Monday, April 1, 2024

Scent in Film: The Scent of Earth by Amit Dutta

Scene in an Indian perfume shop from The Scent of Earth, a short film 
by Amit Dutta (2021). The film captures the essence of episodic memory.

The Scent of Earth by Amit Dutta utilizes stop-motion animation to explore the smell of rain on parched earth at the start of India’s monsoon rain. The narrator in the film articulates encounters with the aroma in childhood memory vignettes that reawaken and crystalize when he discovers a flask of mitti attar ("earth perfume") at a bazaar by chance. The essence, a codistillation of earthen pottery and sandalwood, is imbued with the scent of the landscape and a history of encounter with a centuries-old style of perfumery.

Smells, as an experience, aren't permission based. They are perceived as the autonomic result of breathing. We neurologically detect smells before we can describe them and it happens in a flash. Molecules that comprise smells make physical contact with olfactory receptors, generating memories and emotions before they can be expressed as language. James McHugh captures the liminal quality of smell when he writes: "Smell has the strange, almost paradoxical, nature of being both a remote sense and a contact sense." 

Amit Dutta brings a clear understanding of the embodied aspect of smell throughout The Scent of Earth. The voice and storytelling style of the narrator (it’s the filmmaker's) are gentle, relaxed and guileless. This makes the portrayal of smell relatable to anyone who’s ever experienced a meaningful scent in all its timeless profundity. Mitti attar is the catalyst for awakening memory and inspiring storytelling, which in turn touches on the art of perfume making in Kannauj. It’s a thoughtful admixture of scent, culture and film.

Mitti kulhad (earth cups) made from unfinished clay are fired in a kiln, broken into shards, and used to make mitti attar. Whole cups, which are designed for drinking tea, impart an earthy flavor. 

Viewers experience the transporting quality of smells through the speaker’s visual and articulated memories as they follow the narrative arc of the film. The script has a literary flavor when extracted from the film, which is just over two minutes long: 

"In my childhood, one smell that affected me the most was the scent of the earth when it rained for the first time after a hot summer. The smell was so subtle that sometimes I wondered if it existed at all. 

Everybody felt it, but no one ever expressed it. It was difficult to articulate that scent. I did not pay much attention to it and eventually forgot about it. 

Many years later, in a small bazaar, I saw a small bottle of perfume. The label was in Hindi and it said ‘Earth Perfume'. It made me curious when I smelled it; it was exactly the same smell that I experienced in my childhood. 

With it, memories of my childhood also came back, not as one particular incident, but as various assorted images. I saw myself going back to school in a horse-cart, my mother teaching at the same school, the school that was close to the border. 

There were a few destroyed tanks and bunkers, reminiscent of old wars. The broken tanks and bunkers had gathered dust, colorful flowers grew on them. Rain fell on those flowers and gave out the same scent. 

The shopkeeper told me that this scent was made in Kannauj, where they have been making it for centuries. What fascinated me was the scent, which I even failed to spell out, was experienced by someone in ancient India, who tried to capture it and succeeded! 

I bought that bottle, and with it my childhood—in a small bottle."

The duality of terrestrial experience (the smell of rain on parched earth) and the ability to distill the terrestrial (sandalwood and shards of fired earthen clay) bookend the narrator's sense of wonder at the close of the film. The Scent of Earth is a filmic ode to its namesake. What we are left with is proof that the extraordinary can be found in something as ordinary as dry earth that crumbles between the fingers like dust, and smells of the heavens in the rain.

Camel skin attar bottles from Kannauj are known as kuppi (aka khupi and kuppa). They're designed for aging attar. The skin breathes and allows water to evaporate. Mature attar is decanted and sold as perfume. 

Notes and Curiosities
The Scent of Earth is narrated and directed by Amit Dutta. Animation by Ayswayra S. Dutta. Sound by Sukanta Majumdar. English subtitles are available for the Hindi language film, which is 2:09 minutes long. The short film was uploaded to YouTube by Matra Publications on December 7, 2021, and is available for viewing at: 

Mitti attar is a codistillation of clay shards in sandalwood oil. The perfume resembles the smell of rain on parched earth, and possesses a distinctive touch of woody sweetness. Parched earth that accumulates moisture from rain smells more intense in nature than the aromatic outcome of a codistillation of clay shards in sandalwood. The profile of co-distilled "earth" in aged mitti attar smells earthy, dusty, and flinty. It's a softer aromatic expression of geosmin (aka petrichor) that emanates from freshly turned soil that’s familiar to gardeners and farmers. 

McHugh James. Sandalwood and Carrion : Smell in Indian Religion and Culture. Oxford University Press 2012. [A quote from page 25 is referenced in the second paragraph of this article.]

Shulman, David. “The Scent of Memory in Hindu South India.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 13 (1987): 122–33. [Read the section on vāsanā in the lower left-hand column, on page 123. It goes into beautiful detail with regard to the nature of smell memory from a Hindu perspective.]