KRISHEN JIT was a pupil at the V.I. from 1952 to 1958. He distinguished himself in society work especially in the Historical Society (of which he was chairman) and in the Society of Drama. He took major parts in two school plays, Tobias and the Angel and Lady Precious Stream. He also edited the V. I. Arts Journal, the Analekta, in 1958. He was among the first batch of pupils awarded the Club 21 badge for meritorious service to the school.
His passion for the theatre continues into his working life and his status as doyen of the Malaysian theatre scene is virtually unchallenged. Following are two interviews with him and a review of a book on him.
The first interview was published in the Sunday Style section of the New Straits Times on 14 March 1999. Scenes from the V.I. productions The Merchant of Venice and Lady Precious Stream (Krishen played the Prime Minister Wang Yun in the latter) have been added to supplement those of the interview.
The second is from The Star of 21 March 2003, while the book review is from The Star of 19 October 2003.
A lifetime of theatre
Born into a merchant Punjabi family where it would be considered vulgar to have anything to do with the theatre, it is ironical that Krishen Jit's whole life should revolve around acting. He talks to THERESA MANAVALAN
KRISHEN JIT is built to human scale. Even if that's sometimes hard to believe. Even if he insists that he can't act, can't sing, can't dance and can't write plays, he is this country's most successful theatre historian, or explainer of theatre, as much as he is a practitioner of it in three distinguishable cultural entities.
It takes some kind of polymath to produce and direct plays in English and in Malay in post-colonial Malaysia, do the same in Singapore, teach theatre to tertiary students, publish dozens of academic papers and arts journals and be a newspaper's drama critic (and do it prolifically for nearly 40 years).
In an age of credentials and specialisation, Krishen has acquired the single most privileged position in the history of theatre in this country: to be exceptionally diverse in a singular quest. He has an antipodean, almost upsidedown approach to the telling of a story on the stage without losing balance or proportion. The versatility of Krishen Jit is a product of his rootedness and his deracination, and perhaps, not since the British left has a local seen or done so much of the Malaysian game.
This year, Krishen's theatre company, The Five Arts Centre, is 15 years old. He's directed so many plays that theatre is not spoken of unless his name is part of the discourse. He's 60 this year, he's retired from the teaching job, he's had a couple of heart attacks, he continues to direct.
"People expect to see me in a reclining position," he says, "write a book or something. I think it irritates them that I still direct, actually with greater intensity. I know what they're thinking. They're wondering when I'm going to die."
Actually, Krishen seems to have creative pouches and pockets for live, wriggling births of drama. He has re-worked traditional folk media, melding them and splitting them in weirdly wonderful ways. He has a passion for doing things differently like cutting the narrative into parts or letting the audience dictate the actual sequence of the play.
Last year, he had an entire audience scuttling from room to kitchen to garden to room in an old bungalow to watch Leow Puay Tin's play Family, the scenes selected by the spin of a roulette wheel. Such gambles don't always work in drama but for Krishen - the spectacles slightly askew, the low voice, the deep breathing, the wry humour - they seem to have gelled his directing into an art and a science of his own.
This Wednesday, Krishen directs A Chance Encounter. A devised play he calls it, about a mamak matron who meets a Chinese cosmetic salesgirl and their intriguing exchange of life stories. It's devised in that Krishen and actors Faridah Merican and Foo May Lyn are creating the script as they rehearse the basic idea.
That's the sort of thing Krishen likes to do: capture Malaysiana, its peculiarities, its personalities, its cliches, its conundrums, its spontaneity as much of the content as it is the methodology.
And he, always calm, laidback, directs by getting it directly from the actors, not by forcing the shape and form of the craft on the performer but extruding from them an emotional life that features a combination of polished and demotic qualities which relate the story. Krishen says he's too self-conscious to act. "I can tell you what works, I can get an actor to do it but I could never act it myself," he says.
"There are some things you can feel are right but that doesn't neccessarily mean you can do it. It's like that with playwriting as well. Other playwrights have a natural airiness but I just don't have it."
Still, Krishen has taken some roles, and delivered memorable performances.
In some ways, Krishen is like an ancient presence in a young, brash and slightly insecure society that requires the occasional reassurance of a high culture European critic. In other ways, he's like an observant child with a grasp of the bigger picture in an epic with a vague beginning and no ending in sight.
Krishen was born in a two-storey shophouse along Kuala Lumpur's Jalan Ipoh. His father and uncle were carpet-sellers in Cairo who returned as rich men to Punjab. In the storybook way of fortunes going astray, their money was stolen. Plans to settle in their Punjab village were cancelled; they travelled east, came to Malaya and in the 1930s established Dyalchand's,the high street textile and garment store on the then Batu Road, now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. That's where Krishen was raised, going to the Batu Road School, speaking English and Punjabi at home, ensconced with cousins in the classic joint families set-up, growing up in the kerfuffle of commerce.
When his parents weren't looking, Krishen would watch with illicit relish the Hindustani movies at the Coliseum cinema of his own neighbourhood, getting in through the toilets and bribing the guards with coffee. He would take with him a change of shirt so his mother wouldn't detect the smell of cigarettes. Smoking was then permitted at theatres, most adults did. On daring days, Krishen sneaked out to B.B. Park to watch performances of bangsawan, Chinese opera and the pretty joget girls. When he could round up enough loose change from around the house above the shop, he would buy tickets for plays at the Old Town Hall.
At the Victoria Institution for secondary studies, Krishen came closer to theatre. The school's Drama Society, highly rated and strongly supported by the colonials, staged plays which the general public would attend. Krishen, at 13, watched The Merchant of Venice awestruck. Dramatis personae included businessman T. Ananda Krishnan who played a clown.
Krishen, who stuttered throughout his childhood, was always the silent spectator for whom public speaking was a nightmare. As a son of the Indian merchant class, it would have been patently vulgar for him to have taken part in anything theatrical anyway. But in Krishen's home, it was not exactly forbidden. This, after all, was Malaysia, not the old country. Through this tiny window, the voyeur would come to life.
His uncle built a house in Jalan Travers and they all moved. In Form Five, a new-generation Malaysian teacher came to class. Her name was Yvonne Stanley. "She was spectacularly beautiful," says Krishen, "I could barely concentrate. She forced me to act. The stutter vanished."
The play was Tobias and the Angel, and act he did, and witnessed for the first time the work of the director.
In 1959, he enrolled at Universiti Malaya's Kuala Lumpur campus to read history. Each vacation, Krishen and classmate Tan Jin Chor worked at Radio Malaya as DJ's, news readers and voices for radio dramas.
It became addictive, they began missing lectures. The then Arts Faculty Dean, an Englishman named John Bastin, professor of history, and an expert on Raffles, called them in with a reprimand.
Krishen and his mates founded Lidra, Universiti Malaya's dramatic society which still exists, and began doing what the Malayan Theatre Arts Group and the KL Arts Club were already doing. Lidra's first play was Antigone. A Mat Salleh newspaper reviewer described it as arrogant.
Precocious was more like it. The Malayan Theatre Arts Group called him to direct Chekhov's The Proposal. Krishen Jit was 21.
"Actually, I was very frightened," he says. "I suppose being from the university carried a bit of snob appeal. I was a good student so the family didn't notice all this activity."
There were 12 history majors in the Class of '62. Krishen spent a restless five years at the University of California, Berkeley, studying American History and being a theatrical voyeur again.
When he returned in 1967, he found the Malayan Theatre Arts Group reconstituted and led by Syed Alwi. They were doing Malay plays and the theatre-going audience was an estimated 50 people. Malaysian plays in English were unheard of. Krishen began his career at Universiti Malaya, teaching American History.
Then came May 13,1969. American History seemed pointless after the commotion and curfews.
"I began to think about what I really wanted to do, I needed to understand our roots as a nation," says Krishen. "1969 made me think differently about this country. It made me aware of the great divide. Malay theatre existed before the 1960s, so how come I didn't know much about it?"
On May 13, 1970, every Malaysian stayed home.
Krishen teamed with (now Datuk) Syed Alwi, (now Datuk) Rahim Razali and (now Datuk) Usman Awang. Like him, they also wanted to bridge the gap between the worlds of Malay and English theatre.
On May 13,1971, at Panggung Anniversary, a variety show called Genta Rasa opened. There was music, drama skits, poetry readings and a full house. Krishen was involved.
"It wasn't just theatre, we wanted to bridge the gap between Malays and non-Malays," says Krishen. 'I believed it was important to do plays in Malay."
Datuk Baharuddin Musa, the then Ministry of Culture secretary-general, promised a budget for big Malay language productions.
That year, Krishen's group staged Usman Awang's Matinya Seorang Pahlawan. In the cast were Syed Alwi and Faridah Merican. Krishen, coached frantically by Usman on Bahasa Malaysia enunciation, was to play Hang Tuah. Just before the show opened, director Rahim Razali sacked Krishen. He just wasn't good enough as an actor. Ahmad Yatim played the role with aplomb.
"My friend Rahim shall never be forgiven, of course," laughs Krishen, "but it was the right decision. The show was free, and funded by donations including money from the Ministry of Culture.
"There was a full house. Until then Malay theatre wasn't big. Big productions were always in English. We joked about half the audience being Special Branch but we knew then that there was a real audience for Malay theatre. "
Within months, the show went to the First Third World Theatre Festival in Manila. Krishen directed, Syed. Alwi played Hang Tuah. Rahim played Hang Jebat and won the Best Actor award. Last year, to honour Usman's 50 years of writing, Matinya Seorang Pahlawan was staged again. "There were new actors, the acting was different," says Krishen who directed with Joe Hasham, "and for me, there was a revolution of feelings."
Through the 1970s, Krishen worked on Malay drama. Usman Awang poem's Uda dan Dara was written into a musical by Basil Jayatilaka. Again, full house.
It fulfilled Baharuddin's wish: Malay theatre was taken out of the village and into the city, in urban scale. Then there was Syed Alwi's Tok Perak and Dinsman's Bukan Bunuh Diri. Krishen wrought folk media - the rebab, dikir barat, Javanese children's songs, acrobatics, makyong, wayang kulit into the stage play.
Krishen changed academic orientation in 1975 and began at Universiti Malaya a course in South-East Asian Theatre. It was his day job, so to speak, because in the academia of Krishen's day and despite his chosen discipline, productions were not counted as productivity. It's different now, of course, as theatre is rated as a multi-dimensional, skills-based organisational effort. "It's damn hard work, I assure you," he says.
He began in the New Straits Times a column that would critically review and promote Malaysian theatre, taking the nom de plume Utih after the village idiot in Uda dan Dara. His commentary roamed the entire Malaysian theatrical spectrum - English, Malay, Chinese, Tamil, occasionally in obscure languages like Malayalam and Telegu.
"It didn't take long to break the mindset that theatre meant English," says Krishen. "I wanted to introduce Malay theatre to non-Malays and simultaneously capture the artistic diversity of the whole country.
He discovered an audience for the subject of theatre. The column was translated by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, compiled into a textbook entitled Membesar Bersama Teater. Previous textbooks focused on playwrights and the history of theatre but this was a living documentary, the raising of a national curtain, the story of ancient peoples in a new nation-state related through its arts.
Krishen closed the 1970s with a big project: a seven-night festival of Malay theatre. There was discourse on the writing, the acting, the direction and eight memorable performances.
Sure enough, a surat layang went flying through the arts community. In short, who was this non-Malay who's so expert on Malay theatre?
In short, the festival's artistic director, a non-Malay, had indeed constructed, after a decade's worth, the history of Malay drama in those seven nights. "Something was obviously wrong," he says. "but what really discouraged me was that no one wanted to talk about it."
Krishen took off on the 1980 Andrew Mellon Fellowship - nine months of complete freedom to do anything about theatre. He based himself at the New York University, saw a play a day, and examined performance in its broadest possible context from the basic stage play to things like theme parks.He returned to teaching, restarted the column.
"I realised that the pendulum had swung the other way, as if bureaucracy had seized the theatre scene," says Krishen.
"Along the way, we had lost the diversity, particularly the Chinese and Indian parts of the Malaysian arts heritage. There seemed to be a poverty of images in every respect. There didn't seem to be Malaysians writing in English. Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to make a move, any move."
Krishen had just to mention his desire to direct an English language Malaysian play and The Cord appeared, K. S. Maniam's manuscript still in his longhand.
That was the Five Arts Centre's first production, followed by Chin San Sooi's Yap Ah Loy. Kee Thuan Chye's 1984 Here & Now, staged in 1985, put Krishen's company on the map. People came to watch rehearsals because they were sure its political content would never be allowed.
"It was one of the few plays ever performed that coaxed commentary from non-theatre people," says Krishen, "it captured public discussion but no one had the means to expand that kind of discourse. Everyone had a day job. It was an opportunity missed."
Maybe so, but those productions unleashed a suppressed generation of Malaysians who wanted to write in English, and more specifically, in Malaysian English to tell Malaysian stories.
Krishen, weaned on cold State-owned venues with silent lobbies and an amazing range of constraints, knows the day will come when there will be entrepreneurs with enough savvy to open private theatres. And someday, a theatre-going population that won't be simultaneously swamped mass popular culture and uncomfortably stuck with a plutocratic arts establishment.
Meanwhile, he'll freely quote Latin as he slurps on a Milo pekat, be breezy when you ask him about his egalitarian underlay and get morbidly serious when talking about making amateurism professional.
"You know, the older I get, the more efficient I am, the more I economise," says Krishen. "As a younger man, my passion was flying all over the place. Now it feels as if I have a third eye on that passion." It's not mellowed, perhaps it's more constructively engaged. "Occasionally I get mad, mostly at Marion," he says.
Krishen met his wife, dancer Marion D'Cruz, in the 1970s. He taught one semester at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang where Marion was a student. As a critic of dance and theatre, Krishen saw Marion several times on stage. When she graduated, Krishen placed her in a dance sequence for Bukan Bunuh Diri.
"I don't think she loved me at first sight," he says. "It was only in the 1980s that a relationship evolved. We have similar aims but very different aesthetics, different feelings on how to do things."
Their devotion to each other involves devotion to each other's work. They work on projects separately as well as together. "In the early days, Marion tended to be the traditional wife, keeping silent," says Krishen. "With time, she became honest and critical. That's the greatest strength of the relationship. On most days, I feel prouder of her work than I do of my own."
Krishen continues to explain theatre. One piece of work, which will become eternal, is the whole section on South-East Asia in the Cambridge Guide to World Theatre (edit. Martin Banham, Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Technically, it's a summary of his entire teaching career. He does not mention himself although other sections of the book by other writers do. He continues to be a contributing editor to the US-based Asian Theatre Journal.
Memoirs are not likely, he says, because he thinks his autobiography is in his productions. "It's contrived perhaps but isn't directing rather revealing, the exposure is incredible. Oh, I guess the colonial education taught me not to talk about myself."
Still, Krishen is the subject of an on-going master's thesis by Choon Mei, director of the Dandan Theatre Company.
And if there is ever a book, it would be his methodology, rather than personality, which with his contemporaries laid unshakeable foundations for Malaysian theatre.
"Yes, there's a lot that has not been articulated in writing," he says, "and there are compelling reasons to record that. But I need to think about this."
THE STAR ONLINE
Friday, March 21, 2003
For the love of art
A founding member of Five Arts Centre, Krishen Jit, who recently received the Lifetime Achievement honour at the Cameronian Arts Awards for his contributions to the local performing arts scene, talks to MELODY L. GOH about his passion for the theatre
DURING his childhood days, Krishen Jit used to stutter. Then he found theatre and the stutter was gone, although not entirely. “I still stutter sometimes,” he reveals in an interview earlier this week.
The story goes that Krishen, then a teenager studying at the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur, used to stutter so badly that friends suggested he take up theatre as a way to confront the problem and “fix” it too. He started out as a stage crew but through the encouragement of a teacher by the name of Yvonne Stanley, Krishen acted in his very first play entitled Tobias and the Angel and he has been hooked since. He was only 16 then.
The school had an attic that became exclusive to the drama club. According to Krishen, the room was filled with beautiful Victorian furniture that was stored for special occasions. “This sort of gave us a little arrogance, when others met in the canteen and empty classes we would hold meetings and put up plays in heavily-upholstered chairs! It made me think that theatre was, in a way, ‘good’.
“However, it was also the sense of camaraderie in the club which I liked, and this was consistent throughout the years I’ve spent doing theatre. Apart from that, I like the fact that those in theatre seem almost ‘different’ from other people. They behave in uncommon ways which to me are interesting.”
Despite having originally taken that first step into theatre as a “medical therapy” of sorts, Krishen’s theatre career has since spanned more than four decades. It’s a feat not many can challenge in this country, and one that puts him high up on the pedestal of every young theatre practitioner.
Recently, Krishen was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the first-ever Cameronian Arts Awards for his vast contributions to the local performing arts scene. “Of course I’m thrilled, but personally, what I find more important is that there is a privately organised body that finally gives recognition to the performing arts. It’s about time, you know,” says Krishen.
Born into a Punjabi merchant family 63 years ago (his family started the successful textile and clothing store Dyalchand’s in the 1930s in Kuala Lumpur), Krishen is one man who doesn’t think he’s ever done anything without flaws. “I’m never fulfilled when it comes to my work. There’s always something new to explore, always some other way to improve something. I guess that’s why I’ve worked for so long,” says the self-professed shy man.
”I’m not much for going to parties, so people call me anti-social. I’m definitely too old for clubbing, not that I was ever into it anyway, and I’m sometimes withdrawn.
But, when I’m in a discussion with creative people – writers, actors, designers – I’m a totally different person.”
Krishen is set to direct a collection of 10-minute plays by some of the best local playwrights, and one from Singapore. He says that though the style is still considered new in Malaysian theatre, he thinks it will garner interest among audiences fast. “They’re plays by Jit Murad, Leow Puay Tin, Huzir Sulaiman, Mark Teh, Charlene Rajendran and Alfian Saat, and someone else who has yet to confirm his participation.
Each play is about 10 minutes, perhaps 12 minutes at the longest, and I’m going to direct them all. Most of the cast will do more than one play.
“It’s refreshing, I think, though it’s not easy to do. You have to do about six or seven plays in an hour or so and one is not connected to the other. So you have to envision each one and make sure you don’t confuse yourself while doing it! It’s not a monologue either, one play has at least two actors who will interact with each other,” he explains. This project is due to begin at the end of May.
Apart from that, Krishen also has three plays which will be staged in Singapore. “I’ve already agreed to do them, it’s just a matter of negotiating certain terms. This is where Marion comes in,” he reveals. Marion D’Cruz, herself a theatre veteran, is Krishen’s wife. “We used to work together in plays before, but we’ve stopped for sometime now because we argued too much!” he jokes.
Both Krishen and D’Cruz are members of Arts Network Asia, a group of independent artists and arts activists that encourages and supports regional artistic collaborations.
Not unlike the husband and wife team of Joe Hasham and Faridah Merican, Krishen and D’Cruz also have their own theatre company, called The Five Arts Centre, which they established in 1984 with Chin San Sooi.
Throughout the years, The Five Arts Centre has added many new members all of whom are actively involved in theatre. The company now has 13 members and among them are Anne James, Chew Kin Wah, Ivy Josiah, Leow Puay Tin, Charlene Rajendran, Ravi Navaratnam, Janet Pillai, Suhaila Merican, Wong Hoy Cheong and Sunetra Fernando.
“We don’t have an artistic director, we are a collective group, so everything we do must be agreed upon by the majority. We just had our annual meeting, during which I suggested that it’s time we concentrated more on young creative talents. I feel that the energy of the young should become our primary vision,” says Krishen.
The Five Arts Centre’s first play was playwright K.S. Maniam’s The Cord, which was directed by Krishen. He did two more of K.S. Maniam’s plays in subsequent years – The Sandpit and Skin Trilogy.
He had directed many plays since then, including Three Children, Ang Tau Mui, Family, Scorpion Orchid, Nagraland, A Chance Encounter, Work, The Other, Here and Now, Uda dan Dara, Those Four Sisters Fernandez, Emily of Emerald Hill, The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, No Parking on Odd Days, Proof, Bukan Bunuh Diri and Manchester United and the Malay Warrior.
Though he confesses to being a bad playwright, he is an occasional theatre critic, and one of the best in the country too thanks to his expertise and experience in the art. He has a regular column in the New Straits Times and goes by the penname Pak Utih, after a character in Usman Awang’s Uda dan Dara.
When he has the time, he scrutinises everything done in the Malaysian theatre scene, from Malay (he used to do a lot of Malay plays in the 1970s with other legends like Datuk Syed Alwi and Datuk Rahim Razali) and English plays to Tamil and Chinese productions. Language is apparently not a barrier. His usual lament is that local theatre reviews usually failed to comment on a production’s most important factor – the director.
“Everybody reviews the actors’ performance and the script. But did you know that a director holds the most crucial part in a production? Without the director’s vision, a play simply cannot work. Most reviewers don’t mention a director’s work unless it’s a bad play, then automatically the director is at fault!”
Besides directing and writing, Krishen is also sometimes credited as a producer. He also used to act when he first started dabbling in theatre. And like most theatre practitioner in the country, Krishen used to have day jobs too, until about four years ago when he decided to become a “professional” theatre director.
“I feel I’m one of the lucky people who are doing what they love as a career. Even when I had other jobs, they sort of complemented each other, so it was a good thing,” he says. Krishen is the former Dean of Theatre for the National Arts Academy and former Head of the Department of History in Universiti Malaya. He started teaching in Universiti Malaya in 1967 and retired in late 1998. He notes that he could and probably should have quit a long time ago, but he had a thing for teaching.
“I loved teaching, and at the time no one was doing theatre full time because there was no way you could survive on it financially. I taught American history first, then when I started becoming more active in theatre, I thought perhaps teaching it would be like doing theatre.
“I got it all wrong. Teaching theatre is nothing like doing theatre. Nothing is as excruciating and at the same time invigorating as going through rehearsals! But I liked teaching it, so I stuck to it,” he admits.
Krishen now has the luxury to take on more productions. In the old days, when theatre was not as accessible to the masses as it is now, productions were small and rare. Now, Krishen says he would take on five or six plays a year, and he loves it.
“I’m invigorated by this whole new way of life. I’m almost continuously rehearsing.
It’s partly due to Marion too. She’s my manager, she handles all the financial part of things and the paperwork, so I can fully concentrate on the creative aspect. Theatre is a business now, so you need somebody to handle the business side of it so the creative process isn’t interrupted,” says Krishen.
While most people think that winning a Lifetime Achievement Award would mean it’s time to retire and spend your days sipping pina coladas at the seaside, Krishen is far from doing just that. In fact, if anything, he feels he could do more.
“You’ve won the highest honour, so to speak, so what’s next right? The thing is, people don’t do theatre to get awards. It has to do with your passion, your love for the art, that’s why I do theatre. But then again, if my plays are up for awards, I’ll definitely take them!” he says.
THE STAR ONLINE
Sunday October 19, 2003
A theatre voyeur, lionisedBY ANN LEE
It takes a Singaporean initiative to document the full force and value of Krishen Jit’s 40 years in Malaysian arts and culture as critic, director, behind-the-scenes impresario, and actor. We should be ashamed!
A Malaysian pioneer always receives a pingat of some kind. Krishen did get the Lifetime Achievement Award at the inaugural Cameronian Arts Awards held in Kuala Lumpur last year.
Of course, Krishen’s position of enquiry and critique – his gaze - has questioned easy notions of petty patriotism, audience satisfaction, convenient historicism, and artistic merit as measured by the establishment.
You can see this in his prolific output of writing, in newspapers (the New Sunday Times and Berita Harian), magazines and journals (Dewan Sastera, the Asian Theatre Journal, Tenggara: Journal of Southeast Asian Literature, and others) and such references as the Cambridge Guide to World Theatre.
Yet he has also been directing theatre directing for over four decades. This has been marked by an impulse that is, at least in the last 15 years, Brechtian in its preference for audience alienation in presentation, though often tempered by collaboration with gentler, more humour-filled directorial sensibilities.
In acting, Krishen Jit Amar Singh’s first role was in 1947; at eight he played Rama in the Gombak Lane Hindu temple’s annual drama. But it is his various dramatic roles later in life, on stage and off, that make for some of the most revealing history.
Indeed, there is much more to be said of his life as director, actor, DJ and the abiding influences upon those roles, such as a childhood passion for cinema. But that is another book, at least.
For now, a selection of his multidisciplinary, transnational essays and reviews about the arts of Malaysia and Southeast Asia can be read and reappraised in the 248-page Krishen Jit: An Uncommon Position, published by the Contemporary Asian Arts Centre, Singapore, and edited by Kathy Rowland, co-founder of arts website, kakiseni.com, who is currently pursuing an MA in Arts Policy and Administration at the National University of Singapore.
In an incisive 12-page introduction, Rowland expands on the ways in which Krishen’s writings have been original and influential. She notes, for example, that early academics like Lloyd Fernando of Universiti Malaya (who actually launched the book, in a poignant ceremony) focused more on “dramatic texts rather than theatre practice”, leaving a “field available for Krishen to define.”
She identifies him as “the scribe of the country’s performing arts history”, citing, as example, that it is “a matter of record” that the Malayan Theatre Arts Group was taken from expatriate control in 1967 (a ‘coup’ led by Syed Alwi) and renamed the Malaysian Theatre Arts Group. “But it was Krishen, through his essays, who historicized the significance of the event for a wider audience, thereby establishing it in an expanded consciousness.”
Of the effects of May 1969 on artists, she pinpoints that “it was Krishen’s articulation of this ‘groping towards self-apprehension’ which gave the Riots their seminal importance in the history of arts practice across genres in the country.”
Besides the Introduction, An Uncommon Position is rather crowded at the front, for there is also a Foreword by writer and poet Baha Zain, as well as a Preface by Singaporean critic T.K. Sabapathy. But each fulfils an important function.
Baha notes: “To many people, the name Krishen Jit is synonymous with English-language theatre. In actual fact, Krishen represents the meeting point between Malay and English language theatre in Malaysia.”
Sabapathy considers Krishen’s column ‘Talking Drama with Utih’ - weekly reviews from 1972, which ran for an astonishing 22 years - “a test site for writing critical histories of theatre in Malaysia and Southeast Asia.” Krishen’s commentaries on visual art and artists are now “firmly lodged in Malaysian art historiography.”
The book’s actual selection of weightier essays and shorter reviews on theatre includes dance and visual arts reviews. It can be seen that Krishen’s observations and piquant suggestions are still accurate and are helpful for understanding past and present interfaces. These include Malaysian theatre in relation to that of Southeast Asia, and the interrelation between performing arts, visual arts and literature.
In ‘Umbut Keladi - RTM Takes The Bull By the Horn ...’ (1979), Krishen commends RTM for including a modern play in Drama Minggu Ini, but concludes that “if TV Malaysia cannot invent a mode for contemporary stage plays, it might well present the play in its original one.”
In ‘Children’s Theatre: Growing Free From Orthodoxy’ (1984), he looks at theatre practice in schools since the British administration, and ultimately contends that “Creative play, the linchpin of contemporary children’s theatre and its egalitarian spirit, will be the most difficult for the school system to adopt.”
In ‘Islamists and Secularists Spar for the Soul of Drama’ (1983), he writes: “A direct fight between the two sides is highly unlikely since circumlocation is the mode of such debates in Malaysia, but whatever the fashion of the battle, and the weapons used, the two parties are locked in a struggle for the soul of contemporary Malay theatre.”
In ‘Playwrights, Shake off Your Social Apathy’ (1986), he notes that “We need an engaged theatre. Playwrights are the spine of our theatre. Our theatre will not advance very far if our playwrights are spineless.”
‘Seni dan Imajan: The Appearance of a Coda’ (1995) argues, passionately, for a serious review of Ismail Zain’s work. “The gross neglect to confront Ismail’s thought on art, either to corroborate or challenge his views, mirrors and continues to reflect the paucity of serious art criticism in the country.”
Krishen introduces the Indonesian choreographer Bagong Kussudiardja in ‘Bagong, the Man of Many Seasons’ (1988) and relates: “The story of 30 years ago goes that when he first imposed (Martha) Graham-inspired images on Javanese dance, his outraged audience pelted his stage with tomatoes and bad eggs. Today however, the Bagong style of dance – a wise and wild synthesis of traditional and modern dance gestures and movements – is deeply entrenched in the Indonesian dance imagination.”
The most strikingly original aspect of Krishen’s reviews is the regular references and comparisons to movements, trends, contexts, artists, writers and directors in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and other Asian countries.
Such “regionalist” knowledge and awareness is almost entirely missing in present-day reviews. It is as if Malaysian contemporary arts (certainly theatre) operates in a vacuum, with practitioners charting a new course every day, but not knowing what land has already been explored, named or utilised.
This is a sobering, yet motivating reminder of how the arts are often confined to convenient but limiting borders – e.g. “Malay theatre”, “Chinese theatre”, “English theatre” and “Indian theatre”.
The precision of Krishen’s observations is surely aided by Rowland, who has excluded many reviews for reasons of space and repetition. Yet various Utih reviews, as I recall, while lodged in an informed historical context, were also verbose, and contained idiosyncratic usage of certain words that were unclear. Rowland had free rein to do as she chose – an unusual freedom that’s representative of Krishen’s intellectual integrity, and wiliness to know who to trust!
An Uncommon Position is designed by William Harald-Wong. With customary flair and restraint, Wong provides intriguing details of (as on the inside cover) a facsimile reprint of a Universiti Malaya Literary & Drama Association production list showing “1960 – The Waters of Lethe – Directed by Krishen Jit”.
The front cover photograph, by S.C. Shekar, depicts Krishen as heavy-lidded indolence. It’s akin to Lat’s caricature of him as Parameswaran, and even Redza Piyadasa’s dour portrait titled “To Be Completed” (1979).
Yet all these belie the agility and mischief of the more contemporary Krishen. The book also features visuals from personal and public archives, notably from playwright Noordin Hassan and Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. These serve to leaven the sometimes dense text with insight and humour.
Old programmes and posters have been included. Photos include the subject at kindergarten age in 1944; as a carefree student at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965 (where he did his MA in history), and “in Florence, contemplating the next step” (facing a tall beer glass), in 1994.
Many “new” works, while valuable, are actually compilations of previously published writings. The only Malaysian arts book that is possibly comparable to this is Kee Thuan Chye’s Just in so Many Words (Heinemann Asia, 1992).
Many titles are biographies posing as tributes, and contain only praise. But An Uncommon Position, obviously a tribute, also has an overtly critical judgment. Rowland perceptively writes that Krishen’s “omnipresence” in the arts often went unchallenged and hence “developed the appearance of a totalizing discourse, obscuring or undermining alternative views.”
Perhaps, the lasting importance and usefulness of the man’s writings to a local audience are best summarised by her comment: “At a time when local theatre was burdened by amateurism, and its prospects of an independent identity suspect, Krishen’s focus offered practitioners and audiences the view of a practice that was not isolated, transitory or inconsequential. His gaze predicted a future.”
A sense of continuity is surely vital, especially to those
starting out in the arts. Spelling oddities notwithstanding, this
book is a very welcome addition to what is a short list on
contemporary Malaysian arts and practitioners, by a Malaysian arts
Last update on 23 November 2003.
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