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Bagh e Hind - A Sensory Experience, Bharti Lalwani and Nicolas Roth

The aesthetics of the Mughal-era continue to fascinate people across the world, especially since South Asian culture is known to capture all the five senses. Art critic and perfumer, Bharti Lalwani in collaboration with literary scholar and historian, Nicolas Roth have produced a unique multidisciplinary and sensory exhibition titled, Bagh-e-Hind. Nicolas, a specialist in Mughal-era horticultural writings, selected five paintings depicting garden scenes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for Bharti to translate into fragrance and Edible Perfume. The exhibition is available to view and online, for people to explore and experience across the globe.

We talk to Bharti Lalwani and Nicolas Roth about their co-curation process, the intention and concept behind the exhibition and thoughts on the representation and visibility of South Asian and Islamic art in mainstream museums.

Prince Murad Bakhsh celebrates the spring festival, Delhi or Agra, mid-17th Century;

Austrian National Library


Bharti Lalwani - replies in red

Nicolas Roth - replies in green

How did you develop a partnership as co curators for the Bagh-e Hind exhibition and project?

Bharti: In the summer of 2020, I came across Nicolas’s work via his twitter thread on garden typology in Persianate and South Asian history. A mutual friend had shared it — I thought it curious that someone should challenge assumptions on what the term "chahār bāgh'' actually meant but via erudite tweets with images of garden-paintings, a landscape schematic and a photograph of an historic garden-site.

Bagh-e Hind existed as an idea in my mind since 2018, so I had been discreetly searching for an historian to work with, and it delighted me that Nicolas had a lifetime of gardening experience that enriched his scholarship in a manner completely different from other academics. I then interviewed him for my perfumery journal, and read most of his published papers thoroughly. I contacted him a year later, in the summer of 2021 to ask if he was keen to collaborate over a “small” project. I invited him to select five garden paintings that I would translate to perfume. From there I gradually unfurled my original idea for a grand multisensory exhibition that he found exciting.

In retrospect, I realise why I took years to materialise Bagh-e Hind as a concept. I wasn’t just searching for an historian with specialised plant knowledge but also someone who would be the right type of person. Through his writing, I could grasp his worldview. Nicolas writes in a way that is confident yet his language embodies his gentleness and sense of wonder for the sensual world of 17th-18th century India. I particularly love the lyrical bent in his turns of phrase and his diligence in tracing and growing some of the plant-varieties painted centuries ago.

Since June 2021, we have been in the process of building our partnership virtually which has presented its own sets of challenges. In the course of discussing smells and tastes, our own expressions of anxieties have naturally surfaced, which we overcome by communicating with honesty and placing our trust in one another. We also express awe for each other’s work. His knowledge of plants (and their historical context) and my expertise on plant aromatics are akin to two pieces from opposite ends of the world that come together to form one harmonious unit.

I also think of Bagh-e Hind somewhat selfishly, as our space, where we can exist as we are, choosing on our terms, how we expand our internal worlds outward in ways that are visible and invisible.

Bagh-e Hind is a first of its kind as a multidisciplinary exhibition. Can you tell us more about the process of creating the exhibition from ideation to execution?

Nicolas: After Bharti first approached me with the initial idea of creating scent translations based on a set of paintings, and selecting those initial five paintings, the process became fundamentally about how to communicate scent experiences verbally. With me based in the US and Bharti in India - and the pandemic restricting travel - we had to rely on written notes, video calls, and texting to develop our ideas about how the scenes in the paintings ought to smell and taste and ultimately feel, and for Bharti to then capture these in material creations. For me, as a life-long gardener and someone who is specifically interested in the history of horticulture and the botanical realities reflected in the artwork, the smells of the fresh, living plants are the most real and familiar. In fact, one of my pet peeves are the myriad scented candles, diffusers, and other fragrance products that are sold with names like “jasmine and fig” or “frangipani” or “gardenia” but smell nothing like those plants, just generic and soapy, because so many people have little to no experience of the actual plants. These names just become meaningless marketing terms, with vague associations of lushness and luxury. So for me it was really important that the things we created were a real, authentic reflection of the botanicals depicted in the paintings. Meanwhile, as we discussed the details of the scenes depicted - the seasons during which they are set, the presence of animals, ascetics covered in ash, and so on - Bharti was particularly attuned to all the other subtle olfactory elements these would have evoked: mud, sweat, burnt wood, and so on. We spent a lot of time calibrating the exact qualities of these smells and their associations to each other verbally as Bharti began constructing these scents and flavors and the various elements of the synesthesia boxes through which they can be experienced. Eventually she sent me a first round of samples to smell and taste, and based on that we continued to fine-tune even further - making sure, for instance, that a smell did not just have a citrus note, but exactly the right kind, the warmth of citron and orange blossom as opposed to the acidity of lemon.

Once the actual scent creations were on track, we turned to the website. The actual technical work of setting it up was pretty much all Bharti, but the structure and design we continued to develop in the same sort of exchange. I wanted to make sure to present the painting in an art historical context that is often missing, so we paired each core painting with a whole cluster of stylistically and thematically related works. Similarly, it was important to me to include in each section photographs of the particular plants featured in the artwork and in the scent and flavor creations, so as to truly bring them to life for the audience and highlight their beauty. Bharti meanwhile selected the plethora of gorgeous historic material objects in each section, reflect and expand on the material culture depicted in the paintings themselves, and had the brilliant intuition to make our copious notes from the development of each scent part of the gallery, so as to let our audience partake in the process. We have really kept going in this mode ever since, bouncing ideas off each other and making additions more or less continuously.

Nicolas, as a specialist in garden culture and botanical, horticultural, and agricultural knowledge in South Asia, how did you come up with the five sections of the exhibition, Rose, Narcissus, Smoke, Iris and Kewra?

Nicolas: I was guided by a series of intersecting questions which I wanted to address: Which plants were commonly depicted and had cultural significance? Which commonly depicted plants were important primarily or at least in part because of their scent? What paintings were there that featured these plants in a detailed, clearly botanically identifiable manner? Were the plants, and the idea of scent, central to the intended effect of a particular painting? Does the painting represent a particular genre convention - that is, are there multiple versions of it, or at least a number of paintings of very similar composition and theme?

Prince Having Audience, Mughal, reign of Jahangir, 17th Century;

Museum of Fine Arts Boston


These criteria led me to our core plants and paintings. Rose and narcissus I knew I wanted to include more or less instantly, as soon as Bharti broached the idea to me, and most of the paintings for those sections were already at the back of my mind. Iris and kewra took a bit longer to settle on; kewra I think is a particularly valuable plant to highlight because neither the plant nor the scent are familiar to most audiences today. Even where they are, it is often in very niche applications, as an ingredient in biryani or flavoring for tobacco products. However, in early modern South Asia kewra was constantly celebrated in text and image as an exquisite, precious thing - a plant any fancy garden should have, and perfume whose enjoyment was one of luxuries wealth could buy. It was also often a marker of Indianness, especially in the context of Persian literature - one of the special pleasures of life in the subcontinent, and at times even a marker of its perceived superiority vis-à-vis Iran and Central Asia.