TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY AANCHAL MALHOTRA
New Delhi & Kannauj, India
Originally made from camel skin and later goat skin, these flask-like bottles are called Kuppis. On page 122 in an old Pashto-English dictionary compiled by Henry Water Bellew, and published in 1901 by Rai Sahib M. Gulab Singh & Sons, Lahore, the word is described as qutta-ī, A powder flask (made of untanned leather), s. (kuppi)
Kuppis were used by attar-makers and preferred due to their permeability towards water. After the attar was ready, it was poured into these bottles – usually very large in size, able to hold volumes of liquid- and left to macerate. Traditional perfumers believe that an attar not stored in the kuppi was ‘essentially ruined’. The leather would absorb any extra moisture, allowing water to evaporate and only attar in its truest scent, to remain.
The shape of every Kuppi varies- no two are the same- revealing beautiful evidences of the handmade. Someone has lovingly shaped each vessel with their fingers, skillfully folding and sealing layer upon layer to create its elegant shape. For the most part, each Kuppi has a long neck and a very round body. Their texture is simultaneously leathery and brittle, and once devoid of liquid, they look almost translucent under the light. Their outer surface is a web of faint and dark veins, which intersect across the moulded leather.
In the labyrinthine streets of the old city of Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, one can still trace a few makers of these leather vessels. In an interview with a man named Mohammed Mustakin, who still makes these bottles, the American journalist, Cynthia Barnett traces the lineage of his craft. In her book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, she writes of the family,
‘…the next generations are here, too, working beside Mustakin, whose long white dress, or kurta, matches his squared white beard. I meet Mustakin’s two sons, and a beautiful toddler grandson peeking from behind his dad, who translates for Mustakin : “My father and forefather and forefather and all the forefathers we remember made leather vessels for the attar,” he tells me. “We always learned that our vessels are the same from the fairytales of Ali Baba.”‘
Today, there are fewer and fewer attar-saaz who still use the leather bottles, for this is a practice that is slowly fading into history. These particular miniature Kuppis were found in the atelier of M.L Ramnarain Perfumers, Kannauj, who have been operational as a family of perfumers since 1911. Though the descendants of the patriarch, late Mr. H N Kapoor no longer use leather Kuppis in the final process of maceration of their attars, large leather vessels (several feet in height) still stand proudly at the back of their atelier among other older attar-apparatus that has since been deemed obsolete.
Among other things, questions about these delicate leather vessels peppered our conversation at the ML Ramnarain perfumery, and when we were about to leave, much to our surprise, the father-and-son duo gave us these miniature as a parting gift!