Sanjay Kak Tell me about that first cup of nun chai in Kashmir, that first conversation. Were you prepared for what you were to encounter?
Alana Hunt My first cup of nun chai was actually in Delhi in the home of a Kashmiri artist friend. I initially came to Delhi, with the support of the Australia Council, as an artist in residence with the Sarai Programme, after which I pursued studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. During my first few weeks in the city I came across a small flyer for a screening of a film about the Safar-i-Azadi (Journey to Freedom) campaign led by the pro-independence leader and former armed fighter Yasin Malik. SAR Geelani was also there, and I learnt that he had already spent several years on death row in connection with the attack on the Indian Parliament, for which he was eventually acquitted. At the same time, protesting in the streets outside were the Hindu group Roots in Kashmir, wholly opposed to the idea of Kashmiri self-determination. I was new to Delhi, but from that point confronted with the multilayered tensions surrounding India’s occupation of Kashmir. It led me to the book The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament, and your film Jashn-e-Azadi (How we Celebrate Freedom).
When I eventually travelled to Kashmir, it was through further conversations over nun chai that the place lost its abstraction, became tangible and personal to me. I returned to Delhi with the impression that everyone in Kashmir knew loss intimately. To see how that could permeate an entire society was something I had never encountered before. I came back with a profound respect for Kashmir’s ability to survive under such violent and duplicitous political conditions. You had been producing films for around two decades before Jashn-e-Azadi. Did something happen to shift the focus of your work “home” on your own Kashmiri ancestry?
Sanjay I grew up outside Kashmir, so it was for me a place of vacations, of grandparents and cousins, and of nostalgia—all part of the peripatetic life of an army officer’s son. I was there in 1989, but then not again until the summer of 2003. That’s such a long time, and I don’t know what kept me away, what blanked it out for me … But one reason could be that when the pro-freedom armed insurgency erupted in early 1990, it was quickly represented in India as an “Islamic” upsurge. That’s probably why I kept away from Kashmir, because my ancestry makes me a Hindu. And when I did visit it was not with the idea of “work”, it was because I wanted to show my (then) teenage daughter Kashmir. It could never be a holiday, for the Srinagar that we came to in 2003 was a broken city, exhausted and sullen. I found myself very agitated by the intense militarisation, the fact that there was a soldier at every street corner, resulting in everyday humiliation for Kashmiris ...
The years prior, that shaped my reactions, had been a period of intensive immersion in all kinds of very deeply affecting politics. I had just made a long film, over several years, about the struggle against large dams in central India, on the river Narmada. Words on Water was meant to be a lens through which one could look at the idea of democracy in India. I had come away deeply moved by this people’s movement but also deeply disturbed. The system seemed broken. It worked only for those who wielded power, and justice was a shadowy presence. Then in 2002 I was drawn into the legal defence of SAR Geelani, who you mention. He was a professor of Arabic in a college in Delhi University when he was arrested for being a conspirator in that very mysterious “terrorist” attack on the Indian Parliament. My testimony didn’t seem to matter, and Geelani was sentenced to death, although eventually he was released.
But it was the way the Kashmiris, Muslims all of them, were being wrung out through the court system, and the media trials. It made me very angry. If there is one thing that brought my attention “home”, it was this experience. But tell me about your own reactions. How does the act of sharing a cup of salted tea, your nun chai, become the framework for your artistic practice? Walk me through that ...
Alana Similarly, I never went to Kashmir to make “work” but over time I felt compelled to respond to events. The first instance was the ban on pre-paid mobile phones in late 2009. It seemed utterly absurd that the government would ban those it claimed were its citizens from using mobile phones for reasons of “security”. There was just one small column in The Hindu newspaper. Otherwise, Delhi appeared oblivious to the everyday violence of India’s control over Kashmir. In response, I produced just over a thousand “paper txt msgs” and circulated them throughout Kashmir, inviting people to write on paper what they suddenly couldn’t on their phones. It began as a light-hearted gesture. Over 150 paper txt msgs made their way back to me, full of personal sentiments, which eventually formed a book and video. Some were sarcastic comments addressed to politicians, others were deeply personal missives. One was simply addressed to God with the question, “When will India leave Kashmir?” An important outcome of this work was the fact that media in India and Pakistan began to write about the phone ban—quoting from the paper txt msgs directly and carrying the very sentiments that had previously been ignored into the public sphere.
Cups of nun chai came from something even more violent but in some ways equally absurd. While I was travelling via train from Kashmir to Delhi in early June 2010, Tufail Mattoo, a seventeen-year-old boy on his way home from school, was killed when a tear gas canister fired by the police hit his head. And not long after that, I returned to Australia after a three-year absence. From Sydney I watched the death toll in Kashmir rise day by day, through a seemingly endless cycle of state violence, protest and mourning. It eventually reached over 118 people in almost as many days. These were mostly unarmed young boys and men killed in pro-freedom protests on the street by India’s armed forces. I was in contact with friends in Kashmir dealing with that horror every day. Meanwhile, Australia barely took note.
I wanted to stop these deaths being swept under the carpet. Just as nun chai had helped to make Kashmir tangible to me, I used it in an attempt to make Kashmir tangible to others. I soon learnt that nun chai was also central to a Kashmiri tradition of mourning, a prayer for the dead, that goes by the name fatheha-chai. Unfolding over two years of tea and conversation with 118 people in Australia and South Asia, Cups of nun chai became an exploration of how we encounter, respond to and remember political violence.
But while political events in Kashmir were influencing my work, the imagination and determination of the people was too. Back in Australia, my engagement with Kashmir was all online in a way that it had never been before. In fact, this is how I first started using social media. The writing, music, photography, journalism, poetry, stories and graffiti that were pouring out of Kashmir, particularly in 2010, were a source of inspiration and teaching. I suspect they have been for you too, which no doubt prompted your book Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir, published in 2011. In your introduction you describe this new intifada as an “intifada of the mind”. How were these events different from what had come before?
Sanjay I think you were right to pick up that 2010 was special, that it was different for Kashmir. The present phase of political resistance began in 1990, but in 2010 there was a sort of breaking out, an unshackling if you like—an intifada ... People, especially young people, seem to have suddenly found a voice. They were on the streets in peaceful protests, they were on the streets in grim rock-throwing contestations with the police and paramilitary, and they were also expressing themselves in all the ways that you’ve described—poetry, writing, music, photography, graffiti, graphic novels …
This did not happen overnight obviously, things had been accumulating, especially during those three critical years, starting with the protests of 2008, which were triggered by a dispute over land being given over to a Hindu pilgrimage, which many Kashmiris felt was a provocation to reshape the social character of the valley. It carried over into 2009, this time triggered by the rape and murder of two young women, a horrible incident that roiled Kashmir for months of protests. And then, in 2010, there was the killing of Tufail Mattoo, which you referred to. Those three years of protest feel like one continuous wave of energy. But in that outpouring of feeling we had all begun to see a lot of writing that was appearing, sporadically across social media, which suggested that something important was happening. It could have been a moment, and could have passed away, like a wave. That’s what the edited anthology Until My Freedom Has Come sought to do: putting all those myriad voices together—including those of perceptive non-Kashmiris, marked a moment of significance.
But tell me more about your work. At that distance from Kashmir, what made you use those encounters over nun chai as your canvas, or palette, or whatever you choose to call it? What was it about Kashmir that prompted those almost intimate conversations?
Alana It was not only Kashmir that suggested the need for those intimate conversations. It was the gaping silence amidst the 24-hour news cycle in Australia. When the death toll in 2010 reached 69, I suddenly found myself in Sydney thinking of the 69 cups of nun chai that would not be served inside the homes of those martyrs. Despite the powerful writing and journalism coming out of Kashmir, it was not having an impact here. The distinct flavour of nun chai and its central place in Kashmir’s social life—embodying hospitality, family and discussion—enabled me and the 118 others participating in the conversation to build a memorial to this loss of life.
As a body of work Cups of nun chai has its roots in the events of 2010. I wanted to bring the geopolitics of Kashmir into contact with something that was more individually affecting. The work then took that personal space back into the public sphere through its serialisation in the newspaper Kashmir Reader which unfolded over eleven months from mid-2016—beginning on the anniversary of Tufail’s death and continuing through a very difficult and significant period of unrest following the death of the rebel commander Burhan Wani. Outside of Kashmir, these newspapers continue to circulate as a collection of bound volumes.
We’ve both engaged in publishing and the media in Kashmir. Your latest work, Witness: Kashmir 1986–2016, looks at thirty years of photo‑journalism in Kashmir through the work of nine photographers. What do you think this group portrait, documenting over thirty years of experience, can tell us today?
Sanjay All ideas have long pre-histories, whether we acknowledge them or not. It might be a properly embryonic pre-history, or just some stray impulses in the brain. With the photobook Witness, which I edited and published in 2017, those impulses go all the way back to 2004, when I had begun working on my film Jashn-e-Azadi. We were having a very hard time evoking the decade of the 1990s in Kashmir. These were very difficult, traumatic years, and people in Kashmir were not comfortable talking about their experiences. I was looking out for archival material—video, stills—that could evoke those times, and that is when I began to encounter the collections of some of the older photojournalists.
What words could only hint at was suddenly made palpable for me. Euphoria. Fear. Hope. The lack of it. Eventually I did locate a small but powerful video archive that helped build a narrative texture of memory, and the impulse to look at the photojournalism quickly slipped away under the pressure of completing a film. It came back to me with a vengeance only after the massive floods of 2014, that drowned out large parts of Kashmir and saw much of Srinagar under ten to fifteen feet of water for more than a week. Photographers lost their collections, fragile negatives were washed away, even hard-discs were drowned. That was undoubtedly one of the provocations for Witness.
I was fortunate to have found some early and generous support from the Prince Claus Fund and the India Foundation for the Arts, and the form the book took was of a set of carefully curated pictures from nine equally carefully selected photojournalists from Kashmir. The oldest was in his late 50s, the youngest had not turned 20 when the book came out. I also engaged each of them in a series of conversations, some while we were selecting the pictures, others later. Photojournalists tend not to talk a lot, certainly not in Kashmir, and I really wanted them to tell me what made them photographers, what it gave them, apart from earning a living (for some of them). The pictures gave us one narrative of thirty years of conflict, 1986–2016. The photographers themselves, with their varied biographies and inclinations, diversified this further. And then there is the design of the book, which is a reading of its own working with the material.
Now, Witness is out there in the world, it has done well for itself, as far as books like this do. But I do wonder what sense it all makes outside of this region, when a book about Kashmir is placed in the marketplace of global sorrow …
What have been your experiences with showing the nun chai work in Australia, for instance? Does this reaction travel? Does it lend itself to sharing?
Alana Cups of nun chai is not an easy work to package. And because there is so little awareness of Kashmir’s political and historical realities in Australia, interest needs to be nurtured. From this point of view, Kashmir barely figures in the marketplace of global sorrow. But Kashmir is also extremely photogenic—and its representation all too often falls into these opposing binaries of heaven and hell, beauty and horror. As an artist, I’ve always tried to side-step this, to represent Kashmir in a different way. An exhibition is only one avenue. The conversations in Australia and Kashmir were the core of the project, as was the website that helped make it visible and the newspaper serial that carried the work back to Kashmir highlighting connections between 2010 and 2016 at a time when civil society was pushed to its limits.
Each conversation in Cups of nun chai became a connecting point for the global injustices of nation states, using the example of Kashmir. Documenting and sharing the story of this work is a complicated and ongoing practice. For instance, the apparently simple process of binding the newspapers into a book form in Delhi, immediately after the assassination of journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore, was difficult because of an environment of citizen vigilantes that has been empowered by the rise of the Hindu right in India today. The newspaper Kashmir Reader was itself banned for three months, which Kashmir’s fragile media fraternity is still feeling today.
The form is constantly evolving, although conversation is a relatively consistent and affective part of this process. In July I conducted a ten-hour durational reading of every single story from Cups of nun chai at the Darwin Fringe Festival and in November I will travel to the US to present an exhibition at Tufts University and a series of talks at Tufts, Brown, Indiana and Parsons universities that will bring together people from the visual arts and various centres for South Asian studies. I’m also in discussion with a number of archives interested in acquiring digitised copies of the newspapers so that it can continue to circulate.
I first came to Delhi in 2008 as an artist loosely interested in the nature of non‑violent political resistance in the world’s “largest democracy.” But since then I have gleaned a deeper understanding of democracy’s inherent fault lines and how the state can corner civilian society into not just committing but also believing in violence. When I began getting involved in Kashmir there was this fervour of inspiring non‑violent resistance, which we’ve discussed. But in many of the conversations in Cups of nun chai it was often said that if these expressions aren’t “heard,” violence will return. And that is what we are seeing now.
Sanjay You spoke of civil society being pushed into committing, and believing in violence … You cannot see me smile, Alana, but there is more than average serendipity in these closing moments of this conversation, carried on fitfully across email. I wrote the concluding section of Words on Water, about the epic struggle against large dams in central India, in November 2002, when the world was still trembling in the aftermath of 9/11. I’ve just dug that out for you from the transcript:
“When reasoned, non‑violent protest is ignored, time after time, for years, decades … when a society does not honour peaceful resistance, then by default, it privileges violence. Battles like the ones being waged on the banks of the Narmada, all across India, and the world, together, are these not the true War against Terror?”
Fifteen years later, what more can one say? About Kashmir. About so much of the world. Thank you for the chat. That was lovely.
Alana As always Sanjay, thank you.
Alana Hunt is an artist and writer who lives on Miriwoong country in the north-west of Australia and has a long standing engagement with Kashmir. In 2018 she has been working towards exhibitions with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (Sydney) and Tufts University Art Gallery (Massachusetts).
Sanjay Kak is a New Delhi based filmmaker and writer; editor of the anthology Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir (2011), and most recently editor and publisher of the photobook Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016 (2017). He is active in the documentary cinema in India, and with the Cinema of Resistance movement.