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  • July 27, 2006

By Jo Kukathas

The following was first presented at Utih… Celebrating Krishen, 28 Apr 2006, at Sek San’s Gallery.

It has been said that when you write a biography of a friend you must do it as if you are taking revenge for him. The same must go for eulogies. And while it was never said that tonight’s gathering was for eulogising Krishen, that’s all I think any of us want to do. Are capable of doing. It is too early to make words of art. Which is why I think we have all turned to documentary. It is too early even for words which are artful.



My friendship with Krishen has been built up over the years through a series of lunches. In public places, in theatres, even in crowded rehearsal rooms we avoid each others eyes. We fear the intimacy. But over lunch in Japanese restaurants in five star hotels all over KL we reveal everything. In Krishen I find a fellow traveller. An adventurer. But we’re slightly cautious adventurers: we take taxis and order the same teapot soup and sashimi moriawase. We know what we like. We like conversation. We’re Indian.

I’m late for lunch with Krishen. I arrive flustered apologetic. He is sitting in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel absorbed in a Time magazine cover story about Tiger Woods. I’m late. He smiles beatifically. This Tiger Woods he says is an interesting guy. I love the way Krishen says the word ‘guuuy’. Sorry I’m late I say. You’re always late he says. I protest. He smiles. Shall we?

Lunch with Krishen is always Japanese. We like the calmness of the music. The neatness of the table. Over the structure and precision and elegance of lunch our conversation can take their flights of fancy. Juxtaposition.Tension.Drama. We talk about this. This Juxtaposition – Tension – Drama. We like talking drama. We like our flights of fancy. We like talking of things we like. Even more we like talking of things we don’t like.

I don’t like the way the theatre is headed I say. It’s worrying he says. What can we do? Do you think it’s time we got into a room together again? All of us. Talk. lf we can. If we’re capable of it! We need to review the way we deal with the notion of our need for contemporary theatre says Krishen.

It’s just a notion I ask? So far he says. So far.



Krishen, like all great directors, questions the very notion of directing. He is not interested in directing plays but in the legacy of exploration. Krishen is all about explorations. Log books. Journeys. What is often regarded as his inconsistencies, his changes of systems in mid-rehearsal is merely the artist in Krishen searching for new materials experimenting with new materials. But his time management eventually ends with us experiencing the experiment rather than savouring the end of one particular journey.

We are divided as to whether that is a good or bad thing. I think that was Krishen’s thing. That was what distinguished him.


He’s mentor and guru. But not just that. Krishen is a democratic autocrat. He is the first among equals. He is the Grand Inquisitor. He knows his position is precarious. Krishen looks like he was born for this role. The slight hunch. The pursed mouth. The steady gaze. The silences. He makes you fill them. That is his skill. He sucks his breath until you speak.


Krishen likes telling me the long complicated plot lines of the Bollywood movies he has just seen. He’s incensed now because disc three of the movie he bought recently didn’t work. He had started watching the movie at midnight so it was two o’clock in the morning by the time the pirated vcd seller’s heinous crime has been detected. By which time  it’s too late to take three friends and a cudgel and go bash him up and/or demand a new disc three. Krishen breathes heavily. He’s become more Punjabi in his old age he says. But Krishen has learned his lesson: he checks disc three now every time he buys a movie.


I’ve come to prefer cold sake I say. Is that right? says Krishen feigning deep interest.

We talk instead about things we love.

I love hotel rooms Krishen says.

Krishen loves hotels. A hotel room is his idea of heaven. Life stripped down to its essentials. He takes great delight in an electric kettle. The ice cube tray. The packets of tea that magically reappear every day. He is a delighted traveller.

Krishen loves intimacy. Hotel rooms are that. Lunches are that. I’m no good in crowds he says. I like one on one.

But a forum is a good idea. He chews a piece of salmon for about a minute and breathes heavily.

Krishen loves the rehearsal room too. In the rehearsal room I’m alive he says.

For in this room he can create his most powerful place for intimacy. It is an intimacy set up between strangers. This IS powerful: the frisson of a stranger and the safety of the rehearsal room. This is something Krishen the voyeur understood. That we need that intimacy. For conflict, collaboration love hate for the heart to keep beating.

Krishen spent his life assembling people.

This is what Krishen does – he assembles people. He’s done it again today.

But I think what Krishen did that set him apart was that he assembled people for intimacy.

This is what he wanted. I don’t know if we’ve given him that tonight yet.

I don’t if there is anyone here any more who can orchestrate that.

And that’s why I miss him.

And even though intimacy is terrifying that is why you wanted to work with Krishen. Krishen always made you feel singled out. He invited you to go along with his vague projects and see what you could discover about yourself.


I’ve taken the gingko nut out of the teapot and put in on a plate. What are you doing says Krishen. I like eating the ginkgo nut last I say. It has a nice bitter aftertaste. You’re weird says Krishen. Thank you I say bridling a little. What would you do if I took your ginkgo nut away? Could you cope? Would you go beserk?

Eventually – I say. But not over lunch.

He looks at me steadily. That’s your problem he says.

Shall we have a gin and tonic?

Can you?

I have to take my other cocktail first he says. That’s what they call it. My cocktail of tablets.

He takes out his pillbox and arranges the pills on his table napkin.

There is a paternal and a seductive quality to Krishen’s questioning.

You want to resist him but you can’t. He’s charming. He makes you feel singled out. Intimate. Hayati Mokhtar once said to me that he was like a feudal lord – you will give him your sawa padi. He will know in his wisdom what to do with it. You will feel vaguely robbed. You will give him more of your sawa padi.

Lunch meanders into late afternoon coffee at the Regent Lounge.

I fired an actor once he says. Only once. What he was doing was harming everything else believed in. I thought I couldn’t do the play without him. But I fired him. It felt good.

What happened.

We did the play.

How was it?

Not very good.

We take turns to be the subject of interrogation at these lunches. Today it’s my turn to be full of anxieties. You know what you should do says Krishen. What’s stopping you? I’m not sure. I think you do. You should do. What’s stopping you.

I’m not good with people.

Too bad.

We look at each other. Shall we? Says Krishen. We walk out to get a cab from the bellboy’s desk.

“Too bad.”

I’ll have to take that ambiguous reply home with me. You’re annoying I tell him. You make my brain hurt. He’s delighted.

Krishen drops me home even though we live on the opposite side of the federal highway. “Take care. See you soon.  I don’t see enough of you.” We hug, The taxi driver watches our intimacy in the rear view mirror.

I think intimacy could be Krishen’s legacy to us. I think it is a priceless one if we choose to accept it. But like many of Krishen’s gifts it is hard to accept. It forces us to question why we do theatre. But Krishen’s insistence on our offering ourselves up to observation and questioning each other IS for me his legacy.

I don’t know yet if I will take his gift home. But it is there on the table for us. A legacy is a living thing. As his living legacies one day some of us will open that particular gift.

I don’t think I’ve even been able to be vengeful tonight. Perhaps it is too early even for that. I’ve been having a hard time dealing with death myself this year. And in the midst of grieving although we try to conjure meaningful words we know there is more language in silence.

Which is why we’ve met today to put words and silence together.

Here is a part of a poem I’d like to read for Marion. It is called COSC written by Pablo Neruda for a friend of his who died.

I write these words down in my book, thinking

that this naked farewell, with him not present,

this simple letter, which cannot be answered,

is nothing more than dust, cloud, ink, and words

and the only truth is that my friend is dead.

Thank you.

First Published: 27.07.2006 on Kakiseni