Communion with the dead: In conversation with Alana Hunt

Nun Chai
                                                                                       Picture by Alana Hunt

Cups of Nun Chai (2020) by Alana Hunt is a book that is both an eulogy of lost Kashmiri lives and their remembrance through conversations over cups of nun-chai (salty pink tea). Hunt, who is an artist and a writer based in Australia, spoke to Wande over email about the journey of a decade that led to the book, its timeliness and much more. Excerpts from the interview:


Why this book? And why now, at this point in time?

Why this book? is a question I find very difficult to answer. I feel so caught up in the work itself that I cannot look at it from the outside. I can, however, tell you better why this work came to be in the form of a book.

Cups of nun chai is a difficult work to “package”. Unfolding over a decade now, it is slow-evolving and amorphous. It isn’t something that can be captured in a single image or a glance in a gallery. Instead, it is textually dense, shaped by relationships, and carried forward by different modes of circulation. Just as the serialization of the work in Kashmir Reader appeared like an exhibition slipping into the folds of a newspaper, so too in this book an art-work is held in a form akin to a novel, or what what Itu Chaudhuri Design aptly called a novel-form.

The book format offers the kind of intimacy the work demands, while carrying it into the public sphere and people’s everyday lives. Books can move across social boundaries and national borders in a way that conventional art exhibitions cannot. It is not an elaborate (and oversized) coffee table book. It can be carried in a bag. On a bus. I wanted to make something special, but not precious.

But why now? Time has always been a very important part of this work—sometimes by choice or intent, and at other times completely serendipitously. As memory, response and conversation, Cups of nun chai has been shaped by and has intervened in very particular moments in time. Now is no different. We began working on this book a few brief months after 5 August 2019, and our work continued throughout 2020. The question, of what it is that work that emerged from the summer of 2010, can offer the present, is persistently with me. Perhaps the answer will come with time. Friends from Kashmir have often reminded me that the reading down of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and the intense communication blackout that followed are not sudden ruptures, but part of a long continuum. I hope this book can help point to parts of that continuum, rupturing some of the imposed silences.

 

How has this book evolved over the years? Please lead us through its various iterations.

At its core Cups of nun chai is a memorial for those who were killed by the Indian state in Kashmir, predominately those taking part in pro-freedom protests in 2010. A constant thought in my mind has been how to do justice to these martyrs, without tokenizing and without being invasive, especially as someone not from Kashmir. In a broad sense, I have tried to do this by forging a constellation of the things that shaped the world these martyrs were part of, and their deaths.

From 2010–12 the work unfolded through conversation over cups of nun chai with 118 people in Australia, India and Kashmir. These intimate conversations casually connected Kashmir to global experiences of loss, state violence and colonization, particularly in Australia and South Asia. I took a photo of each person holding their cup of nun chai and wrote from memory about our conversation. These images and texts accumulated online, progressively, and so the work was able to bounce across different publics within and outside of Kashmir through the internet.

The work has also featured in a few exhibitions, but I really wanted to find a way to circulate it within Kashmir. I was also quite nervous about the quality of my writing. So I sought feedback from a number of people, and continued working on the text gradually, amidst the load of becoming a mother.

I have always been interested in Kashmir’s media. It tells a dramatically different story to the press in India and all kinds of writing coming from Kashmir has substantially influenced my own art-making. The potential for a newspaper serial seemed like a wonderful way to circulate the work in Kashmir, where an exhibition was not really feasible and was likely to have a very limited audience. In early 2016, Kashmir Reader agreed to carry the work three times a week, and the serialization began on the anniversary of Tufail Ahmad Mattoo’s death.

I didn’t want to impose my own aesthetics on the newspaper, so I trusted the editors with the layouts and titles. These titles, assigned by the editors, have come to inform the chapter titles and contents page of the book, and provide a powerful overview of the work’s tone and direction.

Another key reason for weaving the work into a newspaper was to juxtapose the memory of 2010 with the news of the day; to bring the past into conversation with the present in a public way, much as we are doing now with the book. Within Kashmir Reader, the threads of Cups of nun chai interacted with the headlines, images and subjects of the newspaper and, by extension, Kashmir.

A month after the newspaper serial began, Burhan Wani was killed in July 2016. As a result, 2016 began to connect with 2010 through people’s lived memory, well outside of my own work. The state’s response eventually led to Kashmir Reader being banned for three months—just one instance of the censorship with which Kashmir’s media fraternity continues to reckon. When the ban was lifted, Kashmir Reader continued serializing Cups of nun chai until completion. I then collated all these newspapers into three bound volumes, an archive not just of my work but of that time, and that newspaper. The first volume contains newspapers before the ban, the second volume is full of blank pages that amounted to the number of newspapers that would have been printed if the ban was not in place, and the third volume holds the newspapers printed after the ban was revoked. Hilal Mir and Arif Ayaz Parrey also wrote pieces that accompanied these volumes. The newspapers then became catalysts for more readings and discussions through events and exhibitions in Australia, America, Indonesia and Pakistan.

All of this—the conversations, the website, the newspaper serialization—were relatively low-cost though undoubtedly time consuming ways of making art. But something was still missing—a means of holding the work together in its entirety. And so, the book making, with Yaarbal Books, began.

 

Cups of nun chai whips up a bloody snowstorm before settling into pink—the colour of roses, hibiscus and lilies, but also of murder fading from memory, all of which grow in Kashmir. What do you make of this dance of incredible beauty with unbelievable violence? How does it shape your perception of the place? In turn, how did it shape the book in your head?

This dance is one of the many things that made it difficult for me to turn away from Kashmir, because of the potential for freedom that Kashmir embodies and the injustice that needs to be overcome.

But this dance, between beauty and violence, is also something that plays out in India’s popular imagination to the detriment of Kashmir. In this way it is objectified as a beautiful landscape, virginal and waiting for “ownership and development”. Very similar to Australia, the Kashmiri landscape is either viewed as people-less, or at times not appropriately used (read, exploited) by its Indigenous people. This justifies the occupation in colonial eyes. And the violence that ensues, rather than being something of shame is turned into a story of national heroism. This needs to be undone.

I have tried to think carefully of the dynamics and consequence of representation within and about Kashmir. In doing so I have tried to side step this common binary, but as you point out these things do grow in Kashmir. Whether it be mobile phones or cups of tea, the everyday is often the starting point, through which I have tried to highlight the things that slip between, beyond and amidst the dominant narratives of beauty and violence.

The colour pink is not something I would have chosen to work with. It is a colour laden with conventional notions of femininity, generating restrictive assumptions that are difficult to shake as a woman in this world. But such things can also be subverted.

The nature of nun chai demanded the colour pink, so we’ve worked with it. And thankfully, as you rightly mention, it aptly carries with it the colour of flowers, and fading memories of blood. At once hopeful, persistent and rebellious.

From its inception, Cups of nun chai has avoided a direct representation of violence, working instead with a somewhat more generative aesthetic of care—embodied in the accumulation of the cup images and the nuance that conversation affords. However, the work has a beguiling nature, in the sense it employs something very casual—a simple cup of pink tea—to confront a violence of almost unimaginable severity.

Within the book, the newspaper fragments appear as a kind of harder evidence, beside seemingly softer cups of tea. But as soon as the surface is scratched a little these assumptions, like the sweetness of the colour pink, begin to unravel.

If your other project on Kashmir Paper txt msgs from Kashmir was about restoration of the lines of communication between the living (even Man and God, in one memorable instance), which the administration had brutally cut off, Cups of nun chai is a communion with the dead. Where do you see the conversation on what is called the “Kashmir issue” headed, in the literary and the art world? Is there a possibility of redemption or will it continue going down a dark, macabre path?

It might sound strange, but something that terrifies me is the possibility that Kashmir follows the path of Australia. By this, I mean a form of settler colonialism so concrete that the state does not need to kill people anymore, because they have created an environment of self-destruction, whereby suicide levels for Indigenous people, children included, are amongst the highest in the world. A scene where, with one hand the state gives a handful of funds to preserve the very languages it wholeheartedly decimates with the other.

But with that in mind, I don’t think we have time for pessimism. In Australia, or in Kashmir.

I sit on the edge of many art worlds, and on the far edge of any literary world. And as an artist and occasional writer I have always been more interested in getting my work into the world, the art world being one avenue, but not by any means the only avenue.

The spheres of literature and art are one part of a cultural ecology, that spans across all areas of our lives. We need to make this a vibrant path, a living ecology; dark and macabre will not do.

You have had a brief encounter with Kashmir and have two memorable works to show for it. Why do you think Kashmir's own artistic and literary community struggles to find expression?

I don’t think Kashmir’s artistic and literary community struggles to find expression. While I wish I knew more of the centuries long history of cultural expression within Kashmir, I have found much inspiration and solace and rigour in the work that I have seen emerge from Kashmir over the last decade.

That includes the films and writing of people I have worked with closely on this book—Sanjay Kak, Arif Ayaz Parrey, Uzma Falak and Parvaiz Bukhari. But also people whose work I admire from a distance; graphic artists like Mir Suhail Qadri, Malik Sajad, and Suhail Naqshbandi; photojournalists like Showkat Nanda, Syed Shahriyar, Faisal Khan and Masrat Zahra to mention just a few; photographic artists like Sharafat Ali and the female collective @herpixelstory; the fiction of Mirza Waheed, Feroz Rather and so many others appearing in print and on digital platforms like Wande itself, and Mountain Ink and Inverse Journal. There is a world of music, journalism, poetry, art, non-fiction and academic research produced by Kashmiris, within Kashmir and around the world. All of this, and so much more, made in a context of severe political and cultural repression. My work is just one small addition to this much larger chorus, and I wish little more than for this chorus to flourish.

 

Cups of Nun Chai (www.cupsofnunchai.com), published by Yarbal Books, is available for sale at Gulshan Books, Password bookshop, Khan News Agency, and Best Seller bookstore in Srinagar, Kashmir.