The eighty-seventh cup of nun chai


In the mountains time passes quickly. It was already late afternoon when Rupin and I sat with two cups of nun chai and two chapattis left over from the previous evening’s meal. Rupin asked if it was common to have yesterday’s chapatti with nun chai and we fell into a casual conversation about Kashmiri bread and nun chai. I was soon recollecting a friend’s home in Kashmir and in great detail we began speaking of the intimate rhythms of this home – the flavours, the jokes, the chores, the family and their hearts.

These small, small stories – personal, seemingly irrelevant – provide a means of understanding. In a sense they are what this project is made of and what it seeks to move towards. Such stories have meaning and they allow us to relate and also imagine the shape that life takes under occupation in Kashmir as well as the pieces of life that persist defiantly beyond that occupation.

Rupin probes. In a gentle way, she has a tendency to move deeply into the essence of things. She does not shy away from complication and this made our conversation long and spirited. The nun chai tasted good, and for someone not familiar with its flavour it was telling when she asked for a second cup. Rupin made observations and posed questions about Cups of nun chai that got me talking about what I had previously felt, though never directly articulated. We spoke until the room became dark and the disappearing sun had turned afternoon into night.

Rupin has a preoccupation with form; not in terms of placing a hierarchy over content, but as a means of engaging thoroughly with the relationship between the two. Some years back I had spoken with her about an artist whose practice involved food, but she said Cups of nun chai didn’t feel like an ‘artwork about food’ per se, but something more. Rupin asked if it would have been possible to make this work with something other than nun chai. I was a little unsure of where her question came from but as I spoke on I was slowly able to express why and how nun chai came to be a necessity.

In mid-2010, when the idea for this work was coming together – in the face of the violence, the growing number of dead and the lack of thorough media coverage – it seemed necessary to brew nun chai, to speak and to write in a form that somehow reached places where the news headlines might not. To venture into stories, histories and questions that travelled beyond a 500 word article. Drinking and speaking in this context became a refusal to accept, to be silent and to forget, and a small attempt to relate, understand and question.

I asked Rupin to imagine the project as a conversation devoid of nun chai. It didn’t work. Nun chai is a catalyst. It welcomes. Provides a flavour of Kashmir. Generates a spatial context. Gives time. It is symbolic of so much yet also very real. Nun chai accumulates, it grows memories and ties this all together.

For Rupin the work was vulnerable and open to ridicule yet at the same time characterised by a certain ‘force’. There is a fragility in this work and it is not something I have embarked upon without hesitation or doubt. It has come to exist through a tenuous relationship with meaning and meaning-less-ness in that the project is at once a search for meaning in the face of something so brutal it appears absurd, and an absurd gesture when meaning becomes too much to bear.

It is this fragility that feeds the force Rupin spoke of. Though she had concerns about how this force could be made accessible to people who had not experienced the work directly. Finding a language through which this could be done was part of the art. For Rupin this whole process was producing a different kind of ‘language’. She said writing about this language was important and wondered, just as one might follow a flock of birds to water, how does one move with this?


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