Off The Edge, June 2006
The legacy of Krishen Jit, Malaysian theatre pioneerby Sherry Siebel
April 28, 2006: A year ago today, Krishen Jit left us. A year isn’t a very long time. The ache that comes from missing somebody who is gone forever is fresh even in my heart, a mere journalist. (I am snivelling like a pathetic ninny as I write this first paragraph.) Obviously, I care too much about the man. I am not alone: Krishen was adored and generally worshipped by almost everybody who came within his noble orbit. He was an irresistible human being and so much more than an actor, teacher, director, critic and theatre doyen; he birthed infant local theatre, nurtured it, taught it some manners and delivered it into the hands of passionate Malaysians like himself. He was a shining example of how to live on this earth: a wonderful man who showed us how to embrace life by embracing the people around him and suffusing them with his warmth, wit, wisdom and infectious enthusiasm. Dignified, intelligent and so very splendid, Krishen Jit was a great, great man.
When he succumbed last year to heart failure at the relatively young age of 66, he left a massive vacuum. This vacuum brought together tonight all those who love him with a fervent whoosh, and in celebrating the glory of Krishen and everything he inspired, he lived again, his spirit burning fiercely within the breasts of everyone present. It was beautiful and immensely moving. Five Arts Centre, the theatre company he co-founded with wife Marion D’Cruz and compatriots Chin San Sooi, K.S. Maniam and Redza Piyadasa, presented Utih – Celebrating Krishen, a series of short tributes that were performed in true Five Arts style: art that comes straight from the heart. And to illustrate just how much Krishen was on everybody’s mind, dancer Elaine Pedley did a headstand every time his name was uttered. I will rarely see her right-way-up the entire evening. (Apparently, she did 600 headstands.)
Everybody has a Krishen story: this is mine. My first encounter with this monolith of theatre was when I was sent as a rookie reporter for a now-defunct magazine to interview him about some play or other. I knew he had been at the Victoria Institution with several of my aunts and uncles in the Sixties, and that my mother, Rosemary Ross, an aspiring actress at the time, had been directed by him in the 1961 V.I. production of Jonah and the Whale. As the courtesan Shiprah, she was made to look “every inch a wanton harlot” (her words), wickedly smoking a cigarette. She also recalls Krishen getting thrown into the lake at the University of Malaya by his students during 1962 Rag Week when he was a History tutor in his first year. While everybody enjoyed the spectacle, he suddenly took off his watch and threw it on the bank, making everyone realise he was drowning. He was duly fished out and reunited with precious watch, and my mother remembers him “with true Victorian style and panache, taking off his shoes and emptying them!”
Anyway, there I was, trembling under his intense scrutiny and blurting out my questions when he inquired sternly, “What’s your surname?” I told him, and the entire interview flew out the window. He didn’t want to talk about his play anymore; he wanted to talk about Malaya in the good old days, V.I. in the Fifties, M.U. in the Sixties, eating my grandma’s cooking and ogling my aunties.
Krishen was hilarious. It was like time-travel: going to see this man as a teenager, a would-be lothario and a passionate theatre practitioner, going to see my family that has long been separated by continents, and going to see a newly independent country; a Malaysia that was so excited to be free and whose citizens mingled happily in a society where racism and social apartheid hadn’t even been heard of. It was the best non-interview ever. “You will never know what you have given me today,” he said at the end of that chatty afternoon. I’m still not sure exactly what it was, but I know he gave it back to me, a thousand-fold.
Born in Kuala Lumpur in 1939, Krishen, the son of immigrant Punjabi merchants, was the very first local to play a lead role in an English-language play as Julius Caesar, complete with laurels, in the Malayan Arts Theatre Group production of 1959. After returning from the University of California at Berkeley armed with a Masters in History, he lectured at University Malaya., but everything else was theatre. He directed scores of plays both in English and Malay, striving to find a confluence of common enjoyment between the two disparate spheres of Malaysian theatre, a quest he came to view as a futile exercise later in life. Renowned for his avant-garde experimental and fusion styles, he vastly enhanced the creations of beloved playwrights in both Malaysia and Singapore such as Usman Awang, Syed Alwi, Dinsman, Chin San Sooi, K.S. Maniam, Leow Puay Tin, Lloyd Fernando, Kuo Pao Kun and Stella Kon, not to mention the works of the new generation of dramaturges represented so well by the likes of Zahim Albakri, Jit Murad and Huzir Sulaiman. Krishen also wrote erudite theses for heavyweight publications, was appointed Ketua Jabatan of Akademi Seni Kebangsaan and was the most frightening theatre critic Malaysia had ever known.
Utih was the pseudonym Krishen employed when he wrote his famously scathing reviews of local plays in a weekly column for the New Sunday Times from 1972 to 1994. Whenever Talking Drama by Utih was mentioned, it was always with respect and, on occasion, plenty of amusement. It was tacitly accepted that no one knew as much about theatre as Krishen. He was the highest authority in the land and whatever bitter pill he prescribed, it was swallowed with a submissive gulp.
But he is perhaps more viscerally remembered by those who worked with Krishen the director; the merciless tyrant who sent many a fledgling actor home in tears due to his brutal but mercilessly efficient methods. Cruel to be kind, he drew countless breathtaking performances out of many a protégé such as Anne James and Charlene Rajendran, and more recently, Jo Kukathas and Zahim Albakri et al of the Instant Café Theatre Company (an outfit, which, in his persona of Utih, he initially saw as a conglomeration of spoiled, self-conscious upstarts). Huzir Sulaiman, the superb actor, playwright and director who has since whisked his considerable talents across the Causeway, was also a particular favourite of his.
It was a beautiful evening, if a trifle hot. Upon arrival at 67 Tempinis Satu gallery, guests were invited to pick a piece of paper out of a basket, to eat and be merry and to partake of Krishen’s favourite nosh, char kway teow. It was very crowded but nobody minded; everyone was smiling. Jasmine garlands – the official lei of Five Arts Centre – adorned the necks of Krishen’s nearest and dearest, enforcing the sense of family that has always been so palpable within this bijou theatre company.
Rhythm in Bronze played their gamelan after the claps died down for the speeches launching the Krishen Jit Experimental Workshop Series and the Krishen Jit Astro Fund, which plans to give out grants of up to RM20,000 to support creative works in the realm. Janet Pillai read selected texts from Krishen’s director’s notes and the girls from Temple of Fine Arts did a little bharatanatyam.
Next, the crowd surged its way forward to watch Anne James reprise her role as the embittered Sumathi in Maniam’s The Sandpit and recount the trauma of working under the mercurial director. Kukathas spoke endearingly of her lunches and enlightening conversations with Krishen under a series of paintings featuring the sweetest, pinkest piglets ever, after which Huzir read a quirky excerpt from A Stone Boat by Andrew Solomon. Soon Choon Mee reminisced in Mandarin and Nam Ron got belly laughs describing Krishen (a.k.a. K.J.) in laconic Malay as his ex-Ketua Jabatan at ASK. Judimar Hernandez performed a delightful dance piece and was joined by an exuberant Marion. Charlene Rajendran as Mercedes Songsang, an outré cabaret singer smothered in feathers, sang texts from Utih articles in the style of Fifties and Sixties ronggeng tunes.
They saved the best for last with Tikam-Tikam, hosted by Leow Puay Tin. The lucky few with red dots on their pieces of paper got to spin a big wheel à la those ais krim potong men of old, and the even more fortunate got to win something that belonged to Krishen. There were books, handkerchiefs and, best of all, two of his famous batik shirts. I had a dot; I spun hard, gunning for one of those shirts. And would you believe it, I actually won it. Amir Muhammad (pop culture pundit and director of the controversially banned Lelaki Komunis Terakhir) won the other one and Judimar’s little daughter amusingly won a massive tome entitled Ho Chi Minh that she could barely carry. What an absolutely lovely night. Krishen would have loved it.