An art work tries to make sense of what is normal in this world – and what isn’t
By NAWAZ GUL QANUNGO
If the tongue dithers and nothing is said,People of tomorrow can’t know our today.
In Kashmir, rich or poor, if you haven’t had your “nun chai” in the morning, you haven’t had your breakfast. Over one such cup of nun chai, Zareef Ahmed Zareef, one of Kashmir’s best known poets, recited these verses in Kashmiri to Alana Hunt.
Hunt met Zareef as part of her project, “Cups of nun chai; a memorial”. Nun chai or Salt tea – noon in Kashmiri means salt – is the staple Kashmiri beverage. Pink in colour, it is made from special tea leaves that are brewed for hours, with milk and salt added to the brew.
Hunt started Cups of nun chai in 2010 in response to the mass uprising that shook the valley.
Hunt, 27, is an artist from Australia who studied conceptual, media art practices in Australia, Canada and India. Her work has been shown within Australia, Europe, South Asia and North America at The National Gallery of Indonesia, Mori Gallery in Sydney, Sarai Media Lab, New Delhi, among other galleries, film screenings and festivals.
Hunt started Cups of nun chai in 2010 in response to the incessant killings during the mass uprising that shook the valley. This followed on from an earlier work, Paper txt msgs from Kashmir (2009-2011) which emerged as a lo-fi participatory media project in response to the 2009 ban on pre-paid mobile phones across the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Eventually growing into a multi-platform installation, video and publication containing a collection of new writings from Kashmir Paper txt msgs from Kashmir was included in exhibitions at Sarai Media Lab in Delhi, and Memefest in Berlin, Nijmegen and Ljubljana, before Hunt received the prestigious Fauvette Loureiro Memorial Artist Prize from Sydney College of the Arts, which enabled the publication of the book in print in late 2011.
Hunt was visiting Kashmir in 2010 when three innocent villagers were killed by the Indian army in a place called Macchil and passed off as foreign terrorists. The entire valley erupted in protests, pelting the army and police with stones. The protests grew louder, and by the end of summer more than 120 protesters and bystanders had been shot dead.
Hunt recalls that when a 17-year-old boy, Tufail Mattoo, was killed when the police shot a tear gas canister straight at his head, she was in Delhi. “A friend, exasperated, ran to me on the street and told me a young boy had been killed in Kashmir. She was visibly upset, but having just returned from the region, where quite a number of people had died in the previous weeks, I didn’t understand her exasperation,” says Hunt.
“I later understood,” says Hunt, “how this kind of death had become ‘normalised’ even for me, someone not from Kashmir, in just the short time that I had been there.”
“And this work,” says Hunt, “became an attempt to move against that process of ‘normalisation’. It sought to stop, and to say no, this isn’t normal and shouldn’t be accepted as such.”
But why nun chai? “I remember one day the death toll had hit 69,” Hunt recalls. “It just struck me that there were now 69 cups of nun chai in 69 different homes that wouldn’t exist anymore, as those people didn’t exist anymore.”
“Nun chai became a way to mark that loss,” she says. “And to start a conversation, to recognise that whatever was happening in Kashmir wasn’t normal.” Hunt began to memorise these conversations as and when they happened, and write them down soon afterwards, accumulating them on a website and eventually documenting them into a book and art installation. As Hunt began, however, the toll kept mounting reaching well beyond a hundred. And with it, the number of cups of tea also increased.
But while the idea – to share one cup of nun chai for every person who had died during Kashmir’s Summer of 2010, growing over time into a participatory memorial through conversation and tea – met with encouragement, it met with opposition too. “Having tea over someone’s death is like eating biryani in the name of those who died at Babri Masjid,” a friend told Hunt. “This initial criticism was unsettling, but in the long run it made the work stronger. As I moved through these doubts, I became more clear about what it was I was doing, how I was going to do it and why it felt necessary,” says Hunt.
She writes in her work: “Nun chai was relevant because it was a part of daily life in Kashmir, for the rich and poor. It moved across most occasions—morning and afternoon, celebration and bereavement.” Its everyday-ness makes it work, she says.
Back in Australia, however, Hunt found people far removed from the turmoil in Kashmir. “The Commonwealth Games were beginning in Delhi,” Hunt recalls. “The media were lamenting we couldn’t send our athletes to India because the toilets were dirty, and there was a security threat. But there was not one mention of the human rights violations.”
Cups of nun chai began from here. “On one level it was an absurd gesture. But I’m not entirely averse to absurdity. This world is absurd at so many levels. When you start breaking things down into what they are, especially military occupations, even these things have a strong tendency to become absurd. And to these things sometimes one needs to respond in a slightly absurd and different way.”
“Moreover,” Hunt says, “The nun chai became a means to open a discussion, a gentle yet challenging refusal to forget, an ever-growing memory, that began simply with acknowledgement. That’s the essence of what I was looking for in Australia at that time: acknowledgement.”
Hunt made a pile of cards inviting people to have nun chai. She set up a website too. Invitations were circulated at art exhibitions in Australia, in the streets of Sydney handing them out to people on their way home.
“And then I waited,” says Hunt. “No one got back to me, and I thought the work was going nowhere.”
“But the work eventually began to spread through word of mouth. Once the website started getting some actual content to it, total strangers would email asking to participate.” Hunt would take pictures of the tea cups held in people’s hands, and compile them along with their stories. “Holding tea cups with one’s hands is itself like a caring gesture, and compiled together they became an allegory of possibility,” she says.
One of the people Hunt shared a cup of nun chai with was an old man, Rusty Peters, a senior indigenous artist in Australia. “When we started talking about Kashmir,” Hunt says, “he felt like we were talking about Australia’s history.” Rusty’s own paintings have depicted a lot of massacres that happened in early 20th-century Australia during British colonisation, she says.
Hunt talks about another, much younger, indigenous man. After being recruited in the army, he was sent out to patrol the ocean in the north of Australia through which a lot of refugees come from war torn parts of the world to seek asylum in Australia. “But the Australian government and media often project these refugees as potential terrorists. And send Aboriginal people to guard the coastline. It’s ironic how today’s dominant government, a legacy of British colonialism, is sending Aboriginal people—whose land the British took away—out to defend it against other people coming in.”
“States everywhere have a tendency of pitching one people against another for their own benefit. Kashmir is no different. Australia too,” Hunt says.
With Ali (name changed), a Kashmiri studying in Delhi, Hunt discovered that their memories of 2010 had been marked not by dates or places but by the rising number of dead at particular moments in time. So Hunt began speaking at one, then 17, and Ali spoke of 40, and Hunt spoke of 69. “As time passed, through what must have been a living nightmare for so many,” Hunt writes in her book, “that number reached 117.”
Then Hunt met Uzma, a young Kashmiri writer, who described 2010 as “mad times”. Through her work Uzma had visited a number of families whose kin had died. In one such visit, Uzma went to the family of Adil Ramzan, a 12-year-old boy who lost his life to the forces’ bullets.
Hunt writes of her conversation with Uzma: “Adil’s family had not been allowed to remove his injured body from the street. Hours later when they eventually reached the hospital the army also arrived, and it was here in the hospital that they eventually shot the 12-year-old to death. At his home Adil’s mother had shown Uzma his cupboard, left almost untouched as if they were waiting for his return. Uzma looked through one of his school books, in which he had written about the democratic ideals of liberty, sovereignty and justice. Adil had met his death at the hands of the world’s largest democracy. These were mad times, indeed.”
And then Hunt met a European performance artist named Beatrice.
Beatrice was based in Belgium when she emailed Hunt about participating in the work. But due to distance their nun chai could not materialise, until by chance Hunt was invited to partake in an exhibition in the Netherlands, and the flight would go via Brussels, the capital of Belgium. Beatrice agreed to receive Hunt at the airport. A problem however remained: how to make the tea? “I’d made nun chai in unusual places, but an international airport?” Hunt decided to symbolically give Beatrice the dry tea leaves and tell her how to make it.
“Beatrice greeted me at the airport,” Hunt says. “And she stood there, carrying a small silver thermos filled with warm nun chai.”
I was blown away, she says.
The day before, Beatrice had searched the internet for nun chai recipes. She even got a set of new cups. They both sat in a train moving to the centre of the city. With a small table between them, as the city of Brussels passed by outside, Beatrice poured what was “almost nun chai,” and they spoke “about all that had happened in Kashmir in the Summer of 2010”.
“From small beginnings that lie in a simple cup of nun chai,” Hunt says looking at her work, “it has grown, carrying Kashmir’s story into an accumulating reflection on loss, conflict, freedom and memory around the world.”
—This article is the first of a two part series
—Nawaz Gul Qanungo is a Srinagar-based journalist.
He is on Twitter @nawazqanungo