Marion D’Cruz was among friends last Saturday. They came from all over to celebrate the publication of a book on the late Krishen Jit. That morning, Five Arts Centre was the venue where friends of Krishen and Marion converged reminiscing about the man they knew well.
The book Excavations, Interrogations, Krishen Jit & Contemporary Malaysian Theatre is one of a kind. It is basically a compilation of essays by 14 writers of different backgrounds and disciplines on the life and works of Krishen.
It stems from a conference held in January 2015. With an illuminating introduction by the editors (Charlene Rajendran, Ken Takiguchi and Carmen Nge), the collection unveils the various layers of Krishen’s works and his personality.
It is like peeling the layers one by one, “excavating” if you like, and with lots of critical studies and analysis (thus the “interrogations”), Krishen surfaces but not all.
There are many more layers to be uncovered for Krishen was no ordinary bloke, nor his works easy to be “appropriated.”
For many of us who have known Krishen, he was simple and forthright as a person. But the complexity lies in his works and especially his writings.
I have edited some of his essays in Bahasa Malaysia in Dewan Sastera, the literary journal published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). I have collaborated with him in a few essays.
I have been following his columns in the New Straits Times for years. He has written about me and my works, some I liked, others I didn’t and I told him so.
Krishen was the best drama critic the country has ever known. To label him just a “critic” is almost a misdemeanour. He was in fact a keen observer, a chronicler and a commentator.
To many who have acted under his direction or listened to his talks, he was a guru and mentor. He can be exceptionally harsh, even brutally critical in his writings.
But theatre activists of his generation took note and paid attention. Being reviewed by Krishen was in itself an honour.
For 22 years (1972 to 1994) his nom de guerre, “Utih”, was writing for the New Straits Times. When he started the column in 1972, a lot of things were happening on the Malaysian stage.
Theatre in Bahasa Malaysia was alighted with new works by the likes of Syed Alwi, Nordin Hassan and Dinsman. Theatre in English, once the flagbearer of excellence suffered because many of its stalwarts were migrating to theatre in Bahasa Malaysia.
In fact Krishen was the bridge between the two, as argued by Literary Laureate, Datuk Baharuddin Zainal, another of his close friend.
Two years later, I joined the University of Malaya and was part of the vibrant student and theatre activism in the campus. Hatta Azad Khan was at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Mana Sikana was at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).
All three of us were, together with Nordin and Dinsman according to Krishen and other critics, the pioneers of the “absurd theatre” in the country.
I knew Krishen through his writings as a student. He was a lecturer at the History Department when I joined the UM.
When I joined DBP in 1977, I had already befriended Krishen. In 1979, he was entrusted to organise a theatre festival for the Malay Studies Department of the UM.
It was to be called “Festival Teater Jabatan Pengajian Melayu” in conjuction with the 25th year of the department’s existence.
He selected seven plays to represent the various stages of contemporary Malay theatre. My play, “Angin Kering” was chosen to represent the experimental era of the 1970s.
I was to direct the “oldest” play, a transitional play (sandiwara) entitled “Si Bongkok Tanjung Puteri” written by Shaharom Husain. It was a tough assignment for Krishen.
I was given the task to assist him by my employer DBP. For many months we worked on the project. We even collaborated in an essay on Shaharom Hussain for the March issue of Dewan Sastera in 1979.
On his own he wrote a two-part essay as a retrospective of Malay theatre in the same edition and in the following month.
I got to know Krishen up, close and personal. He was a voracious eater, I can vouch that. He enjoyed being in my car, for I drove fast and perhaps a little reckless back then.
“I feel safe in a fast but cheap car!” he told everyone who cared to listen to his agony. He was combing details of the works of Shaharom relentlessly.
We met Shaharom a few times and marvelled at his collection of books and newspaper cuttings. As a historian Krishen probed the history of the genre, sandiwara.
As a theatre enthusiast he engrossed himself with the workings of the already dying genre. We met actors and stage hands who were involved in the first production of “Si Bongkok Tanjung Puteri.”
It was an enlightening experience working with Krishen. In 1992, I joined the Utusan Melayu group as the chief editor.
I became a restless spectator for years, for I was busy as a journalist and later in the corporate world. I heard Krishen started Five Arts Centre with his wife Marion in 1984. We met occasionally over teh tarik when time permitted. I was abroad when I heard of his demise.
This book is written with passion and understanding in trying to excavate and interrogate his body of works, his disciples, his work ethics and more so his contribution to the world of theatre.
He was a perfectionist, no doubt. And he was a man driven by his obsession to raise the bar of Malaysian theatre. He was never selfish, but uncompromising yes, and he was perfecting his art all the time.
Many who have worked with him understand his demanding pace and exactitude. He expected the best. He was lucky to have Marion and some of the best and dedicated stage people at Five Arts Centre.
This publication is a fitting tribute to Krishen Jit.
> Johan Jaaffar has just published a book, Jejak Seni, about his 50-year incredible journey as an actor, playwright, director and later chairman of the country’s largest media company.
He was a journalist and a former chairman of DBP.