When New York-based textile designer Pallavi Padukone was stuck inside during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, smelling became her escape. Jasmine’s intoxicating aroma transported her to weddings in southern India. The warm scent of cloves reminded her of her mother’s home cooking. When she breathed in sandalwood, she thought of her grandmother and her sandalwood-scented talcum powder. Though she was 8000 miles away from where she grew up in Bengaluru, India, smelling the air in her apartment transported her back to her hometown.
“The sense of smell, it’s very therapeutic, and it unlocks so many memories,” Padukone tells Mental Floss. “It’s good for wellness and wellbeing, just being in contact with these fragrances.”
Padukone gathered smells from her childhood while making "Reminiscent", a collection of scented textiles she exhibited at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey, in September 2020. She studied textile design as an undergraduate student, and after working in the fashion industry for a brief period, she came to the U.S. to earn her master's degree in textiles at the Parsons School of Design. As a graduate student, she began thinking about infusing fabrics with fragrances to create a new type of art.
“It sort of happened by chance, and I realized it is a very interesting combination,” she says. “I’ve always been very fond of fragrances. There are certain smells that remind me of certain people and places and memories, and I really like that idea of incorporating that into textiles. Textiles are very tactile, and I feel like with textiles there’s so much you can do. It can be a more sensorial experience, and the sense of smell is something that could be introduced as well."
"Reminiscent" consists of 11 hand-woven pieces, each imbued with one of six scents from Padukone’s hometown. She experimented with a number of infusion methods before settling on coated yarn made from beeswax, natural resin, essential oils, and natural dye pigments. She incorporated ingredients from the natural world into her work while avoiding synthetic fibers, dyes, or infusion techniques. The fabric is woven from the scented cotton and silk from recycled saris, while the dyes come from sources like turmeric, indigo, and beetroot.
To interpret an olfactory sensation into a visual art piece, Padukone conducted a survey asking people to smell the scents and describe what came to mind. She used the answers she collected along with her own memories to build a color palette for each fragrance. The citronella-scented tapestries are woven in shades of green and yellow, the color of citrus fruits and citronella leaves. For vetiver, a perennial bunch grass native to India whose roots smell like petrichor, she chose warm, earthy tones like brown, orange, and burgundy. The rose-scented textiles contain the same rich, sumptuous reds that fill flower markets in India.
“I connect very personally with each of them,” she says of the scents she chose. Though not everyone would react to these particular aromas as strongly as she does, most people have their own list of smells they feel a strong connection to. This is partly due to the layout of our brains.
“The area that odors are processed in the brain is related to memory and emotion,” Kara C. Hoover, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who specializes in the evolution of smell, tells Mental Floss. “You smell something and then a memory is evoked, and sometimes emotions are linked to that. Quite often, odors that have strong emotional content to them will be more memorable to us.”
When we inhale an odor, it goes straight to our brain's olfactory bulb, which is connected to the amygdala. This structure is what governs our emotional responses. The proximity of the olfactory bulb to the emotional center of our brain explains why certain smells can trigger such visceral reactions in ways that other common sensations may not.
It’s not a coincidence that these two structures are connected. According to Hoover, associating scents with important places and people was once a survival mechanism. "That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, that you would want to retain knowledge of your olfactory world, so that you can create not only a spatial map of resources, people, and things in your environment, but also when you’re moving to new environments,” she explains. “The link between smell, memory, and emotion would be strong for those purposes.”
Today, smells that trigger vivid memories are more often used for comfort than survival. Padukone plans to continue fine-tuning the medium that provided her a sense of connection and comfort during a period of isolation and uncertainty last year. She’s currently working on a collection of tapestries and wall hangings that use the scent infusion techniques she developed for "Reminiscent".
As of now, any textiles she makes this way will lose their fragrance after a few months, and though she’s looking into ways to reintroduce faded scents, Padukone has accepted this aspect of her work. Like the split-second rush of nostalgia that comes after you smell a flower that used to grow outside your home, or a spice used in your favorite dish from childhood, much of her art’s beauty lies in its impermanence. “I’ve sort of come to realize that it’s OK if it changes with time, because it will absorb new scents, it’ll change color,” she says. “But that is one of the challenges—that it is temporary. It’s about capturing that moment. “