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Reviewed by:
  • Excavations, Interrogations, Krishen Jit and Contemporary Malaysian Theatre ed. by Charlene Rajendran, Ken Takiguchi, and Carmen Nge
  • Kathy Foley
EXCAVATIONS, INTERROGATIONS, KRISHEN JIT AND CONTEMPORARY MALAYSIAN THEATRE. Edited by Charlene Rajendran, Ken Takiguchi, and Carmen Nge. Singapore, London: Epigram Books [Kuala Lumpur: Five Arts Centre], 2018. 189 pp. S $29.90.

This is a book of remembrances—ranging from a performance text to personal memories—regarding one of Southeast Asia's most influential director-thinkers of the postcolonial era: Krishen Jit (1939–2005). The work, generously illustrated and well designed (Zarina Othman), documents a conference held at Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) on 9–11 January 2015, which gathered those affected by Krishen's work as director, theatre critic, or co-creator of contemporary performance in Malaysia and Singapore. Krishen taught history at University of Malaya (UM) but was best-known as a public intellectual and important theatre director. Much of his professional directing came after his retirement from teaching.

Krishen was arguably the major theatre figure in Malaysia in the last forty years in a way that playwright-directors Arifin C. Noer (1941–1995) or W. S. Rendra (1935–2009) were in Indonesia, or Kuo Kao Pun (1939–2002) was in Singapore. Such icons bridged the colonial to postcolonial eras and continue to loom large in the mindscapes of their respective nations. Each of these theatre-makers confronted challenges and failings of early independence and Southeast Asia's fraught Cold War dynamics. They defined the issues. Krishen's leadership both impacted Malaysian theatre and resonated through Southeast Asia.

The three editors note, "As time passed those who witnessed and remember Krishen pass on as well, what will become of the theatre of Krishen? The man and his ideas will be remembered by those who read his writings and encounter efforts like this book to re-member him" (p. 152). Rather than follow a model of biographical sketch, critical essays, and comprehensive bibliography, the text assembles disparate voices. Each author discusses Krishen's impact on him/her personally. "Reading Krishen Jit" (pp. 40–55) by art historian T. K. Sabapathy remembers shared their 1960s graduate school days when Krishen studied American History at UC-Berkeley and highlights Krishen's interests in visual arts. The book includes thoughts of Japanese director [End Page 301] Makoto Sato ("Traditionalizing the Contemporary Arts and Contemporising the Traditional Arts," pp. 68–75), which highlights Krishen's help in opening Malaysian theatre to Japanese peers. Performance collaborators author Huzir Sulaiman and performer Claire Wong contribute a script ("Carrot/Pantun/Dance," pp. 92–107)—a faux "theatre talkback" for a performance art piece the audience never sees. This piece was presented at the conference and touches on culinary, critical, and creative discoveries that the pair realized working with Krishen. Such essays and thought show personal sides to which people who knew Krishen only through his writing and directing would not have access.

For those first encountering Krishen, three of the contributions—Charlene Rajendran "The Work of Krishen Jit: Motivations for a Tokoh Baru," (pp. 20–25), Mark Teh's "Zooming in and Zooming Out with Krishen Jit" (pp. 136–143), and the interviews condensed from earlier publications in Carmen Nge's "Postscript: Dialogue, History and Memory: Extracts from an Interview and Overview" (pp. 168–177)—might be points of orientation before reading this text which adds to the archive, but sometimes leaves the uninitiated reader behind. Alternatively, one can seek out co-editor Rajendran's earlier writing on Krishen's career (see Rajendran and Wee 2007; Rajendran 2012a, 2012b, 2013). The feel of this work is thoughts intended for audiences who already know the significance of the man and the issues he took on—language change, ethnic tension, political inequity.

To help the uninitiated, the editors do intervene via notes that dialogue with each essay and fill in brief political or historical context. As a data source, this book is a useful addition to the growing archive on Southeast Asian contemporary performance and shows the width of Krishen's interests—from visual arts, to culture critique, to professionalization of theatre. The last goal led him, eventually, to work more often in Singapore. Once the...


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