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The Sweet Smell of Success

USC College's James McHugh has been appointed society fellow at Cornell University's Society for the Humanities, enabling him to complete his book about the aesthetics and significance of scent in medieval India.

James McHugh of USC College has been offered a Society Fellowship at Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities to complete his book about scent in medieval India. Photo credit Steve Cohn.
James McHugh of USC College has been offered a Society Fellowship at Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities to complete his book about scent in medieval India. Photo credit Steve Cohn.

Imagine a figure wrapped in fine silk, dripping with diamonds and bathed in a cloud of exotic perfume. Is this a celebrity, a diva, the ghost of Liberace? According to James McHugh, assistant professor of religion in USC College, this individual may have been a member of the medieval Indian elite.

In medieval India, a prince or princess leaving their palace without heavy dabs of pungent perfume would have been committing a major fashion faux pas.

“You were naked without perfume, jewelry, hair oil, silks, eyeliner; all these things,” McHugh said. “Both men and women. For a certain class of person, perfume was a necessary part of life, just like clothes are today. It was absolutely indispensible.”

McHugh’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in South Asian Culture and Religion, will be the first historical work to explore the cultural significance and aesthetic aspects of smells in a highly literate and complex non-Western culture. It aims to broaden the discussion on scent and its importance.

In December, McHugh was offered a Society Fellowship at Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities for the coming academic year. He has now almost completed the first draft of his book on smell in South Asia, and intends to spend next year working on revisions for publication, as well as writing a number of articles.

The theme for the Cornell society fellowships next year is global aesthetics.

“This is absolutely perfect because smell and perfumes are very aesthetic,” McHugh said. And global.

“The best perfumes had to be made with strange materials that came from around the world,” he said. “Frankincense from the Arabian Peninsula, musk from Tibet and camphor from Southeast Asia. There was an international outlook in the perfumery of medieval India.”

The fellowship will also allow McHugh access to rare and out-of-print Sanskrit texts that will further his research. This summer, he will travel to India to speak with perfumers and seek out two ancient perfumery manuscripts.

As a doctoral student at Harvard University, McHugh examined the material aspects of medieval South Asian culture and quickly realized that the subjects of smell, scents and perfumes were prolific in ancient literary and religious texts. He wondered whether there was a potential aesthetic value in this phenomenon.

“I’m interested in matter and materials, but also in aesthetics,” McHugh said. “Aesthetics tend to get sidelined in religion unless they’re in the service of ethics, for example, making good people beautiful so that you’ll emulate them and aspire to be them. But the idea that aesthetics can be an end to themselves is very alien to a lot of Western people.”

Not so to medieval Indians, who often believed that smearing copious amounts of perfume on the body was the opposite of vain, superficial or frivolous.

“Divine beings seemed to really like expensive or exotic perfumes,” McHugh said. “There was no sort of guilt for these things. The most adorned people were rulers and the wealthy. They typically didn’t have this idea that adornment is superficial and that aesthetics and external appearance don’t matter. I want to question the idea that adornment is superficial, something everyone takes for granted.”

Why did the medieval Indians care so much about scents and perfumes? McHugh has a theory that involves viewing smell as the model for their epistemology of values. He uses a color analogy to emphasize his point.

What are the primary colors? Most people can rattle off the list. But what about the primary smells? In medieval India there were only two types of smell: good and bad. In all the texts he researched, smell was the most polarized sense, and the least subjective: there was a general consensus on good and bad smells.

“This is a major theme of my book,” McHugh said. “Color was used as a metaphor for the  ‘caste’ system, and emotions were described analogous to tastes, but smell was simply good or bad. It struck me that their ideas of smell presented it as the sense object with qualities most like ethics, which are also good or bad: good actions and bad actions.”

Religious texts he examined talked about the “fragrance of virtue” and the “stink of evil.” A  Buddhist text described how “the fragrance of a virtuous person blows against the wind.” McHugh realized that in some cases, such texts were implying that in a karmic universe, aesthetic phenomena tended to correlate, ultimately, to virtue.

“If you’re living a life where you’re really beautiful and keep experiencing beautiful things, then that’s probably a sign that you were good in a past life,” McHugh said. “And if your life is Hell and you are in pain and it stinks, then it means that you were probably bad. So in a karmic universe, ethics can manifest in aesthetic ways.”

A person’s smell was incredibly important in medieval India, and perfumery was viewed as a civilized and cultivated art and area of expertise, similar to modern day wine appreciation. And while McHugh does not plan to start a perfumery movement, he does hope his book will cause people to engage more with smells and aromatics.