tree, 146A2617Plumeria or in Kannada, Deva Kanagale (ದೇವ ಕಣಗಲೆ). Frangi pani means breaking bread. A 16th century Italian noble family that distributed bread during famine, made a Plumeria-based perfume and hence, the name. My aunt’s perfume had a mild, pleasant fragrance and she l.o.v.e.d it. Unfortunately, her friend had gifted only one bottle, and my aunt wasn’t very happy.

“Why couldn’t she gift one more? I must search for it now, how frustrating!”

I thought, “Yup, people giving gifts should be more thoughtful and carry a couple of spares. What if the recipient likes it and wants more? ;)”

A daunting task had just landed in my lap. I had to help her find one.  Anyway, I didn’t have to think much and mailed my good friend, Mudhassir, to find about Attar shops. He gave me more than one option, and with that list, our first pit stop was at Ajmal Perfumes, Safina Plaza. It was my first ever time at an Attar store, and this was one was fancy. Three or four friendly salesmen huddled around us.

Aunt: “Do you have Frangipani?”

White Frangipani

The number of friendly salesmen immediately dropped to zero. We also drew blank looks until another brave guy stepped forward.

“Do you have Frangipani?”

“No Madam, what is that Madam? You have to go to Shivajinagar.” He didn’t even know what it is, but he was packing us off to Shivajinagar!

She tried a different pronunciation. “No, no, do you have Franjee paanee?”

“Oh yes, Madam, here try this.” He took out three different bottles and with a stylish flick of his wrist, applied some on ours. When both our wrists had been ‘perfumed’, he used some free space on the forearms. I enjoyed watching him in action: opening the glass bottle in his own standard manner, not one look at the globular lid and delicately applying it for sampling.

“But none of these smells like Frangipani :(”

“These are very good Madam, very good Franch perfumes.”

Frangipani in Cubbon Park. High Court building being painted in the backdrop

Frangipani in Cubbon Park. High Court building being painted in the backdrop

Aiyo, he had heard her different pronunciation of Franjee paani as French paani, and we were sampling total Firangi stuff (Firangi is foreign in Indian languages). Of course, Frangipani does have a foreign origin, in West Indies and Mexico. I described that it is a flower, grows even in Bangalore, and that he might have seen it in Cubbon Park. He did the famous Indian side-to-side nod, indicating “Nope, I haven’t” and it was time for us to leave.

We stopped at another place, Singapore Bazaar on Commercial Street. It was deserted, except for one store. The man inside beckoned enthusiastically. “How much do you want to exchange?” “Err, no exchange, we want to buy Attar.” “Oh, I only deal with foreign exchange.” Yeah, we figured that when we read the board on your shop. “You can try at Star Bazaar.” Whew, thanks for that. I didn’t want to roam around a deserted complex.

Red Frangipani

I went looking for Star Bazaar, but by then my aunt had timed out. She had to reach elsewhere, and gave up on the search. But I didn’t! I asked her driver to take us toward the Mosque near Shivajinagar bus stand. We stepped inside another Attar store. I asked her not to experiment with pronunciations and she popped the question again.

“We don’t sell water here, Madam”. (Pani, in Hindi/Urdu, means water).

It was time for me to step in. “Sir, it’s a flower. Let me show you a picture.” My smartphone pulled out some images. I was kicking myself that I hadn’t carried Karthik’s pocket guide, “Discover Avenue Trees” – it would have been so much easier. The shopkeeper stared into the images and pulled out a couple of tiny bottles. Yet again, with style and sophistication, he applied Attar on the remaining free spaces available on our forearms. It worked! My aunt found her Frangipani, finally, and I thank Mudhassir for his help. She is a proud owner of these itardans (tiny crystal cut bottles).

Old and new itardanis

Itardans, the ones from Shivajinagar and the ‘gift’ that led us to these [image courtesy: Sudarshan]

146A2640You can’t miss this tree, which is used quite commonly for landscaping. There are many species and hybrids of Plumeria. The dark green leaves differ in each species; narrow, rounded, corrugated, pointed, or even spoon-shaped. The Frangipani tree bears white flowers (looking like egg yolk), or red ones, or even a mix of white and a dash of red, like the one below.

_MG_3258

When I go walking or running in Cubbon Park, there are days when the downwind brings a whiff of fragrance. I know I am nearing a Frangipani. After this day of ‘Attar’ confusion, I have fallen for this tree. On a recent trip to Bandipur National Park, I couldn’t help but smile at the mighty Frangipani, decorating the path in full bloom.

_MG_3403Sugandhi

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18 Comments

  1. deponti said,

    March 25, 2014 at 6:22 am

    I’ve been to the “itr” market many years ago, and I enjoyed my re-visit! I had not found good jasmine or other “indian” flower perfumes, I was also always fobbed off by “good phoren perfoom madam!”…thanks for the lovely e-visit!

    • belurs said,

      March 25, 2014 at 6:33 am

      Haha, thanks for enjoying the re-visit, Deepa 🙂

  2. Priya said,

    March 25, 2014 at 6:54 am

    This article is an ‘attar’ delight! 🙂

  3. Poorna said,

    March 25, 2014 at 7:00 am

    Good one, Sugandhi! There are a number of these trees in IISc too. I neither knew what they are called nor that they’re used in making perfumes. I do know they have a subtle yet lovely fragrance but I used to save fallen flowers in books mostly because they looked beautiful (and more so when all dried up) 🙂
    Also, how much did a bottle of that Ittar cost?

    • belurs said,

      March 25, 2014 at 7:21 am

      Hey thanks Poorna 🙂 You must be having a lovely collection of those flowers! I think each bottle cost about Rs. 150.

  4. rachana said,

    March 25, 2014 at 7:24 am

    enjoyed reading your ittar experience…..btw temple tree is one of my favourites…:-)

    • belurs said,

      March 25, 2014 at 7:30 am

      Thanks Rachana! Nice selection of a favourite 🙂

  5. Prem Kumar said,

    March 25, 2014 at 7:46 am

    Now you know what ‘Sugandhi’ means ???:-):-):-)
    Thank your “hurricane” aunt for that !!!:-):-):-)

    • belurs said,

      March 25, 2014 at 7:49 am

      Yes, it took me so long to figure it out 😉

  6. March 25, 2014 at 11:12 am

    a lovely read..!.. tfs.. 🙂

  7. Kishore said,

    March 25, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Of the late I use to treat these plants as weeds, now I am confused “what do I do with you Frangipani “..
    Good one Sugandhi 🙂

    • belurs said,

      March 25, 2014 at 12:19 pm

      Thanks Kishore 🙂 Haha, don’t de-weed them now 😉

  8. Rathi said,

    March 27, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    You seem to be talking about all my favorite flowers 🙂 First the “sleeping beauty” flower and now frangipani! I loved the fragrance and the look of this flower and tree. Because when they start flowering there are only flowers and no leaves, so beautiful. I discovered their name when I read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. I believe they grow abundantly in Africa as well.
    But this ittar connection is new! No wonder, some ittars are so heavenly and at Rs.150 a bottle, I will gladly buy this to a Coco Chanel or Burberry! 😉

    • Ravindranath.belur@gmail.com said,

      March 28, 2014 at 4:26 am

      Dear Sugandhi,
      In Hindu culture, only the aunts give the name. So your Indian firanghi aunt must have given the name Sugandhi.

  9. Akshay said,

    June 26, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    I have been mesmerized by this flower since childhood.
    Kannadadalli idara hesaru en anthe gottirlilla. Thanks for writing this article, Sugandhi.

    I’m heading off to Shivajinagar now to get a bottle of Deva Kanagale !! 🙂


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