Lost in the scent of Old Dhaka Perfumery

Mitford Road in Old Dhaka is famous for the perfume shop; It’s also the country’s largest year-round center for fragrances used by toiletries, as well as flavors used in baked goods and beverages

March 19, 2023 at 9:00 am

Last modified: March 19, 2023, 08:56

A shopkeeper shows a customer one of the most expensive perfumes in the Mitford area of ​​Old Dhaka. Noor-A-Alam


A shopkeeper shows a customer one of the most expensive perfumes in the Mitford area of ​​Old Dhaka. Noor-A-Alam

Walking down Mitford Road in Imamganj of Old Dhaka, a mixture of different scents hit our nostrils. These aromatic smells came from several shops here that sell perfume chemicals.

The display cases and shelves in these stores were crammed with silver aluminum bottles with identical labels. Sellers rarely touch these one-liter bottles. When visitors come, they usually bring out glass bottles (small bottles of perfume) with the samples, open the caps, and let the visitors sniff the yellowish, orange, or transparent liquid.

Some of the shopkeepers said that they only sell attar and that Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar) is the peak season for sales.

“From Shab-e-Meraj to Eid-ul-Fitr and a week before Eid-ul-Adha, sales remain high. During Ramadan we sometimes even sell Tk1 lakh worth of attar in a day,” said KP Arif Ali. Owner of the perfumery KPM.

Arif is one of the grandsons of Kader Pir Mohammad, a South Indian businessman who was one of the pioneers of the perfume business in the Mitford area.

Most vendors were busy with visitors, mainly importers and retail buyers. Their conversation was peppered with words like CK One, Gucci, Ferrari, Christian Dior, Mohini, Darbar, Sultan, Kasturi, Jasmine and Kancha Bokul. Sometimes they talked about vanilla, pineapple, orange, lemon and chocolate.

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CK One and Christian Dior may sound like perfume brands, but here they are actually the names of perfume notes (perfume ingredients).

Though Mitford Road is famous for perfumes, it is also the country’s largest year-round center for fragrances used by toiletries, as well as flavors used in baked goods and beverages. (Perfume is used for external application while fragrances are not edible and flavorings are used in food.)

Photo: Noor-a-alam


Photo: Noor-a-alam

According to the Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Merchants Association, Tk5 crore worth of aromatic chemicals are traded from Mitford Road every month. The association currently has 1,450 members nationwide.

Based on Mitford Road, the perfumery chemicals company was formed in the early 1960s. At that time, the whole area from Armani Street to Imamganj was the wholesale center in Dhaka and the main mode of transportation was waterway.

Merchants would arrive on the banks of the Buriganga River with goods or money. Some of them, mostly manufacturers, bought stearic acid – the main ingredient in cosmetics and toiletries – from Chawk Moulvibazar and searched for fragrances in the neighboring areas.

Some South Indian businessmen, including Kader Pir Mohammad and Syed Ahmed, saw the potential of the perfumery trade and opened aromatic chemical shops on Mitford Road.

Syed Ahmed was passionate about ghazal singing, but he also wanted to expand his business. So he got his younger brother Mohammad Farooq to take over most of the duties.

Farooq was only 19 years old when it happened. But the young and energetic businessman devoted himself to trade and eventually founded the famous group of companies.

The Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Merchant Association obtained its registration in 2002. Farooq was the undisputed president of the association until his death on September 1, 2014.

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Farooq wished that one of his successors would acquire a solid technical knowledge of perfumery. He sent his younger son Mohammad Nawaz – a graduate of Dhaka University – to the University of Plymouth to study BA in Business Administration and Perfumery. So far, Nawaz is the country’s only college graduate in perfumery.

Photo: Noor-a-alam


Photo: Noor-a-alam

We spoke to Nawaz to delve deeper into the perfumery business. “Globally, 15,000-20,000 kinds of perfumery chemicals are traded every day, while only 400-500 chemicals are traded in Mitford region, the capital of perfumery business in Bangladesh,” he said.

When asked about the most traded chemicals, he said it was a difficult question to answer.

“Suppose you need Mohini – the scent used by the famous Indian brand of agarbatti (incense sticks) Darshan. About 200 chemicals are used to mix the Mohini fragrance; there are some chemicals that only need to be used in tiny drops. I don’t need to know the names of every chemical other than ‘mohini,'” Nawaz said.

The Mitford-based dealers do not deal in counterfeit chemicals. They import them straight from Grasse in France, Switzerland, Singapore or India, he claimed.

How do retailers order their favorite chemicals?

Nawaz explained: “Suppose a detergent manufacturer comes and asks what their favorite scent is. We send the sample to the main perfume manufacturers in Europe. The sample is examined using GC-MS (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry – an instrumental technique used to analyze, separate , identify and quantify the complex mixtures of chemicals). After the analysis report, we make our request for the import.

“End consumers, even many importers of finished perfumes, only know the brand names. But they don’t know where the brand companies get the aromatic chemicals from. You don’t even need to know about it,” he told An.

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Sometimes these Mitford Road shops are accused of enabling the manufacture of counterfeit perfumes and toiletries. The business people here, however, have a decidedly different opinion.

A retailer showed the label of the Lux Velvet Touch soap and said: “It says here in tiny letters that the soap contains ‘grade 2’ scent of jasmine. Does that mean Unilever is making fake Lux? No. It does not contain the ‘Premium’ scent of Jasmine.” (Premium, Class 1 and Class 2 are different fragrance standards, with Premium smelling the strongest).

Photo: Noor-a-alam


Photo: Noor-a-alam

The traders also sell lighter blends of high quality perfumes – imported directly – to medium and small industries in the country.

Sometimes large companies buy stronger blends of chemicals from them when the need is small.

For example, Square Toiletries in Bangladesh often purchases chemicals from Nawaz’s Famous Iberchem Flavors and Fragrances company – a joint venture with Spanish company Iberchem Fragrances of Nature. In 2003, after returning from England, he founded the factory in Tongi, Gazipur.

“The big companies are concerned about quality. As I run a factory with Spanish standards, I can supply comparatively stronger compounds. A neighboring dealer of mine would sell a prototype of the chemicals imported from India at a cheaper price. Only those differences matter to the industries that use these chemicals as ingredients,” he concluded.

Experts like Nawaz can tell perfumes apart just by smelling them once. But during our entire conversation, we didn’t hear a single scientific name of the ingredients. According to him, this is this perfume shop; one can do it without knowing scientific terms.

As our interview concluded, we left Mitford Road with heads full of information and our shirts exuding a scented cocktail.