Art

Nun Chai and Conversation: An Australian Artist’s Stories of Kashmir

Alana Hunt has detailed the dialogues she had on Kashmir with people across the world in her interactive art project ‘Cups of Nun Chai’.

Cups of Nun Chai displayed at a gallery. Courtesy: Alana Hunt

Cups of Nun Chai displayed at a gallery. Courtesy: Alana Hunt

In June 2010, Alana Hunt, a young Australian artist, had just returned from Kashmir to New Delhi, where she was studying at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. A friend rushed to tell her that a teenage boy, Tufail Matoo, had been killed in Srinagar. A few weeks later, as the death toll in Kashmir rose, Hunt flew home to Sydney. The news of each new civilian death made its way to her social media feed.

More than 100 people were killed in clashes with security forces that summer. “I was sitting in Sydney and every day I was watching the death toll in Kashmir rise,” says Hunt. “But no one else in Sydney seemed to know about it. I wanted to scream out to the world.”

In an effort to create awareness and discussions around what was happening in Kashmir, Hunt began to invite people over to share a cup of nun chai (salt tea) with her. There were no rules. “The conversations taught me as much as anyone else. I shared nun chai with 118 different people. I had nun chai with people across Australia, in Bangkok and Europe, and the last third of the project took place in India and Kashmir,” she says.

Sharing cup of nun chai with other people, Hunt would later note down the ensuing conversations about Kashmir and the concerns and curiosities it evoked. As the conversations grew, so did the cups of nun chai she had with people of different age groups from varied backgrounds and nationalities.

Nun chai with Mallika. Credit: Alana Hunt

Nun chai with Mallika. Credit: Alana Hunt

Cups of nun chai emerged as a way to engage people and take them places that a regular article couldn’t. “It was about memorialising those who passed away in Kashmir that summer. It was about directly confronting the often shallow nature of western empathy and exploring how to move beyond,” she says. “It was a way to challenge that powerful process of normalisation, which renders structural violence in Kashmir an everyday thing, and it was an absurd gesture when meaning itself became too much to bear.”

And it was a two-way process. The work was about sharing Kashmir’s story with people outside Kashmir, but it was also about letting Kashmiris know that people were listening to their story. Every person with whom she shared a cup of nun chai connected Kashmir’s story to their own experiences in different parts of the world. Soon the work grew into this diverse narrative that unfolded through deeply personal and political experiences of loss, mourning and resistance. 

Nun Chai with Theo. Credit: Alana Hunt

Nun Chai with Theo. Credit: Alana Hunt

Hunt says aboriginal people in the northwest of Australia were connecting what was taking place in Kashmir with their own experiences. She spoke about Kashmir with a Somali migrant who shared her own experiences of migration, nation-making and terrorism. “I learnt about Thailand’s political movements and again and again comparisons with Ireland, East Timor and Palestine were at the fore,” she says. “And underlying all these larger political stories were the small personal experiences of individuals.”

In 2012, ‘Cups of nun chai’ was displayed at Mori Gallery in Sydney. In 2013, it was “highly commended” in the Blake Prize at the UNSW Galleries in Sydney.

Hunt first travelled to Kashmir in 2009 as an intern with an NGO along with some Indian students. She carried a photocopied poetry collection of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, which she read throughout the journey. She stayed in rural parts of Kashmir, with families in Sopore, Kupwara and in a village near Uri. “I met a lot of different people with different ideas, different experiences and different hopes,” she says about her initial experiences of living in rural Kashmir. “I listened to everything I could and I asked loads of questions.”

Later that year, Hunt left Kashmir with a deep sense of injustice, but also with a lot of joy, warmth and kindness. Now, over seven years later, she says Kashmir is still very much on her mind. “I find Kashmir to be a great source of inspiration,” she says.

Hunt’s art practice often takes place in the social spaces between people, being less about mediums and more about experiences, collaboration and participation. South Asia and the remote northwest of Australia are central to her life and work.

Alana’s first work on Kashmir was a participatory media project in response to the state government’s ban on all prepaid mobile phone services as a ‘security’ measure in December 2009. Paper txt msgs from Kashmir invited people in Kashmir to write on paper what they could no longer write on their phones. These missives were collated into a video, installation and a publication. First released as an e-book in May 2011 and later published in print, Paper txt msgs from Kashmir captured the sentiments running through Kashmir at the time.

<em>Paper txt messages from Kashmir</em>. Courtesy: Alana Hunt

Paper txt messages from Kashmir. Courtesy: Alana Hunt

Thinking of different ways for people to engage with and access her work, ‘Cups of nun chai’ has moved from the privacy of people’s homes to galleries, a website and, most recently, serialised in Kashmir Reader, a newspaper that was recently banned by the state government for ‘inciting violence’, a charge denied by the newspaper editors. The ban drew widespread criticism from the journalist community in Kashmir.

Courtesy: Alana Hunt

Courtesy: Alana Hunt

Hunt had been wanting to serialise ‘Cups of nun chai’ in a local Kashmir daily for many years. But she was worried the work would not be enough. How to really produce something worthy of the lives of over 100 people? This question weighed heavy on her mind.

This year, with the help of a few friends from Kashmir, she launched the newspaper serial in Kashmir Reader, on the anniversary of Tufail Ahmed Mattoo’s passing, June 11. “I wanted to do the newspaper serial in order to exhibit the work in Kashmir and enable it to circulate to audiences it would not otherwise reach,” she says, adding that she always had this idea of juxtaposition; placing the stories from 2010 beside the news of ‘today’, in order to highlight the repetition and changes that were taking place. 

The newspaper serial had been on for just a month when Burhan Wani was killed on July 8. Since then, about 90 people have died in the ensuing protests and over 14,000 people have been injured, including hundreds of youth blinded in one or both eyes by pellets. “What has followed has placed 2016 in direct conversation with 2010 in a way that none of the intervening years have,” she says, adding that 2016 feels to her more about the struggle of visibility against invisibility, of information and misinformation in Kashmir, and about blindness and sight. 

“It’s always tricky to talk about a place when you aren’t from there, but I found people in Kashmir to be very supportive and encouraging,” she says. “They want the world to start talking about what’s really going on.”

The 53rd cup of nun chai was published in Kashmir Reader on Saturday, October 1. On Sunday night, the paper was banned by the state government. From Monday onward Kashmir Reader could not be published.

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based out of Srinagar, Kashmir.