In Chitpur, 'Ittar ki Khushboo' Transports You to the Nawabi Days
Kolkata is a city of many tales. Each of its places has a different story to tell, and almost each story bubbles with a heritage and culture, which often goes beyond the day Job Charnock officially ‘founded’ the city on August 24, 1690.
Today, we are going to take you on a trip to one such place in North Kolkata where one can still sniff the essence of the nawabs and the zamindars in the air...quite literally.
Welcome to Chitpur. Do you smell the ittar yet?
I had been planning a trip to Chitpur for a long time, but the opportunity never quite came by. Then, a few days back, while looking for something in my cupboard, I came across this old, empty crystal bottle — an empty bottle of ittar. This was the inspiration I needed. I quickly looked up the name of the shop on the bottle and found a phone number online. When I called, a helpful voice on the other end, belonging to the owner of the shop, invited me to visit his store.
The next day, through a rainy afternoon, I took the metro from Ravindra Sarovar to Central. After a bit of a walk, towards the MG Road metro station, I turned into Maulana Shaukat Ali Street (aka Colootola Street), where a labyrinth of old Calcutta streets welcomed me. As I walked in, in my mind, I travelled back a couple hundred years, when these streets, these vintage buildings used to be the cultural hubs of the city; where music and art were available in abundance. With Eid around the corner, what these streets now hold in abundance are shops selling delicious haleem, fresh bread and firni. The smell could make any food lover’s mouth water, even with a full stomach.
Chitpur has been a melting pot of various cultures and vocations for hundreds of years. The ittar shops I now pass by have been around for almost the same time. Their heady aroma fills the air, especially near the Nakhoda Masjid. Honestly, one can’t help but feel like an aristocrat babu from the 19th century! Speaking of babus, legend has it that Babu Ramtanu Dutta (aka Tonu Babu) of the Hatkhola Dutta family used to have his house wiped with ittar and rose water to get a leg up on rival Babu Khelat Chandra Ghosh of the Pathuriaghata Ghosh family. Talk about being fancy!
After a good 10-minute walk through the lanes adjacent to Zakaria Street, I reach 87, Colootola Street — the nearly 200-year-old ittar shop of Haji Khuda Buksh and Nabi Buksh. The owners welcome me in and I sit down to learn about the history of this extraordinary store.
It all began in the early 19th century, I’m told — even before Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last independent Nawab of Oudh, arrived in Calcutta after his exile — when the founders of this store came to Calcutta from Lucknow (Awadh) to set up shop. The business began in 1824, and since, they have been supplying perfumeries to almost every famous household in and around this area for generations.
Currently, the eighth and ninth generation of the family are holding down the fort of this family business. I’m told that the shop even has a mother factory in Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh. I look around at the almost two-century-old shop, stocked with an uncountable variety of ittar; this is a true paradise for any perfume aficionado.
‘Ittar’, or ‘attar’, or ‘atr’ in Persian, which literally means ‘fragrance’, is one of the purest and most exquisite forms of perfume. It is devoid of alcohol or any chemical substance, and is traditionally extracted by infusing oil or water with flowers, plants or other natural ingredients.
I try out as many perfumes as I can — musk amber, saba, shahi gulab, white musk, sandalwood, jasmine, apsara, majmuya, jannatul firdaus, hayati, hill stone, kachcha bela, ruh gulab, etc. Saba is the perfume for those who love flowers, made with the essence of rose, jasmine and lavender. Jannatul firdaus, an amalgamation of khus, rose, jasmine and gardenia, is one of the best-selling perfumes here, along with saba. Then, there is majmuya, put together with kewra, rose, khus, sandalwood and maulsari. I can smell at least ten different scents at the same time!
The kind that attracts me the most, however, is the sandalwood ittar. Having always been a huge fan of its scent, I’m left charmed by every single sandalwood perfume they pull out from their stock. The owners of Haji Khuda Buksh and Nabi Buksh also share with me the brand-new ittar they have prepared exclusively for this Eid. It’s still unnamed, but smells like heaven.
As they share with me their jasmine and rose ittars, I’m told that the true essence of these can be felt during the extreme heat of summer afternoons. Each rendition of these two flavours has its distinct characteristic — some are strong, some are soothing, while others are mild.
Along with ittar, Haji Khuda Buksh and Nabi Buksh also sells the edible meetha attar, kewra jal, rose water, etc — all of which are religiously used to flavour Mughal-taught dishes like biryani, khushka pulao, mutton kebabs and desserts like firni.
This visit to Chitpur took me on a virtual journey through flowers and starlit nights. The magic was stored in the ancient, cut-glass bottles of ittar. There’s so much to learn about these perfumes, their making and the extraordinary lineage their makers have handed down through generations.
With a pocket full of ittar bottles and a belly full of kebabs and haleem, I head out of the store of Haji Khuda Buksh and Nabi Buksh. My mind, too, is full, with heady scents and incredible new lessons. All of it reminds me of the lines from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
“I drink so much wine, its aroma
Will rise from the dust when I’m under it;
Should a topper come upon my dust,
The fragrance from my corpse will make him roaring drunk.”
(This article is a contributor piece, with the opinions and observations of the writer. Edited by Shreya Teresita.)