French PhD scholar explores Mumbai for comparative research on anthropology of odours

May 10, 2018, 16:31 IST | Snigdha Hasan

A PhD scholar from France is in the city for her comparative research on the anthropology of odours, and when seen through her eyes, Mumbai is nothing short of a sensory explosion

Lou Sompairac
Lou Sompairac finds the local train an interesting site for her research; the Nice resident explores the Khar market. pics/datta kumbhar

Passing through
For Lou Sompairac, the local trains of Mumbai make for a fascinating repository for of her research. “In the ladies’ compartment, there are all these women who travel with jasmine flowers in their hair. They wear them until they are shrivelled and withering. So, in the evening, you can smell a blend of fresh and dry flowers. And with this sweet smell, the wind from outside brings with it a blast of odours; every time the train passes through a different area!” shares the PhD scholar from the University of Nice, France.

Lou Sompairac

Sompairac is in Mumbai for three weeks for her ongoing research into the anthropology of odours. The study is comparative, for which she travels to a new city every spring to meet individuals in the 18 to 35 age group to understand how they engage with everyday smells, and how this implicit knowledge is rooted in as well as develops a given culture. Her first stop was Beijing in 2017, and the three-city research will culminate in Sao Paulo next year. This Saturday, Sompairac will discuss her research at a conference organised by The Alliance Française of Bombay.

“The olfactory sense is a great way of understanding human behaviour and habits. It is a subconscious sense, but when you dig deep into the lives of people through it, the stories that emerge are fascinating,” says the pani puri-loving 28-year-old, as we wind our way through the lanes of Khar market, soaking in the mélange of smells on offer, from fresh mogra veni to the metallic whiff emanating from a row of shops selling ironware knick-knacks.

For her research, she has interviewed 20 Mumbaikars so far, by giving them unlabelled olfactory samples (bergamot, sandalwood, ginger, rosemary, violet, rose, jasmine, cotton candy, household product, lavender, pear, cedar, leather, benzoin) with a questionnaire asking them to rate them on appeal, strength of odour, memory, familiarity and use.

Lou Sompairac

Sompairac points out that in the last two weeks that she has spent in Mumbai, she has been intrigued by how the everyday existence of its residents is etched in odours. “I met youngsters in Malvani, many of whom are from the Muslim community. The use of itter [or attar] is popular among them, and there is a technique to applying it, which is passed down the generations,” she elaborates. Even rituals come with a strong olfactory element. The Maharashtrian tradition of Dhuri, she says, involves holding a newborn a few feet above herb-infused charcoal to clear the nasal passage. If one has performed the ritual, the aroma of carom seeds over embers is hard to forget. “People here are also waiting for the monsoon, and many of them associate it with petrichor [the pleasant smell accompanying first rains]. In fact, this is one smell that many respondents counted among their favourite,” she adds.

While she is yet to analyse the data between Mumbai and Beijing, she says the latter’s residents are far less accepting of strong odours because of the toxic fumes they are exposed to due to pollution. “Many of them look at shopping malls as a refuge from pollution,” she says.

Sompairac’s olfactory markers for her own coastal city of Nice are the sea, salt and the metallic notes of the tramway. And what are the smells that sum up Mumbai? “The combined aromas of what goes into a paan/tobacco, fermented milk, dhoop [incense] mixed with food, and of course, jasmine,” she signs off.

ON May 12, 1 pm to 2.30 pm
AT Alliance Française Auditorium, Marine Lines. cALL 22035993

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