Krishen Jit. Photo by S.C. Shaker.
Krishen Jit. Photo by S.C. Shaker.

The first thing I notice is a fort of stacked school chairs. Hidden inside are two blackboards that ask the same question in four different languages: “Will speaking one language bring Malaysians closer? Why?”

Broken up pieces of chalk are placed on the blackboard, inviting you to write an answer. On a table nearby is a pile of exercise books, opened to the same page and interleaved; just as your teacher used to arrange them.

But I am not in school, I am in a theatre: more specifically, I am at KLPac for Unfinished Business, a conference about the late theatre practitioner Krishen Jit. The schoolchair fort, by the filmmaker Ho Yuhang, was inspired by Krishen.

 

Unfinished Business, a three day conference organised by Five Arts Centre, marked the tenth anniversary since Krishen’s passing. But is “passing” the right word?

 

Krishen is best known as a theatre director who created experimental and avant-garde works that fused multiple disciplines. He worked with and influenced many actors and directors who are active today.

He produced locally written plays in both Malay and English. In the 1970s, during the infancy of local theatre, he produced works by Usman Awang and Syed Alwi, and prodded works out of the newer generations such as Huzir Sulaiman and Leow Puay Tin.

Krishen was also a theatre critic. His weekly column, Talking Drama by Utih, ran for 22 years in the New Sunday Times. In addition to all this, he lectured in History at University Malaya and was the head of department of Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (now ASWARA).

When Krishen passed away, he left a legacy in Five Arts Centre, the theatre company he co-founded in 1984 with his wife, the dancer Marion d’Cruz, and the director Chin San Sooi.

Unfinished Business, a three day conference organised by Five Arts Centre, marked the tenth anniversary since Krishen’s passing. But is “passing” the right word?

“I prefer relocated,” says Marion D’Cruz, a dance choreographer. A jasmine garland hangs round her neck. It’s a Five Arts tradition to hand out garlands at the opening of their shows.

The installation by Ho Yuhang created for Unfinished Business at KLPac.
The installation by Ho Yuhang created for Unfinished Business at KLPac.

I soon discovered that Unfinished Business wasn’t going to be a conference like any other. On the first evening, the conference started – how else? – with a play.

At 8.30pm, Standard Theatre Opening Time, Huzir Sulaiman and Claire Wong performed their piece, Carrot/Pantun/Dance, a subversive meta-play. Huzir thanked us for watching their play and staying for the post-show dialogue. Through picture slides and carrots on the table, the husband and wife talked about the play that we never watched and attempted to answer questions we never raised.

They poked fun at the type of questions usually raised during Q&As, such as, “How is theatre political and in a way different from how politics is political?” Huzir answered in an erudite, academic manner while Claire compared everything to cooking carrots.

 

The piece Carrot/Pantun/Dance was inspired by Huzir and Claire’s memories of Krishen cooking caramelized carrots for them.

 

Both Huzir and Claire are theatre veterans with endless hyphens in front of their name. Both are actors-writers-directors, born in Malaysia and now based in Singapore. They frequently collaborated with Krishen, and met when he directed Huzir’s play, Atomic Jaya, a one-woman play starring Claire, performed in Singapore in 2003.

The piece Carrot/Pantun/Dance was inspired by Huzir and Claire’s memories of Krishen cooking caramelized carrots for them. He loved long conversations over food or wine, they said, and that was how he bonded with them.

In a way, the play mirrored the conference itself, as it talked about something that was not there. Things often become more present by their absence. And through those conversations, we imagine what is not there.

Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman performing Carrot/Pantun/Dance.
Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman performing Carrot/Pantun/Dance.

On the second day of the conference, two more of Krishen’s collaborators, Jo Kukathas and Ivan Heng shared their memories of him.

“I feel that Krishen is a monster, and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” said Jo at the post dialogue of her piece on the second day of the conference, Broken Monsters. She met a Japanese actor who was described as a “monster”, and she stole that description from him. “He can change the room just by being in it.”

Her piece was about the first time she worked with Krishen on K.S. Maniam’s The Sandpit, a play about the state of Indians in Malaysia. On day one of rehearsal, she wasn’t allowed to read the script. He gave her one word: “Stop”. She was told to repeat it again and again. On the second day he gave her another word: “Shouting”. Same deal. Then she was allowed to put them together: “Stop shouting.” That was the end of rehearsal day two.

She rebelled. She shook her head when told to repeat her lines. But at the end, they came to an agreement and shook on it. At the end of the play’s run, Krishen gave Jo a handwritten letter, thanking her for her rebellion. That was how they became friends.

He also indirectly inspired Jo to start Instant Café Theatre. “Why be content with following other people? Do your own stuff”, he said to her.

 

“Until today, we (musicians) still talk about ourselves as being traumatized by the whole creative process”

 

Krishen loved multidiscipline collaborations. His last production, Monkey Business, was a collaboration with Rhythm in Bronze incorporating music, movement, spoken text, acting and visible emotion when playing their instrument. Jillian Ooi, musical director of Rhythm in Bronze, remembered their creative process.

“Until today, we (musicians) still talk about ourselves as being traumatized by the whole creative process,” she joked. He wanted the gamelan players to make songs based on their personal stories. To excavate their stories, he gave exercises normally used for actors in theatre. In one of the exercises, he asked them to list 10 reasons why they love playing the gamelan.

They resisted. Why do we have to do it? We had three reasons, they argued. That should be enough. No, he demanded. Ten. They understood why at the end of the session. As they went down the list, the reasons grew darker and darker. They didn’t like what they found. Plenty cried. Another broke down.

They found their stories.

But the music they created based on their stories was too beautiful, too pretty. Krishen didn’t think it reflected their stories and grew frustrated.

“At one point he started calling us ‘gamelan f******’ during rehearsals”, she said. But she knew that he was just trying to provoke them.

Their final compositions ended up raw and ugly. One of the reviews for the show went: “The show was filled with pieces that were so angst-driven and despondent, that one had to wonder about the musicians.”

Why did they stay if it was so traumatic? Jillian asked Sunetro Fernando, who was involved in the process. Her answer: “Because whatever he did, I know that it came from a place of love and compassion.”

Practising Intersections workshops with Janet Pillai at Unfinished Business.
Practising Intersections workshops with Janet Pillai at Unfinished Business.

As I heard more and more stories about Krishen, it became clear to me that he made theatre out of a desire to collaborate and to know people. Everybody remembered having lunch, dinner, drinks, conversations and exchanging stories with him.

“He has to know someone before they start the process (of rehearsing)”, said Nam’ron, who was a student at the National Arts Academy when Krishen was the Head of Department. While he was Head of Department, Krishen would be at the café before class started to meet his students.

“It’s a way for him to get close to his students, to make it easier to work with and teach them.”

As an academic, Krishen didn’t just lecture about theatre, he helped create it.

As a director, squeezed every inch he could from his performers them and was never satisfied until he found the truth inside them.

As a person, Krishen was remembered for his warmth and desire to understand people, leading endless conversations over food and drinks.

At the end of the conference, after the applause had died down, most people did not leave the theatre. Nearly everybody stayed in Pentas 2. A few points from the previous talk were discussed. A few participants went on stage and started dancing.

The conference was over, but soon everyone would gather again to talk over dinner and wine. The conversation hadn’t ended: it just relocated.

Photos courtesy of Five Arts Centre.