Alana Hunt, an artist and writer who lives in Miriwoong country in north-west Australia, has had a decade-long engagement with South Asia, particularly Kashmir, which she first visited in 2009 while studying in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
The killing of over 118 people during the protests that roiled the valley during the summer of 2010 led to Cups Of Nun Chai. A decade-long iterative body of work that remains, at its core, a memorial to this loss of life, Cups Of Nun Chai unfolded over two years of tea and conversation with 118 people, accumulated progressively online, was serialised in the Kashmir Reader newspaper and has featured in exhibitions, readings and discussions. Most recently, it has been published as a book by the Delhi-based Yaarbal Books, designed by Itu Chaudhuri Design.
In this work, the political unfolds through personal experiences, shared over nun chai—Kashmir’s salt tea—with ordinary people in that region, other parts of India, and Australia. Reflecting on nation-making, power and violence, and spanning contemporary art, literature, social science and journalism, Cups Of Nun Chai is described as “an archive of small moments, marking each loss and moving against the normalisation of political violence and death…a poignant act of memorialisation—a means of remembering, reading and reminding”.
In an email interview , Hunt talks about her engagement with Kashmir, the genesis of Cups Of Nun Chai, its transformation into a book, and why the lack of awareness about the plight of Kashmiris was critical in shaping her work. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about your initial engagement with Kashmir and how your stay and visits influenced you as an artist and an outsider.
Kashmir is something that grew in my mind gradually over time—carving itself a pocket and not really ever leaving. My first glimpses of Kashmir actually took place in New Delhi—through films, books and people. But it wasn’t until I went to Kashmir in 2009 that the place lost its abstraction, largely through conversations inside people’s homes, and over cups of nun chai. With this, Kashmir became real in a way that was hard to leave behind.
I didn’t intend to make work about Kashmir, but a number of specific events made it feel necessary; my silence more violent than the hesitations I had speaking about it. Namely, the prepaid-phone ban in late 2009 shaped a work called Paper txt msgs From Kashmir (2009-11), which invited dejected prepaid subscribers in Kashmir to write a “paper-txt-msg”, to anyone real or imagined, about anything they would like to write in a text message but were suddenly unable to; the killing of over 118 people during the summer of 2010 led to Cups Of Nun Chai; and the visual culture that was being produced on the streets of social media in response to the mass-blinding that took place in 2016 informed the essay A Mere Drop In The Sea Of What Is (4A Papers).
My visits to Kashmir fused with my studies at JNU in New Delhi, where I was learning about colonisation, modernity and nation states, among other things. These ideas, experiences and relationships shape not only how I understand South Asia, but also how I understand Australia. And all of this informs all my work today.
How and when did you start working on this art project?
When the protests engulfed Kashmir in mid-2010, spurred by the death of Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, a 17-year-old who was on his way home from tuition when he was killed by state forces, I had just returned to Australia after an absence of almost three years. From Sydney, I was communicating online with friends in Kashmir, and watching the death toll rise day by day. No one I spoke to in Australia knew anything about what was taking place in Kashmir. Bridging this gap was one thing that informed the work.
There was also a desire to highlight the absurdity of the state’s violence in Kashmir. A key element was to move against the normalisation of this violence, and to mark it, to run against the state’s attempts at erasure, with a small (perhaps similarly absurd) gesture of care. But one that persistently accumulated into a constellation of this particular moment and place, and connected it to many others, ultimately forging a requiem for all those who were killed in 2010.
Before the text of each conversation, there are images of hands holding cups of ‘nun chai’. You write that this was an “attempt to evade the dominant modes within which Kashmir is represented”. Can you elaborate?
Representations of Kashmir often swing like a pendulum between a heavenly abode and a place ravaged by war. In my work, I have always tried to evade this binary; to go into complex spaces in lateral and oblique ways. As an artist, I have wrestled with the limits of visual representation, which is how I came to employ language in this work. And as someone not from Kashmir, I have never felt entirely comfortable with photographing or filming the place in a direct manner.
The gesture of holding each cup of nun chai acts as an accumulating allegory of care in the face of what is otherwise a very brutal situation. It offers a kind of potentiality. The inclusion of newspaper fragments from Kashmir Reader from the time that Cups Of Nun Chai was serialised in its pages points not only to that process of the serialisation, but also to Kashmir, and in particular the 2016-17 period that, following the killing of Burhan Wani, saw a mass outpouring of mourning and protest not seen in Kashmir since 2010. In some ways, in the book the newspaper fragments sit as a kind of “harder” evidence beside seemingly “softer” cups of tea. They also point to the multiple moments the work has moved in, and perhaps provide a voice that is otherwise internal to Kashmir. I think Kashmir’s media should be seen outside of Kashmir more. Imagine if Kashmir Reader had been read en masse in New Delhi, or even New York for that matter.
You write in the book that there’s a “gaping silence on Kashmir” in the outside world. Did that come across from your everyday conversations bringing up what was happening in Kashmir with common people in Australia?
That gaping silence, that lack of awareness, that huge sense of indifference that I encountered upon returning to Australia was critical in shaping the work. It is evident as much among everyday people as it is in the media. It is this juncture that prompted the conversations, and was aired within them. Another thread that underlines the work asks, when political violence unfolds in a place distant from where you are, what is our responsibility? What can we do for this world we all share?
The 5 August 2019 revocation of the region’s special status, followed by an unprecedented communications blackout, was widely covered internationally. Do you think that has somewhat helped bring the focus back on the Kashmir dispute?
This was covered by the international media, but not widely. Certainly not widely enough, otherwise there would have been consequences. The world’s largest democracy got away with implementing an unprecedented communications blackout upon the people who live amidst the longest unresolved conflict on the UN Security Council’s agenda, people in Kashmir it claims as Indian citizens. At the same time, India has begun a clear process of settler-colonisation, unfolding under the guise of development through bureaucratic and military means. A process which similarly abounds around me in Australia on a daily basis as well.
These recent steps have internationalised the conflict in Kashmir in ways that have not been seen for a long time. That is hopeful. But there needs to be more. Why do we need to wait until the situation is explosive before our media, and our societies more broadly, take note?
Cups Of Nun Chai is available in select book stores in Delhi, Mumbai and Srinagar, and online at www.cupsofnunchai.com
Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist and editor