By Kathy Rowland
I came late to Krishen Jit. Having grown up with Talking Drama with Utih, his review column in the NST which ran from 1972 to 1994, however, I felt I knew all there was to know about him years before we actually became friends.
He was after all a towering figure in the arts – an actor, producer, director, critic, scholar, dramaturge, educator and arts policy advocate whose 40-year career was in itself, a history lesson in the nation’s artistic and cultural journey.
The son of Punjabi immigrants, Krishen grew up in the heart of KL’s textile district, where he was exposed to the street performances of Chinese Opera and bangsawan. Simultaneously, he was fed a colonial school-boy’s diet of Shakespeare and Shaw at the Victoria Institute, which in turn sparked a love for the amateur dramatics that typified the theatre scene of the time.
It was a childhood that straddled the contradictory worlds of colonial Malaya, and one which led him directly to the stage, where in 1959, he made theatre history as the first local to assume lead role in an English-language play in the Malayan Arts Theatre Group’s production of Julius Caesar.
That same year, he entered University Malaya, where he co-founded the Literary and Dramatic Arts Society, which was to become one of the most influential breeding grounds for local theatre talent right up till the late 1980s.
In 1962, Krishen left for the University of Berkeley California to pursue his MA in History under a Fulbright Scholarship. Upon his return, his appointment to the History Department of UM launched his career as an educationist and scholar. Combining his academic discipline with his passion for drama, Krishen gained an international reputation as an authority on contemporary performing arts in South East Asia. Krishen’s attention to Asian forms in the face of the Western theatrical tradition which dominated both academia and practice was crucial to the development of an indigenous theatre practice.
But Krishen to the Malaysian public was the Krishen Jit of the stage. And he was certainly there during every important phase of our theatre history, across both English and Malay-language theatre. In response to the Riots of 1969, Krishen immersed himself in the Malay-language theatre scene, directing Shanon Ahmad’s Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan at the Genta Rasa Festival (1971), Usman Awang’s Matinya Seorang Pahlawan (1971) and Uda dan Dara (1972), Syed Alwi’s Alang Rentak Seribu (1974) and Tok Perak (1975) and Dinsman’s Bukan Bunuh Diri (1977) to name a few.
In 1979, Krishen was appointed Artistic Director of a Theatre Festival celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the University Malaya Malay Studies Department. The heightened atmosphere of ethnicity of National Economic Policy Malaysia however intruded upon his rise in Malay-language theatre. Anonymous letters began to circulate questioning the appointment of a non-Malay to such an important position, and accusing him of being unqualified. Although playwright Usman Awang and journalist-writer A. Samad Ismail both publicly defended Krishen, the trajectory of his theatre career was forcibly shifted, irrefutably changing the course of Malaysian theatre as a result.
Shortly after, he left for New York University to study Performance Theory, at the invitation of the influential scholar and Performance Studies pioneer, Richard Schechner. His exposure to the deconstructionist theories prevalent in New York intellectual circles at the time was to have a profound impact on Krishen, and by extension, on the shape of theatre practice and criticism in Malaysia over the next 20 years. Upon his return he devised a script in Malay based on Arena Wati’s short-story, Dunia Yang Ku Tinggalkan (The World I Leave), and in 1983, another devised work, Leow Puay Tin’s Tikam-tikam: And the Grandmother Said. Krishen continued on this creative path for the next 20 years, to varying degrees of success and failure.
But all this is a matter of public record. Everyone had a theory about Krishen Jit: the young Turk who became the grand master of theatre; the colonial-by product that pursued a nationalist agenda only to fall casualty to the system he sought to establish: the dominating, defining voice of theatre criticism for 22 years: the artist who directed one of the most stinging indictments to race policies, Kee Thuan Chye’s 1984 Here and Now, the same year he was appointed Artistic Director of the Asian Children’s Theatre Festival in KL by the Ministry of Federal Territory; the man who pushed the boundaries of freedom of expression while never making an explicitly political statement in his life; the unlikely ladies’ man who wined and dined some of the most beautiful, and talented women in the country, but ended up a devoted, love-smitten husband to a beautiful, talented woman – dancer, choreographer, firebrand activist, educationist, Marion D’Cruz.
In 2002, Krishen asked me to edit a collection of his writings for the Contemporary Asian Art Centre in Singapore, and thus began my friendship with and education on the finer details of the man that was a father figure to so many in the arts, both in Malaysia and in Singapore.
Our meeting and interviews were held over long elaborate meals, where I learnt that he loved Japanese food and Polar Café curry puffs; was constantly bothered by a hacking cough; originally got into theatre to impress a beautiful senior at VI; ended Talking Drama with Utih when he quit the one thing which helped him write – cigarettes; wrote his MA thesis on railways in China; and once rented a room in Noordin Hassan’s house.
It was hard not to fall under his charm. He had the gift of intimacy that drew you into him with each meeting, each conversation. He spoke with his hands, with fingers extended – nails usually long overdue for a trim – to make a point. He was an intellectual in every sense of the word, as comfortable discussing the latest Bollywood movies as he was theorising on the failure of the Left and its impact on the geo-politics of Europe.
He was probing, provocative and patriarchal, and a great poser of questions. Krishen could take your breath away with that one question even you were afraid of asking yourself. He sometimes reminded me of a crafty, clever fox – but not a fox you wanted to run away from, rather one you wanted desperately to impress.
Krishen had the true intellectual’s ability to step outside of himself, and was often blindingly frank about his colourful past, the friendships he had lost through his theatre reviews. He told me of a drawer in his home, filled with articles and letters accumulated over the years which attacked him personally. It was a place to contain the hurt he knew Krishen Jit the art icon, critic, guru was not allowed to feel.
We often speak of Krishen as a pioneer and indeed he was. But almost every significant contribution he made, he did so as part of a collective. He co-founded Lidra with Tan Jin Chor; he co-wrote the National Culture Policy with Syed Alwi and Rahim Razali; he co-organised Genta Rasa with Syed Alwi, K. Das and others; co-founded Five Arts Centre with Marion D’Cruz, KS Maniam, Chin San Sooi and Redza Piyadasa; co-directed plays with the likes of Ivan Heng and Ong Keng Sen in Singapore, Wong Hoy Cheong, Joe Hasham and Zahim Albakri in Malaysia.
Krishen took pains to make this clear to me as we worked on his book. The collective creative vision and effort, was something Krishen was very proud of. He was if nothing else, a man dedicated not just to art, but to the fellowship of artists. He counted amongst his friends the giants of the Malaysian and Singaporean arts scene, such as the late Kuo Pao Kun and Usman Awang, TK Sabapathy, Ong Ken Seng, Rahim Razali, Faridah Merican, Noordin Hassan, Baha Zain. Over the years, he developed intimate, personal relationships with artists from subsequent generations, across language divides, across countries.
Krishen Jit was loved. I don’t use the word in its laudatory, symbolic sense. I use the word with in all its emotional complexity. Actors who had endured his gruelling, harsh persona in the rehearsal room, playwrights whose words he dismantled in search of an new idiom of theatre, production crew whose resolve to work in theatre was shaken by his imperious manner – everyone has a “Krishen story”, which they wore proudly like battle scars. So many of us loved him, and so many of us depended on this presence, his time, his council, his creativity, his wisdom.
Our country has lost a loved son, and so many of us have lost a father.
Kathy Rowland is the co-founder of Kakiseni.com, and in 2003, edited Krishen Jit: An Uncommon Position which was published by the Contemporary Asian Art Centre, Singapore
First Published: 29.04.2005 on Kakiseni