The Year of Tears

When we received the SMS that morning in April informing us that Krishen Jit was expected to go anytime, my housemate and I rushed to the University Hospital. At the hospital, we grabbed a bun each from the sundry shop – we were starving for breakfast. We spent a few minutes at the lift lobby chewing and chewing and trying to swallow the bread dry. When we finally stepped into the ICU waiting room, we knew we were too late. Everybody’s eyes were red; hushed speech hovered like disembodied voiceovers under the hospital hum. Someone told us: Krishen Jit passed away a few minutes ago. Should have forgone those buns, I thought to myself. We queued up outside his room. One by one we entered and regarded the frail, shrunken body of the man who had given his life to Malaysian theatre, and his wife, the incredible Marion D’Cruz, now stooped over by the corner of the bed, holding on to him. He was only 65. We said thank you, squeezed his hand gently and left the room.

In the waiting room, I saw veterans who had worked alongside Krishen, young artists who’ve been challenged by him, and a few who may not know him that personally but for whom he was a giant of an inspiration. We are all his spiritual children. Presently, directors and actors from Singapore were arriving. They said hey to the Malaysians who said hey back and then they held each other and cried silently. We will remember Krishen for teaching us to fight for our thinking/voicing spaces, for encouraging us to play boldly and live creatively, for envisioning Malaysian arts as a space that transcends race, culture and medium, where entertainment and thought-provocation can collide beautifully together like so many guli-guli in a bag.

A month later, classical pianist and UiTM biochemistry lecturer James Vadiveloo, 56, collapsed and died while playing squash. A champion of both western and carnatic music, he loved to organise intimate chamber concerts in order to perform with his friends. When a few of the MPO musicians were contractually barred from performing publicly, he moved the concerts from the British Council into his home. I had the privilege of attending the last concert he organised there and his playing was one of the most passionate, open-wounded and heroic renditions of Beethoven I had heard live.

In June, Mak Yong proponent Pak Su Mat, 66, passed away without completing his final “Sembah-Guru.” Official bodies which deemed his art “unIslamic” refused to help. But more bitterly, the financial stalemate resulting from the clash between several parties who claimed to be protecting his interests revealed that well-intentioned parties are sometimes no different – human endeavours are so susceptible petty egos and ideologies. Three months later, we lost Dalang Dollah Baju Merah, 67, a wily master of the wayang kulit, who suffered the ignominy of having his art banned by the very state he had helped enrich culturally. If anything, the passing of both Pak Su Mat and Dollah Baju Merah should shame us into organising ourselves more urgently: to ensure the effective transference of their knowledge; to persuade, educate and challenge the state to rise to the occasion; and perhaps most importantly, make sure these folks don’t deteriorate in such sad conditions.

Taking care of those who paved the way for us was actually one of the concerns that our beloved Patron of the Arts, Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood, 64, had before she passed away in October. I hope that both her desires – to nurture an arts loving society by teaching arts in school and to sustain veteran artists by giving them a chance to keep creating – will be taken seriously by the ministries, particularly those under the care of Rais and Hishamuddin.

I mean, look at the way the Indian arts community cared for and adored Swami Shanthanand Saraswathi, 71, founder of the Temple of Fine Arts, which has launched countless of famous local dancers and musicians. He was sent to a hospital in India, where he passed away in July. In October, Prem Kamal Abdul Subahan, 72, who is the father of local Indian theatre (since the 40s), also left us. Both Prem and Swamiji are known for their cross-cultural bridging from very early on. Like Krishen, they show us that we need to keep bridging if we are to find the Malaysian voices that reflect us and not just a political party’s convenient, divisive definition of who we are.

While my regrettable hunger had caused me to miss Krishen’s final moments, I felt that a whole nation, in our hunger for lesser things, have missed him entirely. How many know who he is? How many know who all these disappearing giants are, what they have done for the country? We must not let their names fade.

Bigger and better

Amidst the gloom, it is heartening to see so many new spaces being born. Chief of which is the KL Performing Arts Centre in Sentul West, which gave us tears of joy, absolving those we left under Dataran Merdeka. The pristine landscaping makes me wanna grow herbs and breed dugongs. I hope the environment can inspire artists to interrogate some of our privileges with honest self-reflexivity. Perhaps a community art project with the Sentul homeless? For now at least, we can be grateful for how great things look, especially with Loo Jia Wei’s sets and Isma Yusoof’s posters.

Other opening spaces include a second stage at Istana Budaya, which was launched with the 812,937th production of Emily of Emerald Hill. But the old blue roof let two mega international productions, The Phantom of the Opera and Forbidden City, slipped through its fingers due its exorbitant rental rates. Come on, Istana, be generous (that’s all I ask of you). Another occasion to break out champagne bottles was the reopening of No Black Tie, where jazzsters and underground rockers can always go for some group hug. It’s nice when things come back bigger and better. But the downside, therefore, is the cost of maintenance…

Prices suffered a serious inflation this year (did Double Take really have to charge RM100 for the cheapest ticket? Malaysians are a generous bunch, but they don’t know you yet, babes). At some of the events, particularly at NBT and KLPac, the cost of the shows has become an unfortunate filter: If you can’t afford it, you probably can’t appreciate it anyway, so there. Furthermore, the credit-card booking system at KLPac and that long walk in have almost snubbed the enthusiasm from many young creditcardless and carless arts lovers. This explains why the 500-seater Pentas 1 is turning over every other week with lavish productions to entice hungry middle class families, while Pentas 2’s experimental space has yet to regale the fringe players and young rebels in a movement equal to the buzz generated during the heydays of Dataran Merdeka.

KLPac is certainly poised to play a big role in the future of our country’s artistic life, what with support from YTL (let’s give out free tickets to those who have tuxedos!) and the leadership of Faridah, Joe and Marge (Congrats to Faridah for getting the Lifetime Achievement Award and then the Datukship – I wonder which makes a better paperweight?). More and more corporations are daring to give back to the community via arts sponsorship. But there is also this sinking feeling that the generosity from our limited pool of sponsors is supporting Titanic productions which are vain and blind to the iceberg of their own massive cluelessness. Sponsors obviously need consultants!

Meanwhile, Encore, which celebrated Malaysian composers and was the single most lovely show I saw in KL all year, merely broke even at the box office. And the upcoming M the Opera, with a creative team that boasts of Malaysia’s most talented individuals, had to beg on their knees for money (good news: they are finalising the sponsorship agreement with YTL at press time).

Art can’t fix everything

While I was blown away by the sensory overload of Joe Hasham’s Julius Caesar, even excised of its historical scenes (we are Malaysians, give us historical lobotomy!), it was Gavin Yap’s Hidden in This Picture, the second half of his Double Bill, that gave me some hope for KLPac’s potential. It was a modest but highly entertaining tribute to the strange species which sometimes try to merge crowd-pleasing populist impulses with individualistic artistic ambitions. The catharsis, pulled off flawlessly by Lennard Gui, reminds me of why we try: because things go wrong and art can’t fix everything, but damn it, it will at least help us admit this much.

Of all the modest works, however, none was more barebones than the Directors Workshop 5: CPM by Five Arts Centre. That coy acronym refers to the Communist Party of Malaya. Mark Teh’s chair flinging while re-enacting the Baling talks (that brought about the truce with Chin Peng) was a revelatory piece of theatre making. Part of its beauty was the location itself: Sek San’s gallery. Sek San is the landscape designer of KLPac. His office in Bangsar is a veritable art space where existentialist piglets gaze at us from a painting by Hamir Soib. It is also the spot for regular poetry and story readings organised by Bernice Chauly as well as a reading of a translated Japanese play organised by the Japan Foundation.

Speaking of translation, I also have a feeling that the different language arts practitioners are still trapped within racial boundaries: Chinese, Malay, Indian and Middle Class. We hardly go to catch plays from other languages, and we certainly don’t make it easy for them to come to ours either. Why is it we keep showing fictitious planets where everyone is of one race only? Maybe this is Malaysia after all. A delicate illusion. No wonder the Special Branch is always worried we will shatter it.

Thank god for Sepet then (and Salon too, but the film seems more a disservice to miscegenation). While mainstream directors slander each other to get their hands at local awards, our indie filmmakers get invited to the best parties in the world; in an unprecedented Boleh moment, the Rotterdam International Film Fest 2005 screened seven Malaysian feature films and eight short films.

Even though he was busy making some of the most sensible political statements all year (with the exception of the over-reaction to “Mamula Moon”), Rais Yatim still managed to find time to cattle prod the previously unmotivated FINAS and the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage to be so efficient that they are lately very forthcoming with sponsorship. The lucky recipients are independent films, exhibitions, the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards, the KL Children Theatre Fest, some Chinese theatre, and lots of Malay language theatres at the state level. Actually, lots of Malay language shows were going on in Shah Alam and other states – but they are as shy of publicity as parents with ugly children. Hey, start selling the shows lah, and not just to the Malay press please, there are other Malaysians in this country too, hello!

One of the grooviest events the Ministry supported this year has to be the Malaysian Dance Festival; however, some insiders feel the festival was bugged by poor organisation and uninspiring curatorship. Nevertheless, I was moved by the Apsara dancers from Cambodia (bring them back!), the papers on Mak Yong, and the mock Balinese dance by M Firdaus of Akademi Seni Kebangsaan. ASK certainly had a busy year, what with the Tari festival, and their ongoing Jamu (a few regulars tell me the best thing they saw all year was Loke Soh Kim’s watermelon dance – “entertaining!” “unpretentious!”). The ASK dance department seems to be leaving all other academic artistic programmes in a cloud of dust, thanks in no small part to the energizer bunny that is Joseph Gonzales.

The audiences were better than the artists

The National Art Gallery went the way of morgues this year with reports of serious disrepair and loss of landmark artworks. However, they did pull off the spectacular international show by Sophia Vari (sponsored by MAS, which eventually bought RM1.5mil worth of works by her and her husband Botero – which begs the question: do they spend as much on local artists?) and also the attempt at an international show called the KL International Photography Biennale, in which the “Biennale” was perhaps a tad premature. Then again, I did tumpang its glamour, so I better not say more.

Artists looking elsewhere can turn to the art galleries sprouting up like mushrooms: Wei-Ling Gallery in Brickfields, Germarimba in Bukit Tunku, Alpha Utara in Penang, and I’m certain many more than my dwindling brain can recall. Posh malls like Starhill and Avenue K turned whole floors into art galleries, adding feathers to their classy establishment and our classy city.

While all these art for the Versace consumer type places are opening, one of the shabbiest yet most exciting art galleries around, Rumah Air Panas in Setapak, is due for demolition next year. The most potent exhibition I saw last year was held there: Chong Kim Chiew’s Isolation House which dealt poetically with early Chinese immigrants and the New Villages. The other brilliant exhibition this year was Sharon Chin’s Boats & Bridges at Reka Art Space. Part of the reason why young artists love this gallery in a universe far far away (Kelana Jaya!) is the unassuming sagacity and mentorship of gallery owner Obiwan Chee Sek Thim.

Another near-divine being in the heart of the federation is Hishamuddin Rais, the man who got out before Anwar. His bad-haired gang of subversives at University Bangsar Utama holds parties so notorious they get complains even before they even happen. The most notorious – which went unreported – has to be the “Stopover” performance art gig when Japanese, Singaporean and Malaysian artists tried to outshock one another (some stripped – yawn! – some stood there doing nothing – how shocking! – and one mat salleh drank his own blood – ack, faint!). The Lost Generation Space in Taman Seputeh, where the combustive “notthatbalai art festival” took place for the second chaotic year, also stands threatened: it’s getting harder to pay the rent. But as artists lose trust of THAT Balai, it is events like this they turn to. It smelled like teen spirit. And it had the best audiences of anything I went to last year; in fact some argued that the audiences were better than the artists – they boldly challenged and even intervened in some of the performances.

Performance art, though not so big in Malaysia yet, can revolutionise the audience-artist dynamics as it invites viewers sometimes to create art along with the artists, just like the internet has revolutionised the writer-reader dynamics too, allowing readers to flood the comments section of Kakiseni, such that it is no longer just the voice of one author, but the collective voice of those who care, or not. Yes, I am happy to report that our readers are getting wonderfully critical, even if they still lack balls to put their real names.

Of course, there will always be a huge percentage of our population who are happy to lie back and spread for the oversized sets and expensive costumes and special effects, while our minds are being manipulated via the subtext. This is what years of TV watching do. But some of us refuse to be terrorised, not by this shouting minister whipping out his traditional weapon/phallic symbol, not by this weepy minister hugging this former prime minister and saying things are alright, not by this religious police raiding the sanctuaries of youths and saying it is necessary. The audiences are tired of it, and they are beginning to watch critically. They want to be heard. When will our artists take them up on it? The most political folks seem to be underground rockers, from Ben’s Bitches to Lansuyr, though it is hard to make out some of their politics through the garbled lyrics. Still, it’s better than nothing. I don’t know about other countries, but so many good Malaysian citizens like to say, “Oh, I avoid politics.” Which to me is translated as: “Oh, I like to bend over for them.”

Indonesian artist Arahmaiani experimented with audience interaction at her solo exhibition at Valentine Willie, but was more successful in the Kakiseni feedback column after she said, among many incendiary things, that “Art here has nothing to do with the political or social reality.” A lot of people were upset by her generalisation. So let me say it better: “Much of the art here have nothing to do with the political or social reality.”

But let me flame myself: “Pang, you megalomaniac, sensationalist editor of this presumptuous website, where did you come out from? Let me tell you: Art here appears to have nothing to do with the political or social reality simply because the political and social reality themselves have nothing to do with the political or social reality too. So in actual fact, our art here has deep resonance in reflecting that deflected reality of our deflected reality. Nah, it’s too deep for you. Go back to your sad attempt to pass off your blog as an arts website, you wanker!”

Ooh, I love it when I get called a wanker. Especially by myself.

First Published: 30.12.2005 on Kakiseni

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