Krishen’s Durian

I once read somewhere that a writer, over the course of his lifetime, is really writing just one piece of text. Therefore, for an editor trying to compile a selection of the writer’s works such that it represents his entire oeuvre as well as the writer’s personal journey of growth, the task is truly Herculean. In that respect, I believe that in appraising Krishen Jit: An Uncommon Position, as edited by Kathy Rowland, one comes close not just to understanding who this Krishen Jit fellow is, but also to understand how important this man is to the growth and development of the arts in Malaysia.

Krishen Jit: An Uncommon Position is a collection of essays, articles, and excerpts written by Krishen Jit over the course of about four decades covering theatre, dance, and fine arts within a Malaysian context. I imagine that for a lot of people – myself included – this book can be quite difficult to read, not because of the subject matter, but because of Krishen’s academic approach to the subject. Like eating durian, however, it is worthwhile to negotiate the thorns of semantics in order to enjoy the flesh within. And what nourishing flesh it is.

As a theatre practitioner, what I find most useful about this book is that it shows me what has happened in – as well as to – this country and her theatre since Krishen began his writing career under the nom de plume, Utih for News Straits Times, and later as Alang for Berita Harian, though the latter only for a short stint. From the theatrical forays of Faridah Merican to the sudden passing of dance legend Gopal Shetty, from the malaise of political apathy among local playwrights to the neverending battles with DBKL, there was certainly much food for thought.

Many of the observations made by Krishen remain pertinent to this day. For example, on the Panggung Negara idea (later to be named lstana Budaya) mooted in the 70’s (‘Our Theatre, Southeast Asia’s Best’), Krishen calls for more local plays to be written for the space, and that the theatre be served by resident local talents in a repertory style. As we know, these have not come to pass, and I believe we should still work towards them.

And then you have the role that DBKL has played in stunting the growth of the arts in Kuala Lumpur. In ‘All Because of a Kiss… ‘ Krishen observes that the guidelines set by the DBKL on performances were nebulous and amorphous a decade ago, and are nebulous and amorphous now. For me, this posed the questions: How long do we as a society want to continue with this nonsensical culture of artistic repression? How can we change this attitude?

This brings us to my next observation: that Krishen, apart from being a historiographer of Malaysian art happenings, is somewhat of a soothsayer. His ability to write about the arts within historical and regional context puts him in the right position to suggest some direction to those willing to lend an ear. Hence, we can identify themes or issues that are ripe for exploration. For example, regarding the resurgence of Islam in many spheres of life, and theatre in particular (‘lslamists and Secularists Spar for the Soul of Drama’), which our society is unable (or unwilling) to talk about. Islamic revivalism in Malaysia, which is more often than not merely an adaptation of Arabic aesthetics and not the syncretisation of Islamic philosophy with the indigenous thoughts of the masses, demands more attention, especially from the arts community (recall the wayang kulit-PAS experience in the north?).

In a different article, Krishen pointed out that we are still very much unaware of the growth of theatre in our own region (‘A Long Hard Journey Ahead’). This could perhaps be rectified by engaging in more ‘adventurous’ productions (multi-cultural, regional collaborations), although I personally feel we should be cautious of the sources of funding as well as efforts at subtle nee-colonisation by the funders. Special mention must be made of the editor, Kathy Rowland, who has executed a brilliant job of selecting writings that show the breadth, depth, and scope of Krishen’s intellect and character.

Krishen Jit’s writings are sonorous, but we should avoid thinking it is the final authority on the subject. We need not subscribe to the cult of the hero, whereby we forfeit future enterprise – and much enterprising have we – because we think, “Aiyah, got Krishen Jit enough lah!” I mean no disrespect to Krishen, whom I dearly admire. But we should go beyond his writings and take up his challenge for ourselves.

Above all else, Krishen’s writings represent a more cohesive attempt at analysing the growth of the arts, and also the society that sustains it, in Malaysia. It is a call for continued appraisal of artistic activities that is informed by and aware of the history of Malaysia and the region. Ultimately, this selection is a manual for self-reflection for arts practitioners, appreciators, and appraisers, that we might know and understand where we were, where we are, and where we might (or would like to) be going.

And while I would like to see more future writings bear a progressive spirit akin to Krishen Jit’s, right now I would like to just get back to my durian.

Krishen Jit: An Uncommon Position, is published by the Contemporary Asian Arts Centre, Singapore, and is available at Silverfish Books, Bangsar Baru.

First Published: 30.12.2003 on Kakiseni

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