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117 cups of tea, and counting


ACTS OF LOVE: "Holding tea cups with one's hands is itself a caring gesture, "says artist Alana Hunt. "Compiled together they became an allegory of possibility"

Australian artist Alana Hunt started Cups of nun chai;a memorial in response to the mass uprising that shook the Valley in the summer of 2010, leaving more than a hundred dead. Nun chai or Salt tea - nun is the Kashmiri word for salt - is the staple Kashmiri beverage made from special tea leaves that have been brewed for hours, with milk and salt added to the brew. Every Kashmiri, rich or poor, begins his or her day with a steaming cup of this pink tea.

Hunt, 27, studied conceptual, media art practices in Australia, Canada and India and has exhibited around the world. Her earlier project, Paper txt msgs from Kashmir (2009-2011 ), was a response to the 2009 ban on pre-paid mobile phones across the state, and was exhibited at the Sarai Media Lab in Delhi. She was visiting Kashmir in 2010 when the Valley erupted into stone-pelting and mass protests after three innocent villagers were killed by the Indian army at Macchil and passed off as 'foreign terrorists'. "I remember one day the death toll hit 69, " Hunt recalls. "It struck me that there were now 69 cups of nun chai in 69 different homes that wouldn't exist anymore. "

And that's how her online and continually evolving project was born. Hunt made a pile of cards inviting people to have nun chai. Invitations were circulated at art exhibitions in Australia and on the streets of Sydney. "And then I waited, " says Hunt. "No one got back to me, and I thought the work was going nowhere. "

But news of her project began to spread through word of mouth, and soon, strangers began to participate. Hunt took pictures of their hands cradling a tea cup, and her website is a collage of these little shots. Each dead person is represented by a conversation over tea. "Holding tea cups with one's hands is itself a caring gesture, and compiled together they became an allegory of possibility, " she says. She has transcribed the conversations and uploaded them on her website.

While the idea of using nun chai as a memorial met with encouragement, it also met with opposition. "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 Hunt overcame her doubts and carried on. One of the main aims of the project, she says, was to shake up the idea that violence and shooting are now a normal part of life in Kashmir. Hunt was in Delhi when a young boy, Tufail Mattoo, was killed when the police shot a tear gas canister at his head. She remembers how shaken her friend was as she told her the news and contrasted her friend's reaction with her own, less intense response. "It was only later that I understood 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, " she says. "This work became an attempt to move against that process of 'normalisation'. It sought to stop, and to say no, this isn't normal. "
Many of those who participated in her chai story were Australians who asked basic questions about Kashmir and India such as, "Are there Christians in India?" Others, like Rusty Peters, a senior indigenous artist in Australia, said that Kashmir reminded him of Australia's history and the way the aboriginal population had been massacred. Another, much younger indigenous man, said that after being recruited in the army, he was sent out to patrol the ocean in the north of Australia, a passage for refugees seeking asylum in Australia. "The Australian government and media often project these refugees as potential terrorists and send aboriginal people to guard the coastline, " he told her. "It's ironic how today's 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, " says Hunt. "Kashmir is no different. Australia too. "
Among the Kashmiris Hunt spoke to was the poet Zareef Ahmed Zareef, who recited this verse in Kashmiri : If the tongue dithers and nothing is said, People of tomorrow can't know our today.

Then she met Uzma, a young Kashmiri writer, who described 2010 as "mad times". Through her work Uzma had visited a number of families who had lost loved ones. One such visit was made to the family of Adil Ramzan, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and injured by an army bullet. Hunt writes of her conversation with Uzma: "Adil's family had not been allowed to move 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 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 Beatrice, a performance artist in Belgium, who emailed asking if she could participate. When Hunt got a chance to fly through Brussels, they met at the airport. A problem arose: how was she to make nun chai at an international airport ? Hunt decided to symbolically give Beatrice some tea leaves and tell her how to make it. "Beatrice met me at the airport, " Hunt says. "And she was carrying a small silver thermos filled with warm nun chai. I was blown away. "

Beatrice had searched the internet for nun chai recipes and even got new cups. The two women sat in a trai with a small table between them, and as the city of Brussels passed by, Beatrice poured what was "almost nun chai" and they talked about "all that had happened in Kashmir in the Summer of 2010".

For exhibition details and for the conversations go to www. cupsofnunchai. com

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