So it goes, our theatre, from one new thing to another. What else is ahead of us? It is difficult to say, since our playwrights, once freed of many of the rules that existed before the 1970s, have become unpredictable. Only one rule seems to prevail these days, namely that theatre has no hard and fast rules. But with freedom comes a heavy responsibility, especially to the audience, whose open-mindedness has yet to be nurtured (Jit 1979, 8 April).In a social environment such as Malaysia, where different cultures (racial, religious, and linguistic) co-exist in varied power relationships with the state, the task of discussing performance also entails engaging with socio-economic and cultural policies that produce the prevailing practices and ensuing prejudices. For example, state-sanctioned affirmative action (aimed at reducing discrepant income distribution along ethnic lines) and national language use and regulation (intended to prevent the “bastardization” of Malay through creolization) are recurrent issues that inform Malaysian discourses. Whilst certain aspects of culture such as race and religion are categorized as “sensitive” – not sanctioned for public discussion and heavily censored when limits are transgressed – performances that deal subtly with the controversies of identity and nationhood often slip through the net.
Careful attention to these spaces offers much fodder for reflection and review. However, the challenge to create thinking spaces where critical analysis offers perspectives on history and develops skills in arts literacy is rarely met. Krishen Jit’s long-running New Straits Times arts review column, Talking Drama with Utih, was one such site in the Malaysian landscape; each column was an encounter that prodded a re-viewing not only of the performance event, but of its related issues. Sadly, there have been few if any others that have generated the same range of interest and depth of analysis. This article explores some of the “talking with Utih” that created “encounters” with traditional cultures, modern anxieties, and contemporary aspirations – often within a single article – as a result of Krishen Jit’s choice to review.
The critique of performance extends beyond an evaluation of aesthetic merit to an investigation of the political contexts and cultural histories that locate the work and frame its efficacy. In a plural postcolonial society such as Malaysia, this includes a conscious awareness of both local and global influences that inform choices, affect responses, and determine cultural currency. Live performances, being uncommodifiable, are reliant on critical reviews for historical record and resonance beyond the moment of performance. To do this requires exigent efforts to translate the ephemeral into lasting documentations that offer with some insight, a sense of the events and their significance.
Talking Drama with Utih is to date the longest running arts column in an English language Malaysian broadsheet. From 1972 to 1994, acknowledged theatre doyen Krishen Jit (1939-2005) wrote weekly about theatre and the arts in Malaysia using the pseudonym Utih – a character from the play Uda dan Dara (Malay: Uda and Dara) by Usman Awang, Malaysia’s National Laureate in Literature. In the play, Utih is a wise and eccentric older man in the village, whose insights into the human condition are perplexing but nonetheless revered for their capacity to provoke thought. Utih does not always adhere to custom or convention, and is subsequently often misread for his radical thinking and strong critique. In several ways Jit’s column would perform similarly.
Spanning three decades of considerable change in Malaysian life, the voice of Utih engaged with the dynamics of culture in a plural and polarized society, whilst probing issues of identity, modernity, literacy, and equity in the arts. 1 Be it absurdist theatre 2 or Chinese opera, 3 Jit set out to interpret the local with reference to the international and vice versa – at liberty to admit his own limits and thus be persuasive without appearing authoritative. He saw his role as distinct from critics in Broadway and the West End, where the luxury of choice meant being able to pick and choose at whim. Jit believed the Malaysian reviewer had to execute the sometimes difficult task of understanding local experimentation, as it characterized an evolving national culture and deserved to be discussed for the benefit of both maker and viewer (see Jit 1986: 5) This entailed watching the unfamiliar and trusting one’s instincts – openly defying the fallacy of objectivity and absolute authority.
It is amazing how much you can see and hear in a performance when you don’t understand its language…The uninitiated cannot break the code at one sitting. Also they cannot properly appreciate the nuance that is invested in a gesture – in the follow-through of the sweep of the sleeve… Even if you don’t know the meaning of the sighs, you can enjoy them for their own sake… So go see a Cantonese opera, even if you don’t know Cantonese (Jit 1986, 25 May).
Talking Drama with Utih did more than review performances. As its title suggested, it “talked drama” – an activity that Jit was literally partial to – discussing performances as well as persons, policies, and predicaments that pertained to making, viewing, and sustaining the arts. These “conversations” as informative shared imaginings extended boundaries and empowered alternatives, thus influencing the enactments of the “walking” as well as the “talking.” 4 Significantly, the “drama” extended beyond a conventional notion of staged plays to include inter-disciplinary and multi-modal performances and arts events – from the slick musical to amateur renditions of poetry, from spirited shamanic exorcisms to stultified dance repertory – each adding to the complex composite of Malaysian culture. Jit’s propensity to sift through the myriad frames and multiple forms worked in tandem with his perceived need to weave the separate strands whilst ensuring space for their distinct fibre.
Jit’s insights, based on theoretical perspectives and first-hand experience, stemmed from his training as a historian, ongoing consumption of several art forms, and self-taught discipline of performance studies. These were crucial in interpreting performances in a young nation seeking to generate cultural coherence amongst its multi-ethnic modernizing citizenry, whilst grappling with the contradictions of rapid change and uncertainty. This was particularly so in the early 1970s when the arts, like everything else in the nation, were reeling from the effects of May 1969, during which unprecedented racial riots between Malays and Chinese in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur led to emergency rule and dramatic revision of the nation’s policies on culture, education, and the economy. 5 This watershed event led to Jit’s decision to stop making theatre in English and to learn Malay fluently so he could engage Malay Language Theatre (MLT), something he had not yet done. 6 The choice to engage MLT and subsequently extend his work to include multi-lingual theatre, whilst remaining primarily associated with English Language Theatre (ELT), located him at the interstices of culture and identity, a liminal space he wielded and negotiated with skill.
The politics of Jit’s critique was evident and revealed with candor – he was interested in local executions of culture, excited by rigorous experiments with difference, applauded efforts to forge links between the familiar and obscure, and encouraged a sense of risk and adventure, even if the aesthetics of the execution did not always please him. This article will focus on three particular areas that Jit discussed repeatedly and which remain pertinent to the Malaysian arts scene: revitalizing local traditional and folk forms through integration with contemporary practice; nurturing criticality in local artists in order to strengthen professionalism and deepen execution, and adapting to socio-political change in order to remain resonant and gain respect.
Integrating Traditional and Contemporary Practice
Be they traditional or contemporary, the relevance and resonance of art forms are crucial in rapidly changing cultures. In a postcolonial modernizing nation like Malaysia, the tendency to either valorize the past or obsess with the present is acute – and neither helps to sustain public interest or build local artistry. Within this environment, Jit often discussed the need for traditional and folk forms to became part of a contemporary vocabulary as much as they retained their distinct presence. This would encourage production of indigenous work that drew from local histories whilst responding to wider contexts. Resisting essentialized norms, despite their dominant official presence in society, Jit sought to make connections between different cultures (traditional, modern, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Western, conventional, experimental, parochial, cosmopolitan) that would draw proponents and enthusiasts to support integrated expressions of collaborative co-existence.
In discussing an unusual televised performance of Chinese Opera done in Malay, Jit raised issues of authenticity and translation:
There will be some who claim that something vital is lost in Chinese opera when it is done in another language. Purists of a similar stripe have bemoaned the loss to art that has been accrued over the transformation of wayang kulit [Malay:shadow puppetry] performances from dialect to standard Bahasa Malaysia [Malay Language]. No doubt language transfer in theatre or any other art does contain dangers and risks… You cannot play the fool with language. Any notion of instant language transfer in performance will surely end up with abuse of the art. But you cannot let yourself be defeated by the perils of language change. You can bet much hard thinking and work must have gone into the transformation of the Parsi theatre staged in Hindustani to the Malay bangsawan [Malay vaudeville] in the late 19th century (Jit 1991, 24 Feb).
Here Jit draws attention to the inevitability of change and links issues affecting their viability – connecting questions of language use with extensions of performance vocabulary. He affirms the value of being constantly influenced by cross-cultural encounters in a space that has been a meeting point for cultural exchange over several centuries and suggests that one should be brave in the face of ensuing “perils.”
Whilst recognizing the enigmatic pull of a romanticized past, Jit advocated a questioning approach to legacies of myth and memory and discussed the necessity of cultural adaptation as a viable strategy for embracing change. He lamented the tokenistic inclusion of traditional elements, which reflected little respect for culture and a paucity of studied engagement. Jit’s deliberations focused on the need to integrate local traditional and folk forms within contemporary practices. Influenced by his reading of both postcolonial studies (aimed at decolonizing cultures and developing indigenous forms) and performance theories (oriented towards global cultures and inter-national collaborations), Jit resisted fossilized notions of culture – a common trend in the process of forging decolonized national identities – and indicated his wariness of exoticizing the “oriental other” under the guise of western-led interculturalism.
Referring frequently to Indonesian theatre as an example of stimulating emergent practice, Jit enthused about Teater Gandrik, a Jogjakarta-based company, and its capacity to be “firmly ensconced in the malleable folk ambience” whilst “free to improvise and draw upon current events and performance media to tell its story” (Jit 1990). He described Gandrik’s performance of Demit at the 1990 Asean Theatre Festival in Singapore as “agile and astute,” with humor that was “crass, crude and often elicited from pop resources” – this being the bridge that linked story and message (ibid). Jit explained:
Gandrik is steeped in tradition and at the same time the performers have a pulse on the popular and contemporary in their midst. Their place of domicile strategically located at the crossroads of town and country, old and new, accounts for their agility in bridging the traditional and the modern (Jit 1990, not known).
Jit clearly chose to highlight these qualities and strategies in the hope that Gandrik’s Malaysian counterparts would strive to attain similar results. 7
Nurturing Criticality in Local Artists
In a young nation struggling to find its feet, it may be deemed unsavory to critique seemingly fragile artists who unveil themselves and thus risk rejection. Without this maturing process of open dialogue, however, artists lack a critical frame within which to review their work and strengthen their sensibilities. Reluctance to critique also neglects the tasks of engaging audiences with the politics of viewing and recognizing multiple frames of culture, and it encourages non-passive responses to art. Jit found this to be “condescending” and reductive of what artists, particularly young artists, could do (Jit 1992, not known).
Being a practitioner cum reviewer in a small community of practitioners, Jit took on the precarious position of critiquing colleagues and friends in a culture unaccustomed to open confrontation and critical dialogue. 8 This produced occasional animosity, as when Jit’s tough stances were not recognized as part of the principles of critique. Kee Thuan Chye, fellow-practitioner and critic, was one exception, who, while describing how Jit “virtually tore to shreds” his first production in the 1970s, recognized that “malice was never an element in his writing or intentions” (Kee 2005).
Although Jit never wrote about work closely linked to him, namely the work of Five Arts Centre (a visual and performing arts collective he co-founded in 1984), he was unavoidably seen as partial and thus accused of unfairness to those outside the favored circle. 9 As Rowland (2003) points out, Jit’s unusual position as bilingual academic, critic, policy-maker, and practitioner resulted in a “disproportionately high level of validity that was difficult to defy” (18) and this led to a perceived “obscuring or undermining [of] alternative views” (ibid) – arousing even more ire and displeasure.
Yet whilst Jit could be stinging when he felt he needed to push a boundary and raise the stakes for theatre, he hardly restrained his praise when he felt it was due:
Jit Murad is our contemporary penglipur lara, the teller of tales about our social and personal manners here and now, and the soother of our neuroses. He glows with warmth in the telling of his stories… Laughter is his weapon to hit us into consciousness of ourselves as Malaysians. But it is also his defence, concealing his emotional rage against the fulminations and foibles of his time and age…It is the age of the confessional among a specific group of mostly young urban and Western-educated Malaysians. Gold Rain and Hailstones (written by Jit Murad) is surely the brightest star in the firmament (Jit 1993, 28 Nov).
Only a few years earlier, Jit had considered Murad part of a “self-absorbed generation” that was more “cool” than committed (see Jit 1989, not known).
Jit continued to write frankly and openly, arguing that a nation that sought to become developed, modern, and cosmopolitan needed to take artistic expression seriously by being critical and unafraid of disagreement or opposition. He drew attention to the aspirations of practitioners who broke with convention and who strived to forge fresh indigenous forms; he was especially geared towards highlighting artists working in an environment that either blatantly ignored them or weighed their significance lightly. He made it a point to watch and analyze work that was reflective of emergent trends, such as the anxieties that stemmed from the rural-urban shift of the 1970s, the identity conflicts of the modernizing 1980s, and the cosmopolitan ambitions of an affluent early 1990s.
By devoting attention to the choices made and paths taken by these artists, the column respected their work whilst locating them within the national context. Mustapha Nor was one such luminary whose work impressed Jit, albeit from a different aesthetic and politics. Unlike Jit, Nor preferred Western realist theatre and devoted his energies to making work in that style, but Jit valued greatly Nor’s tenacity and commitment to raising the standards of Malaysian theatre:
Mustapha Nor belongs to a new and emerging generation of theatre people in Malaysia. For him and his friends, theatre is a very serious thing. Engagement in it demands a highly professional attitude, born of a desire to offer good theatre to a deserving public. Theatre as a play-thing to while away your leisure time and that of your convivial audience, is for Mustapha and his kind, a thing of the past – or ought to be. There are many others today who bring an equally fervent and uncompromising stance to their work. But only a few among them approach theatre with such a rational and comprehensive mode of operation (Jit 1974, 12 May).
Enjoying the buoyancy of fresh energies and diverse creativities, Jit also raised questions of sustainability and quality – pushing for more rigorous analysis and critical examinations of the potential and positioning of performance. He repeatedly articulated the need to provide opportunities for artists to grow, making potent pleas for more professional training and resource building in order to nurture writers, educate actors, and professionalize producers. In this respect, Jit took seriously the space and influence that he wielded in the public eye – hoping it would encourage those who struggled to make a difference whilst nudging the authorities to improve conditions for artistic work.
Yet the problems of the theatre and artistic production are never stagnant. Lamenting the dearth of published local plays in the 1970s, Jit wrote:
We have become a theatre culture with very little sense of even our very recent past. For lack of published plays, our directors are unable to test the durability of an older drama. Everything is also new for our audiences, and their tastes are geared towards novelty…. The presence of Noordin Hassan and Syed Alwi suggests that our ingenuity is not all lost. But it will be if our writers are not treasured for the insights they give us of ourselves (Jit 1976, 8 Aug).
By the mid-1980s, Jit was more concerned that:
our theatre is becoming increasingly immobile and claustrophobic. The quest for new places for performance and for new audiences that marked the experimental 1970s appears to have fizzled out. Theatre today is almost entirely confined to the comfortable and cautious realm of confined auditoriums… [and] monolithic performance spaces… [in order] to nurture urban middle-class audiences…. God knows theatre needs a varied audience to rescue it from becoming an incestuous affair seductive only to theatre people (Jit 1984, 7 Jan).
He continued to urge artists not only to stay afloat, but to strive for the cutting edge.
Adapting to Socio-political Change
In the lifetime of Talking Drama with Utih, Malaysia saw rapid and dramatic changes in its political, social, and cultural landscape. From a newly independent, largely agricultural, economy in the 1960s and 70s, the country (and its capital city in particular) became a fast-growing, industry-led, modernizing nexus led by an urban “new rich” in the 1980s and 90s. State-initiated policies of liberalization to attract foreign investment and increase privatization encouraged entrepreneurship and diversification, which in turn led to marked socio-cultural changes. Among them was the desire to produce and consume cultural capital, the imitation of cosmopolitan lifestyles in many a global metropolis, and sponsorship and patronage of the arts on an unprecedented scale. However the management and allocation of these resources left much to be desired.
Pessimism, if not deep despair, holds sway whenever there is talk of the patronage of the arts in Malaysia… The indifference of the government towards rational planning and implementation of the arts is hugely responsible for the corporate disinterest in its development. When the government puts out a vigorous effort in sports and expands its constituency, the corporations fall in with the beat of the drummer. On their own the corporations will only bet on a sure thing… musicals, preferably those that have a substantial foreign and imported creative content… Such sponsorship is humiliating for local performing artists (Jit 1990, 5 Aug).
Jit discussed these changes and the need to embrace the ensuing possibilities, but he also recognized the need for artists to respond more imaginatively. As much as Jit applauded state initiatives to develop new venues and fund arts events, he also prodded thinking about how to improve programming and sustain interest. In synch with the efforts to become a more “developed” society as a whole, the arts needed to be recognized as a crucial sector in nation-building – and not many practitioners or bureaucrats understood this. 10
As ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) fostered trade relations and improved political ties across the region, Jit highlighted Southeast Asian practitioners and collectives (such as Arifin Noer in Indonesia and MAYA in Thailand), examining their capacity to develop indigenous contemporary forms or effect social consciousness. To counter local inertia and complacency, Jit identified similarities and differences that would motivate more politicized and incisive interventions, hoping that regional examples such as PETA (Philippine Educational Theatre Association) would inspire a more radical and less cushioned theatre (see Jit 1985, 24 Feb). 11
Underlining the need to broaden exposure and nurture talent, Jit also advocated arts education in the curriculum, support for community arts practice, and partnerships between private and public institutions. These would contribute to a supportive environment and adequate infrastructure that would help the arts move beyond the superficial cultural gratification of a “tourism Malaysia” type and guarantee long-term and sustainable advancement:
Drama can and ought to be made a part of the school curriculum. Formerly the performing arts were an everyday affair. A kampong child naturally learnt to sing, dance and act. Children’s theatre in the modern sense is an outgrowth of the break-up of rural culture. Many countries today have devised specific programmes in schools to nurture an interest in drama. It can have many functions. The act of performing in a play is by itself a learning process (Jit 1972, 21 Jan).
Responding to the emergent concerns of the arts fraternity, the column also argued against exorbitant entertainment tax, irrational censorship, and mindless administration. His was a voice that spoke on behalf of practitioners whose struggles to stay afloat were often invisible to the public; it was an eye-opener for audiences who were largely unaware of the struggles involved in keeping the arts vibrant and viable:
We have so many rules about public performances that it is a wonder that a play is staged at all. What the rules imply is that a theatre company must have money, it must stage a safe play, and it must cultivate the human resources and above all, the wit to deal with a widening bureaucracy. If you are sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism or any other powerful and recognized public agency, they will do the bureaucratic work for you. If you are not then you better be well-off and wily. Not surprisingly therefore, English language theatre, which is a private enterprise, tends to be quite elitist (Jit 1993, 22 Aug).
In 1986, a collection of Jit’s articles on theatre were translated into Malay and published as a book, providing useful documentation of work from the 1970s through the early 1980s. Although focused on MLT, Membesar Bersama Teater (Growing Up With Theatre) included some of Utih’s deliberations on wider issues and on non-Malay performances. It remains the only publication of its kind in Malaysia and provides invaluable insight into a particular time and space.
In his preface, Jit admits his reluctance to continue reviewing after he returned in 1980 from a sabbatical in New York, where he had consumed theatre voraciously without the burden of having to write about it. But his belief in the need for critical documentation of an ephemeral media and the scarcity of such efforts in a gradually maturing culture convinced him to overcome his hesitation and resume his role. By 1992, Jit felt the climate had changed and that there had developed a “high consciousness of theatre criticism in the country” (Jit 1992); thus once he retired from full-time university teaching in 1994, he decided to remain solely on the other end of the reviewer’s pen and devote his attention to directing theatre.
Critical of his own earlier work, Jit described the path of reviewing as “growing up with theatre,” as he valued the opportunity to learn about theatre by writing about it. He recognized the follies of his earlier perspectives, and reviewed his own reviews with a critical and scrutinizing eye. Yet what marks Utih’s voice among others is the sheer breadth of material he discussed and his commitment to writing about theatre despite all the “hazards” of the trade.
That it helped to celebrate cultural and aesthetic difference by breaking boundaries and linking what was deemed disparate is perhaps the column’s most enduring effect in a society still plagued by racial polarization and cultural prejudice. That it sought to do so through “talking with” is also significant in a global environment increasingly veering towards dominant voices that can only be heard “talking at.” As a result Utih’s voice continues to resonate.
January is the time for wishes and resolutions. Actually, a Malaysian theatre critic can do little else. Beset by the palling drought in theatre that falls each January, the critic can only resort to talking about plans and promises for the future. I have but one wish this year, and one resolve. I would like to see a play that is engaged with the deep social and political questions of our day… Few theatre people have thought of doing theatre that will cause the audience to sit and stare at themselves. We are living in a decade of entertaining theatre, expensive theatre, professional theatre. All is promise, little has been particularly successful (Jit 1986, 19 Jan).
Charlene Rajendran is a Malaysian teacher, writer and theatre practitioner who currently teaches theatre in the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She has been involved in young people’s theatre since she was a teenager as a performer, director and producer, working with Janet Pillai, Malaysia’s pioneer youth theatre practitioner. She gained exposure to traditional and contemporary theatre via interdisciplinary and integrated arts 2processes developed by artists such as Krishen Jit, Marion D’Cruz, Leow Puay Tin and Wong Hoy Cheong, working with Five Arts Centre, Malaysia. She continues to examine improvisatory and experimental work that forges contextual fusion within a plural space. Her current research interests include the politics of difference in theatre-making, a semiotics of location in arts education, and Southeast Asian performance practice.
Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 8-9 (March 2007). Culture and Literature
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Dinsman. 1979. “Bukan Bunuh Diri.” In Bukan Bunuh Diri, 67-90. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Jit, Krishen. 1972, 21 January. “What It Takes to Build up Children’s Interest in the Malaysian Theatre.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1974, 12 May. “Miracle Worker, A Serious Approach to Drama.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1976, 8 August. “Theatre and the Lack of Published Plays.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1979, 8 April. “‘Absurd’ Theatre – A Yes and No.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1984, 7 January. “Play Done the Wrong Way for the Wrong People.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1984, 13 July. “Spreading the Message of Opera.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1985, 24 February. “The Myths that Cloak our Theatre.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1986. Membesar Bersama Teater. Trans. N.A. Shehidan. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur.
_______. 1986, 19 January. “Playwrights Shake off your Social Apathy.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1986, 25 May. “How to Enjoy Cantonese Opera When You Don’t Know the Dialect.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1989, not known. “Self-absorbed Generation.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1990, 28 January. “The Need for Indigenous Dramatized Expression.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1990, 5 August. “Funding of the Arts Should Be Top Priority.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1990, not known. “Pan-Asean Performance Encounter.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1991, 24 February. “Chinese Opera in Bahasa.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1992, 12 January. “It’s a Small, Small World.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1993, 22 August. “All Because of a Kiss.” New Sunday Times.
_______. 1993, 28 November. “Laughter his Best Weapon.” New Sunday Times.
Kee, Thuan Chye. 2005. Krishen Will Remain a Hero for Generations to Come. Retrieved 29 April, 2005, from http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2005/4/29/nation/10823938&sec=nation
Ku Hussein, Ku Seman. 2005. Krishen Jit, Teater dan Orang Muda. Retrieved 25 May, 2005, from http://www.utusan.com.my/utusan/archive.asp?y=2005&dt=0501&pub=Utusan_Malaysia
Rowland, Kathy. 2003. “Introduction.” In Krishen Jit An Uncommon Position, ed. K. Rowland, 13-25. Singapore: Contemporary Asian Arts Centre.
Rowland, Kathy. 2005. Icon, Guru, Beloved Friend: Obituary: Krishen Jit Amar Singh, 10 July 1939-28 April 2005. Retrieved 4 May, 2005, from http://www.kakiseni.com/articles/people/MDY2Mw.html
- Jit also wrote reviews in Malay. Between 1974 and 1976 he published in Berita Minggu, a Malay language broadsheet, under the pseudonym Alang, a character from Syed Alwi’s play, Alang Rentak Seribu (Malay: Alang of a Thousand Rhythms). Jit’s theatre articles are also to be found in regional journals (eg. Tenggara, Asian Theatre Journal) and international arts related publications (eg. The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre) – locating him as a critic of wide repute. ↩
- Experimental theatre in the 1970s included the staging of plays that dismantled some of the assumed basic values of Malaysian life, especially Malay-Malaysian life – in particular Bukan Bunuh Diri (Malay: Not Suicide) by Dinsman. This was seen as imitative of western absurdist theatre wherein notions of God and divine purpose were exposed for some of the fallacy they represented. Jit refuted this stance by highlighting the need to read Malaysian expressions of dissent within a cultural context that had not experienced the angst of Post-World War II Europe. To quote Jit, “the thinking most of them (playwrights) promote, and the thematic and emotional thrust of their plays, hardly adheres to the basic absurd propositions. It is not existentialism, for instance, which gives life and breath to the local versions of the absurd. For one thing, the stance of most of our playwrights is far more optimistic about the future… Their religious attitudes and most importantly their certainty about their beliefs, fundamentally alienate them from the absurd dilemma” (See Jit 1979, 8 April). ↩
- Whilst Chinese Street Opera and Bangsawan (Malaysian Vaudeville) were popular community events in the first half of the 20th century, these forms waned with the advent of television and modern drama. In an attempt to reconnect them to popular culture, Jit would use any opportunity to forge relevance and cultivate interest. When the New York Metropolitan Opera performed in Kuala Lumpur in 1984, Jit wrote about the profound impact “local operas” have had on community life before he went on to discuss the visiting troupe. He also questioned the willingness of audiences to fork out large sums of money for a foreign show whilst neglecting the life of local treasures (see Jit 1984, 13 July). ↩
- Several Malaysian arts practitioners and producers have alluded to the influence of the column and how it informed their understanding of Malaysian theatre and arts practice. Kee Thuan Chye, theatre director, playwright, actor, and critic, who stood in as critic while Jit was away on study leave in the early 1980s, described Jit’s writing as having “a wider historical view” and giving Malaysian theatre “context and direction” (Kee 2005). Kathy Rowland, arts producer and co-founder of kakiseni, the online arts magazine, writes that she only met Jit late in life, but “having grown up with Talking Drama with Utih, … I felt I knew all there was to know about him years before we actually became friends” (Rowland 2005). Significantly, kakiseni is currently an increasingly important site for arts writing and documentation in Malaysia. (Seehttp://www.kakiseni.com/ ) But perhaps most interestingly, when Ku Seman Ku Hussain, a critic with the Malay broadsheet Utusan Melayu, wrote a feature on Jit after his death in 2005, he introduced the reader to the critic, Utih, before he discussed the work of theatre director Krishen Jit – signaling the continued importance of Utih, long after the column had ceased. (See Ku Hussain 2005). ↩
- The events of May 13th severely disrupted the apparently harmonious transition from colonial rule to self-rule and independence. What was apparent was a serious need to build a “nation” of people who believed in the concept of Malaysia, for all its flaws and problems, discriminatory policies, and prejudicial politics. Whilst political disenfranchisement and economic disparities between and within racial groups were at the heart of the racial violence, cultural and social issues were integral to the healing of these deep wounds. Thus the arts had the potential to play an important role in bridging the rifts and expressing alternative ways of being Malaysian – attempting to transcend racial, religious, and linguistic barriers. Jit’s column was one of the sites for doing this. ↩
- Jit’s passage as a theatre practitioner was characterized by relocation and reinvention in response to shifts in policy and social trends. When MLT became blatantly nativist in its orientation and rejected Jit’s participation because he was non-Malay, he moved in the 1980s towards English Language Theatre (ELT) imbued with an indigenous sensibility, and then in the 1990s to more multi-lingual and interdisciplinary multi-modal frames. This signaled his belief in the need to embrace difference and his willingness to adjust to local and global changes – a trait that marked his work throughout his more than forty-year career in theatre – in order to remain relevant and develop work that was resonant as director, producer, and educator. The propensity to embrace change also made him susceptible to accusations of being inconsistent and disloyal. ↩
- On the local front Jit cited Azanin Ezane Ahmad and her Suasana Dance Company as a “model for the creation of indigenized dance drama for contemporary audiences” because “ her standards of performance are high, the matter or story she deals with is thoroughly researched and she uses only the most choice of indigenous ingredients of dance, music, costumes and props. Most of all she has a sure instinct of what will work for contemporary audiences” (Jit 1990, 28 Jan). ↩
- Jit described this situation as a world “so personalized that some good critics have been compelled to abandon it after a short stint,” as one needed to be “pretty thick-skinned or thick-headed to continue with this kind of work” (Jit 1992, 12 Jan). ↩
- Rowland (2005) alludes to this when she writes that Jit “told me of a drawer in his house with articles and letters accumulated over the years which attacked him personally.” ↩
- Jit referred to “a rare event…when a top government official joined the good fight for the salvation of the arts and the artists in the country… Tan Sri Zain Azraai Zainal Abidin, the Secretary General of the Finance Ministry, took on the stance of the pragmatist who sought to negotiate the best route for the arts in a grim and gloomy landscape” (Jit 1990, 5 August). Tan Sri Zain was one of a few government officials who understood the need to support the local arts scene and was willing to allocate time and resources by being a consumer and a patron. ↩
- it’s own theatre practice in the 1980s began to include collaborations with Singapore-based companies and artists, principally Theatreworks and Ong Keng Sen. Whilst seen as a “betrayal” of his loyalties to Malaysian theatre, this was also another extension of boundaries that Jit negotiated, not being content to operate according to simplistic polarities of “us and them.” Whilst Singapore theatre may not have been as politically incisive in content, it was certainly adventurous with form and enjoyed the benefits of state-supported funding and professionally trained practitioners. In the last few years of his directing career, Jit directed several performances in Singapore, traveling there regularly from his home in Kuala Lumpur. ↩