Prose, poetry and prattle: some published, and some ... well, not yet.

Tuesday, 18 July 2006

The Creepy Doyen

(This article appeared in the July 2006 edition of THE HILT. It was my very first magazine commission. The editor, Thomas Blum, was looking for someone to write about Krishen from an up-close point-of-view. I have Pang Khee Teik to thank for this. Not having had any success in convincing me to write for him during his tenure at, Pang suggested me to Thomas. I had no desire to make my private writings or feelings too public. I only agreed because I owe Krishen so much and miss him deeply. It became the first of three pieces in quick succession for The Hilt. I haven't looked back, since.)

Rehearsals would run in a shoplot in SS2, Petaling Jaya. The fragrance of Thai cooking wafted up from the restaurant below. Through untinted windows, the glare of the afternoon sun reminded us to be grateful for noisy air-conditioning.

Competing against its numbing drone, we would run scenes from Chin San Sooi's "Yap Ah Loy – The Play", and he would be there again, this Indian man, a silent presence at every rehearsal. He would sneak in and perch himself on a wooden stool behind faux marble tables with collapsible legs. He would sit with arms folded, a hand propping a chin or stroking a greying goatee.

I was not terribly curious about his identity – he did not seem important. After all, he had nothing to say. Years later, I would discover that anything he had to say, he would say it through others. Or he would say it only to you. The power of genius is never self-serving.

The shophouse was Five Arts Centre – a nebulous collective of some of the most eminent visual and performance artists of mid-80s Malaysia. The Centre was founded by San Sooi, together with this Indian man, and several others - including that charismatic educationist and choreographer, Marion D'Cruz, who would in time become, in his own words, his 'rock solid producer' wife.

As a fresh theatre graduate from a university education in Australia, I was keen to make it into the KL performing arts scene. A perilous decision, my parents believed. "Is that a living?" my father would ask. But I had found a spiritual home for my creativity. The Centre's methodologies in search for a contemporary Malaysian voice in performing arts practise echoed my need to give meaning to my own intercultural genetics and exhibitionistic imagination.

As the sweat trickled down my temples after having worked silat moves into a scripted scene about Kuala Lumpur's ethnic Chinese founder, I would look across to the Indian man, looking like a gnarled stump of a tree behind a marble boulder and I would think that surely the performance arts in KL must have a future if one so old as him would be so interested in what we were doing. His sage-like presence seemed to decree some measure of gravity to our 'play'.

For the next two and a half decades of my life – this same sage-like presence would make intermittent intrusions into it. And when it did, it left battle scars that I would reflect on with pride, reminding me of my vulnerabilities and my strengths as actor and entity. Many years later I would tell him how creepy I thought he was. The actor's psyche is both a fragile thing and a potent instrument, and he was its singular virtuoso. I felt he 'played' me well.

When still alive, Krishen Jit (to be exact, of Punjabi extraction) was described as the doyen of Malaysian theatre. Before I knew its actual meaning, the word 'doyen' evoked for me an almost deifying quality, which I would have happily agreed to, as the intellectual power of the man became apparent to me. When I finally took the time to look up the dictionary, I was more than a little disappointed to find out that it simply meant 'the senior, or eldest male member of a group'. Ha! Didn't we know that already? The surprise to me was typical Krishen-esque. Together with Amarjit, 'Unassuming' was his middle name, and I feel maybe that is why in his living years he was so undeservingly uncelebrated.

He never owned a car so he was always at the behest of the drivers among those he worked with. Being asked for a lift by the man was like winning an appointment with God. Peppered among our small talk when I gave him a lift would be precious, amusing insights he had about those on a project with him. It was not production gossip, neither were the stories he shared dismissive of anybody. Rather, they were snappy lessons about the complexity of individual souls in a way only a huge heart and a sharp mind like his could proffer.

In the mid-90s, I was asked by Krishen to act in two of his landmark projects almost back-to-back. "Scorpion Orchid" was a provocative script by Lloyd Fernando, which allegorised the communal conflicts and riots of our pre-Independent era. It was invited to play at the Singapore Arts Festival of '94. The play would then be re-mounted for a Kuala Lumpur season one year later and I would reprise my role with a brand new Malaysian cast.

In between, there would be the groundbreaking "Skin Trilogy". This trilogy of plays was playwright, K S Maniam's sci-fi take on love, marriage and identity in futuristic Malaysia, and Krishen the visionary conceived of a site-specific avant-garde multimedia performance, which would come alive in the numerous exhibition spaces of the National Art Gallery. His strategy was for actors, dancers and musicians to negotiate a processional performance among specially commissioned art installations. The grand result was a cornucopian spectacle of the most amazing theatrics I will ever be a part of.

Now as I look back, I remember again how both projects touched on ideas of race and ethnicity in unprecedented, unapologetic ways. To have taken this one-year journey with Krishen is to have been there when a defining part of contemporary Malaysian theatre was forged. Though this 14-month stretch is really piddly against Krishen's forty years in the performing arts before he died, I will cherish the experience the way one clings on to memories of a life-changing love affair.

A quick Google on Krishen Jit will unearth countless personality features and reviews as well as a slew of heart-wrenching tribute pages following his departure to that big theatre in the sky. To replicate his biography here would simply chronologize his formal credentials. Truly impressive as they may be, yet we must recognize that it was something more and deeper than all that kind of thing, which brought the massive congregation of every age and ethnicity to his funeral. The turnout on that saddest of days was befitting of a much loved and highly respected statesman, or guru or father-figure, or … OK, then: doyen. A doyen who had transformed landscapes of every kind.

Krishen's significant span of work in academia, on cultural policy, and on the international stage would be dutifully repeated in the aftermath of his passing by the well-meaning media. But those who worked with him and shared his vision of art needed something more intimate and personal as the relationships he struck with each of us.

So even to this day, many of us at the Centre would seek solace in our loss just as only close family members would, by reliving anecdotal fragments of being with him, some so incidental that the telling of it would bore those who did not really know him. Like the simple gestures of kindness and affection Krishen was terribly generous with, or the extraordinary revelations about our own quirks and kinks he would teasingly throw back at us when we least expected it, or even his mystifying habit during long rehearsals of dozing off into a soft snore in mid-scene, waking up as it ended and yet knowing if we missed a word or phrase.

He is terribly missed, and yet he is deeply remembered. That beloved doyen's legacy for a contemporary Malaysian theatre lives on in the new generation of arts practitioners who now drive The Five Arts Centre forward. Yes, the Indian man continues to speak through many of us. Creepy, right?

(1,267 words – 16th May 2006)


Krishen Jit was perhaps Malaysia’s most eminent theatre director, and had presented critically acclaimed works on many stages around the world. He died in April 2005. The Five Arts Centre, a performing arts collective he co-founded is currently running a programme, The Krishen Jit Experimental Workshop Series, in commemoration of his life’s work. More information by email from

Vernon Adrian Emuang is a performer, writer and marketing communications specialist. He is also an arts activist, highly supportive of intercultural, experimental and multigeneric projects.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

That Damn 4-Letter Word

Love is a feeling. Feelings pass.

For love to remain eternal, it needs commitment and sacrifice.

Love is a journey where the destination is happiness. Getting there needs a roadmap.

The journey may be pleasant, or long and arduous, but it is the journey of trials and tribulations, and where struggling gives it meaning and depth.

Arriving there at the destination isn’t as important as how the journey is enjoyed and endured.

Love is a banquet which leaves you filled and contented at the end. It is made up of many ingredients, brought together with great effort.

The flavours mingle and co-exist, and hitting the right flavours at the right times create beautiful melodies of sensations, and of memories.

Love is best endured when there is a sense of duty, like a religion that demands ritual and responsibility.

Love is not about you. Love is about the other - the one that you love.

And yet to be loved, we must love our own self the most.

Because when we do, we are attendent to our inner, most true thoughts and feelings, and we are then able to communicate them in all honesty and without agenda to that person whom we say we love.

The purest of all love after all is honesty unclothed. Like a new born before its mother.

(For B, and maybe for W - written on 11 July 2006)