Regional cafe: City of aroma

Now, sandalwood cultivation is also taking place in attar heartland Kannauj

There is quiet optimism at Kannauj, the oldest centre for attars, the traditional fragrance capital of India dating back to the 7th century, on the revival of the sandalwood culture of the pre-Veerappan days. The decimation of the sandalwood forest of Karnataka by the sandalwood smuggler had led to a ban on the use of sandalwood in the country, crippling the attar industry which had its base in sandalwood oil.

The Fragrance and Flavour Development Centre (FFDC), set up by the central government in 1991 with support from UNDP, UNIDO and the Uttar Pradesh government, after several years of trial and error, has struck a purple patch and has been successfully growing sandalwood trees.

The oldest trees are five years old. The 23-acre campus has 150 sandalwood saplings, some of them over 10-feet tall. What is even more heartening is that with saplings provided by the Centre, a thousand more sandalwood trees are being nurtured by farmers and those in the attar and fragrance business in Kannauj itself. It takes about 20 years before the tree can be harvested. The current value of sandalwood oil is a whopping R90,000 for a kg.

Mooradhwaj Saini, 86, one of the oldest fragrance merchants of Kannauj, and his son, Vinod Saini, received three sandalwood saplings, one of which was destroyed by marauding monkeys. The two that survived are three years old and eight-feet tall. A small wire fencing has been constructed and extra care is being taken to ensure the full growth of the sandalwood trees which, for the fragrance merchants, are the equivalent of gold. Supporting plants like the pulse arhar and potato draw water and give it to the sandalwood trees, ensuring their slow but steady growth, says Vinod Saini.

SV Shukla, the director of FFDC, is elated not just about the blooming of the sandalwood trees but also the Centre’s ability to act as an interface between essential oil, fragrance and flavour industry and the R&D institutions both in the field of agro-technology and chemical technology.

FFDC seeks to serve, sustain and upgrade the status of farmers and the industry engaged in cultivation of aromatic plants and their processing to make them competitive in local and global markets.

To ensure the survival and growth of sandalwood plants, the technology was first developed. The seeds had to be treated and their outer covering opened. In fact, the district administration was so ecstatic about the breakthrough that there were plans to cultivate 10,000 trees but now there is fresh thinking about sandalwood cultivation in “safe” places. There have been reports of theft of sandalwood trees from different parts of the country so the government is wary of repeats of the Veerappan escapades even on a minor scale.

Rasiklal Hemani, one of the leading agents for distribution of Kelkar perfumes, recalls that in the early 1970s, attars used as personal fragrance were made from high-grade sandalwood oil. In four decades from 1970 to 2010, the production of sandalwood slumped from 4,000 tonnes a year to 400 tonnes. Slowly, sandalwood oil was replaced with liquid paraffin and other such compounds as the base product. The restriction on cutting of sandalwood trees in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and the ban on sandalwood oil distillation changed the complex of the perfume business in Kannauj. In fact, 80-85% of fragrance manufacturers switched to making synthetic fragrances.

Realising that the sandalwood industry was dying, early this century the government encouraged farmers to plant sandalwood and cultivation began in a big way in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The sale of trees was through government agencies. Though attars are still made in Kannauj, the quantity is limited and, instead of sandalwood oil, synthetic oil is used as base.

Every part of the sandalwood tree is used. While the upper part is used for making agarbattis or incense sticks, the middle section is used for making handicrafts, and the oil extracted from the roots of the trees (50% sandalwood oil is from the roots) is used to make attars and perfumes.

For the last two-and-a-half years, FFDC has been self-sustaining. It does not receive any grants from the government, not even for salaries. It runs various courses and trains students in essential oils, fragrances, flavours and aromatherapy. In 2009, with support from the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, it started a postgraduate discipline in aroma technology, the only one of its kind in the country. It also runs a one-year postgraduate diploma. In a year, over 13,000 people participate in various courses it runs and most of them get placements.

In Uttar Pradesh, FFDC has been promoting cultivation of lemon grass, basil, palma rosa (a kind of grass that can serve as a substitute for roses), menthol mint and vertiver or khus. To encourage farmers, FFDC gives certified aromatic plants. It could be lemon grass or rose. There are 2,000 varieties of roses in the country but only two varieties are suitable for the fragrance industry.

Those doing the course at the Kannauj centre are taught the economics of various planting material; the extraction of fragrances through steam technology and the use of solvents; and the extracted fragrances are then tested in a laboratory to see if they match national and international standards. The centre also analyses forward-trading of menthol mint. For the last eight years, Shukla says, India has been a global leader in menthol mint. The development of human resource for this burgeoning industry in flavours and fragrances is given equal importance. But the moot question remains—will the new plantations of sandalwood bring down the price of the raw material and give a new spurt to the floundering traditional attar industry?

By Usha Rai

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