Cups of nun chai is at once a search for meaning in the face of something so brutal it appears absurd, and an absurd gesture when meaning itself became too much to bear. It is a participatory memorial that emerged in response to Kashmir’s summer of 2010 when 118 civilians died in pro-freedom protests. Like an ever-growing memory Cups of nun chai is a gentle yet challenging means of acknowledging this loss of life.
Over the course of two years Alana Hunt shared 118 cups of nun chai (a Kashmiri salt tea) with 118 people across Australia, in Brussels and Bangkok, across different parts of India and finally in Kashmir. Alana took a photo of each person holding their cup of tea and wrote from memory about each conversation, which connected Kashmir’s story and the summer of 2010 to countless other places and peoples around the world. Upon a scaffolding of names, dates, and places emanating from Kashmir, here personal experience gives voice to history.
Brewing memories. Tasting Kashmir. In the face of the violence, the growing number of dead and the lack of serious media coverage Alana felt it was necessary to speak, to connect, and to write in a form that would somehow reach places where the news headlines do not.
Cups of nun chai has circulated through conversations, online, in exhibitions, art awards and publications, and most recently as a newspaper serial in Kashmir that unfolded over an eleven month period from June 2016 – April 2017.
The text below is taken from the introduction of the bound volumes of newspapers produced in 2017.
Nun chai, brewing
Cups of nun chai is at once a search for meaning in the face of something so brutal it appears absurd, and an absurd gesture when meaning itself becomes too much to bear.
The lines of nation states have fractured the shape of Kashmir. Today the mountainous country sits occupied and divided between India, Pakistan and China. Endless kilometres of barbed wire run like open veins across its surfaces. Kashmir is torn. Its story, as the content of these volumes reveals, is now as complex and contested as its political geography. Yet at the core of the contemporary moment, there is a simplicity that should not be forgotten. Since the time of the Partition of South Asia in 1947, Kashmir has been waiting for the right to self-determination; promised a plebiscite that has not yet come.
In 1989 an armed struggle emerged in response to an increasing decay of democratic rights in Indian-occupied Kashmir. An intense process of militarisation followed, and Kashmir is now the most densely militarised place in the world. It is held captive by the world’s largest democracy with the world’s second largest armed forces. For almost thirty years, war has raged in various forms. More than 70,000 people have died, and 8,000 more have disappeared.
Around 2004 the armed struggle in Kashmir began to subside, though India’s military and political presence continued to grow. Spurred on by particular events in 2008, 2009 and 2010, civilians responded with mass pro-freedom protests that spread across the valley. But it was not only the streets of Kashmir that filled with protest. Wrestling back their own narratives, people in Kashmir wrote journalism, poetry, short stories and histories. Their sentiments were poured into rap songs, paintings, fashion, and social media. And daily life was documented by photojournalists. Some collected evidence, piece by piece, and filed legal cases. And others threw stones at the barrels of loaded guns. Sanjay Kak described the ferocious hope that pulsated through Kashmir in 2010 as an ‘intifada of the mind’. It felt as though things were on the cusp of serious change. But, like the preceding years, this was only met with more state violence and suppression.
On the 11th of June 2010 Tufail Ahmed Mattoo, a 17-year-old boy on his way home from tuition class, was killed when a tear gas canister fired by the state police hit him directly on the head. Tufail was not the first person to die this way, but his death became a catalyst for demonstrations that swept across Kashmir throughout the summer of 2010, during which 118 civilians died.
Counting the dead in Kashmir is not simple; numbers are political, they have consequence, they are ever-increasing, and often unmarked or, like history itself, strategically obscured.
Like an ever-growing memory Cups of nun chai is a gentle yet challenging means of acknowledging this loss of life. Brewing memories. Tasting Kashmir. Over the course of two years I shared 118 cups of nun chai (Kashmiri salt tea) with 118 people across Australia, in Brussels and Bangkok, across different parts of India and finally in Kashmir. I took a photo of each person holding their cup of nun chai and wrote from memory about each conversation, which connected Kashmir’s story and the summer of 2010 to countless other places and people around the world. In the face of the violence, the growing number of dead and the lack of serious media coverage it felt necessary to speak, to connect, and to write in a form that would somehow reach places where the news headlines do not.
Cups of nun chai took shape through personal conversations that were grounded in an attempt to understand and acknowledge and remember. It was about trying to connect together a subtle and complex constellation of Kashmir in our world. It was not about delivering answers. The collection unfolded progressively online, where it was able to reach audiences in Kashmir and beyond—some of whom, in turn, became part of the work itself. Cups of nun chai appeared in exhibitions, art awards and publications. And most recently the work circulated as an eleven-month newspaper serial in Kashmir from June 2016 – April 2017.
The 11th of June 2016 marked the fifth anniversary of Tufail Ahmed Mattoo’s death. Accordingly, Cups of nun chai began its journey as a newspaper serial in Kashmir on this day. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday—that it was feasible given the circumstances—the Srinagar-based newspaper Kashmir Reader serialised Cups of nun chai in print and online. This was a means of ‘exhibiting’ the work in Kashmir, and circulating it to people whom it would not otherwise reach. It was also a means of bringing these stories of 2010 into dialogue with the news of ‘today’, highlighting the points of repetition and change that abound.
Almost a month after this media intervention began, the death of a popular rebel commander set off a wave of violence not seen in Kashmir since 2010. Hundreds of thousands of people across Kashmir came out to mark the martyrdom of Burhan Wani and his companions. Protests unfolded. Mourning continued. And the state responded with ever-greater force. Once again in Kashmir people were dying and suffering serious injuries on a daily basis. Over one thousand people were blinded by the use of pellet guns. Over ten thousand were imprisoned. In the public imagination of Kashmir, and in the pages of Kashmir Reader, the news of ‘today’ collided with the memory of 2010 in momentous ways.
Then, amidst the government’s crackdown on civil society in Kashmir, on the 2nd of October 2016 Kashmir Reader was banned. The government claimed the newspaper was inciting violence, though no specific example was provided. This censorship is just one part of the ongoing violence that is coming to define the world’s largest democracy. Kashmir Reader was banned for being good at journalism. It was banned for thinking and writing bravely in a war zone.
As the relative ‘calm’ of winter set in the government-imposed ban was lifted. Kashmir Reader resumed publishing on the 28th of December 2016, and with it the newspaper serialisation of Cups of nun chai continued until late April 2017.
It’s been telling to see events in Kashmir, and the world, reported alongside these stories and conversations that took place between 2010–2012. Some things remain the same, but others have changed irrevocably. I am left feeling that the course of history continues to travel a path that is just as tragic and furious and hopeful as everything that has come before. If 2010 seemed to herald in new creative forms of dissent and protest, the fact that this was not met with any meaningful response means that 2016 and 2017 have been marked by a return to armed struggle and overt defiance by those without weapons on the streets.
The newspapers in these volumes don’t only contain Cups of nun chai, they are an almost day-by-day document of this period in Kashmir’s recent history. The contents of these volumes have been written in part by me, and in part by world events, by Kashmiri journalists, by the actions of the state and civilians, and by advertisers whose very business enable the production and circulation of the newspaper itself. All together they paint a telling picture of life in Kashmir today and shed light on its relationship with the world we share. Cups of nun chai embodies the literal collision of memory and news, of subjectivity and event, of absurdity and urgency, and of fury and sensitivity. It is an ode to those who have died and those who survive.
These volumes will now, quite literally, take Kashmir’s own media out into the world, into the heart of India’s political capital and also well beyond, as they travel on an indefinite journey from one place to the next.
Cups of nun chai accumulated progressively over tea and conversation between 2010-2012. The first public exhibition of the work took place at Mori Gallery in Sydney in September 2012. The work was a finalist in the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 2013. Starting in June 2016 and continuing into 2017 Cups of nun chai was serialised in the newspaper Kashmir Reader, every Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday for 11 months. These newspapers, over 100 in total, were bound into three volumes that went on to win the 2017 Incinerator Art Award: Art for Social Change.
Thank you Kashmir for teaching me.
Cups of nun chai could not exist without the 118 people who took the time to share a cup of nun chai. It is the openness of their voices that has allowed this work to take root. I have received sustenance from many people for many years in many ways. This work would not be what it is without the always sensitive and always challenging and always astute editorial advice and friendship of Arif Ayaz Parrey. At a time of immense doubt David Watson also provided vital editorial advice from the first page to the last.
Suvaid Yaseen, Majid Maqbool and Riyaz Ahmed for being there at the
start. And my Aunt who broke the ice. Anna Crane, Sanjay Kak and Rachel Forse for their patient belief and sound advice. Nawaz Gul Qanango for listening and enabling the conversation to keep going. Uzma Falak and Zahid Rafiq for always reminding me of uncertain definitions. And to Rupin Maitreyee for gentle clarity. Andrew Fisher for his craft. And Esther and Lou for your attention to detail. And to Kaushik Ramaswamy who, quite simply, understood it.
Neelofar, Manzoor, Aarti, the Mir family, Victoria, Thornton, Marianne, Andy, Ashish and Anna, for opening their homes as places for me to brew nun chai in, to write from and to talk endlessly about how to navigate this journey.
My deepest respect to the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, whose important work enabled the inclusion of the names of those who died in 2010 to appear in volumes one and three.
Massive praise to Kashmir Reader. Especially Parvaiz Bukhari and Hilal Mir for pushing the boundaries of what a newspaper can be, and for following that through. And to Chris and J for being the bread and air of my life.