Congratulations, Dato’ Krishen Jit!

So the Yang di Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan, on the occasion of his 84th birthday, handed out 1441 royal gifts in the forms of titles and certificates to outstanding Malaysians, as is his wont (last year, he gave one to Datuk Faridah Merican, much to our collective delight). Not that a mere title should ever make a difference to the place a great artist has in our hearts, but the conferment of Dato’ upon Krishen Jit does seem that Malaysia has finally recognised one of her truly truly outstanding sons. It also feels like this acknowledgement is not just for him, but for all the artists he had bridged across the disciplines, inspiring us to play, to experiment, to come to art like a virgin, every single time, and most importantly, to come together. Krishen never needed a title, and in truth, he is bigger than all the titles we can summon. But all the same, it was nice. Thanks to the Yang DiPertuan Besar Negeri Sembilan for showing that artists matter to this country.

Dato’ Krishen Jit — will he prefer Datuk K? — left us 28 April last year. On the same day this year, artists who have worked with the Dato’ gathered at Sek San’s Gallery for Utih… Celebrating Krishen [Utih was Krishen’s pen name]. Presently keeping his legacy alive is the company he co-founded, Five Arts Centre, which this year has already presented two projects as part of the Krishen Jit Experimental Workshop Series. The first, held in January, was Mark Teh’s Baling (Membaling), a play about Chin Peng’s truce with Tunku Abdul Rahman, staged at futsal stations and colleges. The second was Marion D’Cruz’s Choreography for Non-Choreographers, which took place in the rain, near the toilets, at Central Market in June.

The three more upcoming projects: In 1969: directed by Chee Sek Thim, based on a short story by Beth Yap, with original songs by Shanon Shah (The title says it all, and like the Datukship of Krishen, is a subject long overdue in our arts and public forums). Adjudicating Sita: devised by Fred Lim with Anne James, who performs it. Wayang Kulit: by Fahmi Fadzil with collaborators.

Below we gather a few of the individuals who are involved in Five Arts Centre or KJEWS to talk about Krishen’s legacy to us.

Vernon Adrian Emuang: Lebih tinggi, lancar dan tepat

actor, film producer, a non-choreographer in Choreography for Non-Choreopgraphers

Through working with Krishen and The Five Arts Centre I learnt that art builds bridges, that art is proactive and pre-emptive to every kind of social ill we can think of. That art is powerful.

I look around at the communal fragmentation that still exists and it makes me wish for him to still be alive. In his memory, I will strive to take my fluency of Bahasa Malaysia “ke arah taraf kemahiran perbahasan yang lebih tinggi, lancar dan tepat’.

Krishen was perhaps one of only two men I knew who chose to never flaunt his uber-academic qualifications. That was his way. Though absolutely deserving of such a distinction, I think he would have been deeply embarrassed to be called Dato’ Krishen (and to some it would have to be Dato’ Dr Krishen, OK?).

So, while it may seem so mis-timed that the honour arrive posthumously, I think it is kind of appropriate and so very Krishen-esque.

I can see him now in that big rehearsal studio in the sky, looking out in his quintessential, owl-ish way mischievously thinking, “For all the questionable Dato’s alive and down there right now, there can be no possibility of MY Dato’ship ever being retracted for reasons of any kind… unless, of course, Marion… REALLY misbehaves!”

Yes, the awesome wife he left behind… not any mere Datin, but the Dato’ Dr’s better half! I rejoiced for Marion at this news in The New Straits Times (the daily that headlined it). Brava! Bravo! Congratulations!

Mark Teh: Don’t get attached

actor in In 1969, director of Baling (Membaling), initiator of the Taman Medan Community Arts Project

I think the aspect of Krishen that is particularly relevant for me at this moment was his experimental approach to theatre-making, especially in light of the Experimental Workshop Series we’re doing in his name this whole year. We sometimes forget that experimentation is linked with numerous failures, successes and compromises along the way, and Krishen’s theatre was very concerned with a rigorous and passionate criticality, an imaginative and ambitious ‘testing’ and ‘re-testing’, as well as the desire to not get attached to the results. It is this side of KJ that I am trying to process most consciously right now in our projects.

Some of this experimentation was borne out of necessity of course — Krishen was never the type that waited around for the ideal time, place, budget or resources to get something done. In the context of our current social climate and creative shortsightedness, that’s a pretty good reminder.

Gabrielle Low: Indian sweets

co-producer of KJEWS, a non-choreographer in Choreography for Non-Choreographer

I’ve managed somehow to separate my Krishen experiences quite neatly.

There was, on the one hand, the Indian uncle who used to sit in on the rehearsals for our play, Lebih Kecoh in 2001, observing and more often — and this is so legendary that it’s quite a cliché to note this — dozing off. Cliché or no cliché, the power of Krishen’s naps was such that he slept through even the barrage of reproaches our director, Rhona, launched at poor Mark Teh, who just couldn’t get his ‘Getaran Jiwa’ tune right. (Krishen rather liked Rhona; he approved of her methods of directing).

Krishen and food — almost as inextricable as Krishen and napping. During our rehearsals, he often brought us Indian sweets that he could not eat because of his diabetes. And just before we had to perform Lebih Kecoh at a Five Arts Centre ‘preview’ (similar to academic peer review, the preview is the brutal, ritualistic tearing-apart of performances that are to be staged by members of the company, carried out by fellow members), he took us out for dinner to calm our nerves. Krishen only drank Milo that evening, I can’t remember why he didn’t order any food himself.

Krishen was never condescending towards us despite our youth. He listened to us and he talked problems through with us, but he never ‘advised’ us. This, I think, is very rare. I miss that confidence he gave us.

I am finding it hard to extricate what I’ve learnt in order to attribute it directly to Krishen. The problem is that what I’ve taken for granted as the givens of theatre-making, of theatre appreciation, I am slowly discovering are things that Krishen introduced, pioneered, experimented with years ago…

Experimental methods? I didn’t know it was experimental. I thought that was how things were supposed to be done.

That ‘appearance’ exercise that I can’t stand — Krishen started it!

I can’t trace the genealogies of lessons that may have come from Krishen. The legacy is more implicit than that.

Ivy Josiah: Congrats to the Sultan

producer of KJEWS, human rights activist

Congratulations to the Sultan for recognising KJ!

Krishen taught me to be generous in all that I do. To boldly share ideas and to take chances. As a human rights activist I draw on this.

I see his legacy in the Five Arts Centre and the continued work, spirit and energy we generate in producing performances that still leave audiences excited and perplexed.      ·

Jillian Ooi: A little dark-eyed dog

music director for Rhythm in Bronze

Congratulations, Krishen. You have managed to piss Marion off because she now has to take half-day leave and dress up in her baju kurung and jewellery to accept this datukship on your behalf.

Monkey Business (gamelan theatre) was Krishen’s first and last work with Rhythm in Bronze. Sunetra [Fernando] and I wanted to explore our roots with greater depth and make the boundaries between music, movement, story­telling, and voice as fuzzy as possible (you can see the Five Arts influence here!). There was no other person whom we had in mind when we conceived this project. It was always Krishen from day one.

Funny how much about music we learnt from Krishen — and we thought we were the musicians! Krishen stressed again and again in our rehearsals that he didn’t want the usual Rhythm in Bronze gamelan stuff, which was, according to him, always beautiful and melodious and la la la… He asked for rawness and ugliness in our music this time. He seemed to think that that was more honest. “Who said life is beautiful?” he asked to prove his point.

Unfortunately, we were never able to see it through with him properly, which is something I am sure every performer in the production deeply regrets.

Our present Rhythm in Bronze project will be at the midpoint between what you saw in Monkey Business and what you get in our usual concertised gamelan performances. Elements of shadow play, movement, and story-telling will be present in this performance as well. Those elements are of and largely because of Krishen.

Some of us in Rhythm in Bronze saw his spirit (and I do not mean this in a ghoulish sense) in a little dark-eyed dog in Sek San’s gallery the night we were setting up our wayang kulit screen, getting ready for Utih… Celebrating Krishen. It freaked us out no end. I went over to try to pat it but I didn’t dare touch it in the end because its eyes were so like Krishen’s. It watched us rehearse. As I went through the motions of the rehearsal, I had to tell myself to not keep on looking at the dog behind me for some kind of directorial input. I half-expected it to give a huge hacking cough too.

Charlene Rajendran: Main teater, kerja teater

director of My Grandmother’s Chicken Curry, academician at National University of Singapore

Krishen created purposeful and provocative spaces for thinking and feeling that enabled empowering encounters with self and others. In the processes and performances he collaborated on, Krishen provided opportunities for ‘playing’ theatre (main teater) and ‘working’ theatre (kerja teater), which have become lived experiences of being proactive, being Malaysian, being critical, being human and simply being! He was bold in his vision for Malaysian theatre and shared his ideas with a passion that was deep and infectious. To honour Krishen is to create even more sustained and diverse opportunities that generate these sorts of dynamic spaces within the arts — rigorous, experimental, generous, wise and questioning. Through symbolic representation and the power of metaphor Krishen helped deal with crucial questions and painful ruptures in consciously critical and compassionate ways. One of the ways that working with Krishen and developing an understanding of his work has affected my own approach been to ‘play’ more passionately and ‘work’ more wisely.

Fred Lim How Ngean: Getting personal

actor, writer, director for Adjudicating Sita

KJ was the best cikgu in theatre anyone could have.

I would be at his place with two bottles of red: Shiraz for Dato’ (he loved his Shiraz) & Cabernet Sauvignon for Datin (Marion loves her Cab Savs). Then we would kick back and start the toasting! I can imagine he would be amused, slapping his thigh while he guffawed: “Heh! Heh! Heh!”

That’s if he was alive. Now that he’s gone and to be recognised only when he’s dead, too late guys, too late!

KJ taught me that every project is a personal one and to love it — the script and the process, and to build personal relationships with your co-actors for that particular project. Never to be afraid of getting personal with the projects.

KJ is quintessential Malaysian theatre.

Where I saw his legacy recently: I was helping Zahim remount Smell of Language + Notes on Love, Life and Painting after KJ passed away. The process started with Zahim and I rewatching the video of the performance when KJ was still alive. However, it became more fruitful when we got down to rehearsing on the floor, trying to remember how KJ would approach certain scenes… In the remembering and questioning, I actually was learning again about how he worked. It was an amazing experience for me.

I was helping out in Ong Keng Sen’s Geisha in Tokyo in May this year and it (KJ’s influence) is still evident in his (Ong’s) rehearsal process: negotiating his own artistic vision with the mixing, merging and marrying of skills, artistry and talents of actors, musicians, designers from various backgrounds, ethnicities and aesthetics. KJ was very key in Ong’s development as a director in the early years (the strategising, the questioning, the exploration, the courage to keep trying) and it still shows even though Ong has come unto his own.

Final word: KJ primed me and my outlook on theatre for the past ten years — it prepared me for my theatre fellowship in Tokyo now. Every time I see a new show in Tokyo I still find myself asking what KJ would have thought about this… Not because I don’t have an opinion of my own but because inadvertently KJ’s opinions always “inform” my opinion even more.

OK, am getting a little OTT, so that’s it.

Shit u have made me cry.

Chee Sek Thim: A continuum of experiments

director of Encore and In 1969, gallery owner of Reka Art Space

Krishen offered a viewpoint towards the practice of theatre that went beyond producing a good show. He demonstrated a working process that moved from one production to the other in a continuum of experimentations that refined and defined ideas and visions. Each project feeds into a larger process that has as its aim, a search for, and a crafting of a voice.

I have only directed four or five productions so I am still searching for my voice. But Krishen tells me in Directors’ Workshop II that I have a voice, so I believe him lah. From Ang Tau Mui (by Leow Puay Tin), Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral (by Kuo Pao Kun) and Reconstructing Medea, I have been trying to develop a physical vocabulary for performance.

In In 1969 I am trying to work with physical vocabulary as a scale, not unlike the musical scales composers use. But In 1969 is also a musical. “Encore” last year was my survey of the musical theatre vocabulary of Malaysia. In “In 1969” I try to marry my interest in physical theatre with the musical to create a musical theatre that has a more integrated expression of sound and movement. Above all, I want to create exciting ways for people to access the thinking behind the writing of the text and to produce art that does not leave you in the cold every time a production ends.

Krishen left a way of working that placed deep emphasis in the body and mind of the actor as containing potential for great theatre. It is the building of relationships between him and his actors through this paradigm on the rehearsal floor that his greatest work has often been played out. I feel his legacy lies in these experiences where he imparted an awareness of possibilities.

Fahmi Fadzil: Great wankers

actor, facilitator of the Wayang Kulit workshop

The Five Art’s Director’s Workshop — CPM, which was the last project that Krishen and the four new directors were supposed to work on, I began to put to practice some of the ideas I had gleaned from conversations with Krishen: That it’s alright to fail, and one mustn’t cloud one’s perception with the thrill of ‘success’. That we don’t ever begin from ‘Point Zero’. That there is always a precedent for whatever it is that we are doing (at least most of the time), and it is important to recognise and to recall to the present these precedents, and by doing so, form a relationship with the past.

In my own work for the upcoming wayang kulit project, I will always remember what Krishen said to me with regards ‘tradition’. Once, while watching the Rhythm In Bronze ensemble rehearse, Krishen remarked that we can never ever know for sure and with certainty how exactly gamelan was played centuries ago. And it perhaps refracts our own efforts in attempting to seek the ‘authentic’ — because the ‘authentic’ is always imagined, and by extension, is a romantic inflection. It is best to accept that the past is continuously re-presented, and the present is where the ‘authentic’ must be. So, tradition is what we make of it. So what Krishen then asked the RIB girls to do was just play. Just play. The tradition will settle itself.

The one thing which I thought was possessed of a spirit akin to the inquisitive part of Krishen’s semangat, for me I think, was Tokyo Notes, by Seinendan Theatre, Japan. In Malaysian performing arts, there hasn’t been very much, and so I’m wont to think of Krishen’s remark (Malaysians are great wankers — can find in KJEWS booklet).

“Wayang will undoubtedly change. But in which direction, we will never know.” — from an article on Pak Hamzah’s master, in Uncommon Position [an anthology of Krishen’s essay]

Anne James: The work is never finished

teacher, director, actor in Adjudicating Sita

It’s about time! We talk about our rich cultural heritage but our cultural icons are the last to be acknowledged. We choose to confer Datukships first on our politicians (who lead without a conscience) and business leaders (who care for nothing but the pursuit of wealth aided and abetted by their co-conspirators the politicians). In the meantime our cultural and intellectual icons are acknowledged almost as afterthoughts. Nevertheless I am glad he is finally acknowledged in this way in his country of birth.

Krishen above all taught me about presence on stage, about being truthful without being ‘method-like’ or technical about it. He expected me to give my ALL when I was on stage — physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically -­ he expected everything. The rehearsal process with him was always fraught and at the end of each show we did together, I would stay away from him for a while because it was just too painful to be near him. We spent 20 years doing this… joget. Though in the last two shows I did with him we seemed to have moved to a new place. I tried to ask him what that was about. He never quite explained it to my satisfaction.

Krishen’s influence on me: That everything shown need not be fully explained or made clear. Life is not like that. That when watching a performance the audience will be required to “work” and experience, even if it is uncomfortable, that they go through a visceral experience. That in presenting this “play” we create images and experiences that resonate in the minds and bodies of those who endure the process.

Krishen’s legacy: The work of creation is never finished. Not the work on ourselves. Not the work on the making of theatre. Not the way we talk about theatre. Life in theatre is a work in progress.

I saw his legacy at “Utih… Celebrating Krishen” when we ate, drank, sweated, performed and remembered not his death but his life. When remembering was a celebration; and I drank deeply.


In 1969 will run at the Sunway College Rooftop Theatre from Fri 4 – Sun 6 Aug 2006 (Fri & Sat: 8.30pm; Sun: 3pm). Admission is free.

First Published: 27.07.2006 on Kakiseni

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