Modern, Mixed and Multiple: Two Pioneering Theatre Practitioners in Malaysia and Singapore

2013.09.02

Modern, Mixed and Multiple: Two Pioneering Theatre Practitioners in Malaysia and Singapore
[Trend] Krishen Jit from Malaysia and Kuo Pao Kun from Singapore.


Contemporary theatre in Malaysia and Singapore is arguably defined by the multiplicity of performance vocabularies and spoken languages used in performance to reflect the rich cultural plurality of society. As two nations with multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-lingual populations that were once part of a shared history, both countries have developed official multicultural policies that acknowledge these diversities, and seek to translate their significance into national and cultural identity. Hence theatre has also reflected this mix and collage of cultures, sustaining and advancing practices in a range of languages (English, Malay, Chinese, Tamil), while using a variety of styles and approaches (traditional, modern, realistic, non-realistic, inter-cultural, inter-disciplinary, multilingual, etc.) to reflect the fusions and tensions that emerge.

Two theatre practitioners who were pioneers in forging contextually grounded interdisciplinary and multi-cultural approaches to theatre were Krishen Jit (1939-2005) from Malaysia, and Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002) from Singapore. Acknowledged doyens in their field, they experimented with a range of cultural forms and theatre vocabularies styles (such as traditional shadow puppetry, martial arts, method acting and Brechtiandefamiliarisation) to develop profound articulations of a mixed and modern society. Their theatre was admittedly rooted in various local cultures but consciously adapted to the changes of contemporaneity by bringing these multiple elements together. Hence their work was often seminal in advancing new visions of local theatre and highly influential in deepening philosophical and process-based practices in theatre-making, training and research that engaged with difference. This stemmed from their backgrounds of multiplicity and ongoing change.

Krishen Jit _ © Five Arts Centre Kuo Pao Kun _ © Intercultural Theatre Institute

KrishenJit, born to emigrant Punjabi-Indian merchant parents, in the then capital of British Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, was committed to developing theatre that expressed and interrogated issues of cultural diversity, change and conflict. Growing up in Batu Road, the business heart of a colonial-cosmopolitan environment, Jit was exposed to a wide range of cultural influences, having access to street performances of Chinese Opera, Hindi cinema, outdoor Bangsawan (Malay Folk Opera), as well as Cabaret performances. Later his involvement in the Drama Society of the Victoria Institution, his alma mater, would introduce him to a canon of English plays that further broadened his spectrum of theatre. This awareness of the wide mix of elements that constituted Malaysian culture would critically inform his attempts to forge local theatre that allowed for this variety and openness. Hence for Jit, multiculturalism in societies such as Malaysia and Singapore could be experienced ‘within bodies’ and not just ‘between bodies’ – thus allowing for juxtapositions of aesthetic and historical elements in inter- and intra- cultural ways.1)

Kuo Pao Kun also experienced a life of frequent shift and cultural multiplicity. He was born in a small village called Hebei, in China, and after brief stays in Beijing and Hong Kong, he eventually moved to live with his father in Singapore as a young boy of ten. As a young adult he travelled to Australia to study and work before returning to Singapore to settle for good. Nonetheless he subsequently journeyed to various parts of the world in his career as playwright and director. Ongoing encounters with difference accorded him a strong sense of being at the ‘margins’ of culture, where the desire to ‘invent vocabularies’ to express these ‘uncharted’ and ‘unfathomed’ experiences was ever present and powerful.2) In Singapore, Kuo was particularly alert to the challenge of generating ‘Open Culture’ where multiple influences could inform a society largely made up of immigrants from varied Asian backgrounds.

Working across official and perceived cultural boundaries such as race, gender, language, class and religion, to contest reductive and rigid norms, was a critical part of the theatre vision that Jit and Kuo developed in response to their contexts. Resisting prejudice and bias that curtailed the capacity for cultural equity, they developed approaches to theatre that juxtaposed and intersected elements from varied cultural histories to emphasise their co-existence and mutual imbrication. This included collaging and overlapping aspects of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western cultures that were often seen as separate and incompatible. They proposed alternative imaginings of cultures as discursive and relational, by performing the interaction and mixes that were part of everyday life.

Multilingual plays that saw actors speak different languages and create mixed vocabularies of performance, were perhaps most efficacious in depicting how multi-cultural societies were accustomed to improvising ways of connecting and communicating. Kuo’s seminal play Mama Looking for Her Cat, first staged in 1988, was Singapore’s first multilingual performance, which addressed issues of growing inter-generational estrangement amid the pressure to become modern, using the politics of language.3) Similarly Jit’s devised multilingual performance US: Actions and Images, first performed in 1995, examined perceptions of identity and family history among young Malaysians grappling with

contemporary urbanization and the disparities of race.4) As in several other works, they articulated ways in which being Malaysian and/or Singaporean meant acknowledging the co-existence of several cultures, and being rooted in histories that were continually adaptive and able to incorporate aspects of difference without fear of cultural dissolution.

Kuo Pao Kun < Mama Looking For Her Cat > (1988) _ © The Theatre Practice Ltd. Krishen Jit < A Chance Encounter > (1999) _ © Five Arts Centre

Jit and Kuo worked with theatre as an imaginative and empowering space to advance contextually-grounded and indigenous notions of culture. As public intellectuals in newly formed post-colonial nations, their politics involved moving away from Western-centric notions of ‘progress’, drawing instead on local aesthetics and performance traditions to engage the particularities of Malaysia and Singapore. Nonetheless their awareness of the deep and critical influences of the West, in political, social, educational and cultural spheres, also meant they incorporated aspects of the West without being dominated by them. Hence they experimented widely with the traditional and modern, Asian and Western, folk and classical, realist and expressionist – not as binary opposites but sources from which to explore possible ways of embodying and enacting what it meant to be multiple, mixed and modern. Kuo’s play Lao Jiu expressed the loss of a traditional Chinese puppetry form due to the overwhelming pragmatism of a rationalized and economic materialism in Singapore.5) Similarly Jit’s staging of K.S. Maniam’s The Cord in 1984 and 1994 was an attempt to engage how cultural conflicts across race, class and gender were linked to wider national advances towards economic affluence and a streamlined cultural rationalism in Malaysia.6)

Jit and Kuo’s work established a practice of contemporary experimentalism in their respective theatre communities from the 1970s till their untimely passing in the early 2000s, serving as a critical foundation for several practitioners in years ahead. Respected as public intellectuals, their views were often elicited in relation to wider issues concerning the arts and society, and their writings on the arts and culture have continued to inspire and provoke thought.7)


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  • 1) In a 2004 recorded interview with the writer, Jit articulated his view that ‘multiculturalism in societies such as Malaysia, Singapore and even India, is experienced within the body and not just between bodies’.
  • 2) Kuo, P.K.; ‘Foreword’ in Images at the Margins: A Collection of KuoPaoKun’s Plays; (Times Books International, Singapore, 2000); p.8.
  • 3) See Quah, S. R.; ‘To Imagine, To Represent and To Construct: The Practice of Multilingual Theatre in Singapore’ in Coping with the Contemporary: Selves, Identity and Community; (The Esplanade Co. Ltd., Singapore, 2004);p.11-24, for further discussion of multilingual theatre in Singapore and Kuo’s critical contribution to its development.
  • 4) See Rajendran, C. and Wee, C.J. W-L.; ‘The Theatre of KrishenJit: The Politics of Staging Difference in Multicultural Malaysia’in The Drama Review (TDR) Volume 51 Number 2 (T194) Summer 2007 (MIT Press, Cambridge MA), p.11-23, for further discussion of Jit’s approaches to staging issues of cultural difference in Malaysian theatre.
  • 5) See Wee, C.J. W-L; ‘Introduction: KuoPaoKun’s Contemporary Theatre’ in The Complete Works of KuoPao Kun: Volume Four – Plays in English edited by C.J.W-L. Wee; (The Theatre Practice and Global Publishing, Singapore, 2012) p. xi-xxx, for further discussion of Kuo’s theatre as a response to contemporary Singapore.
  • 6) See Rajendran, C; ‘Performing Cosmopolitan Clash and Collage: KrishenJit’sStagings of the ‘Stranger’ in Malaysia’ in Identity in Crossroad Civilisations: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Globalism in Asia edited by Erich Kolig, Vivienne SM Angeles and Sam Wong; (Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2009) p.173-194, for Jit’s theatre as a response to cosmopolitan culture and contemporary change in Malaysia.
  • 7) See Rowland, K. (ed.); KrishenJit: An Uncommon Position – Selected Writings; (Contemporary Asian Art Centre, Singapore, 2003), for collection of articles written by Jit. See Kuo, P. K., The Complete Works of KuoPao Kun – Volume Seven: Papers and Speeches edited by Tan Beng Luan (World Scientific Publishing,Singapore, 2005) for collection of Kuo’s writing.

Author

Charlene Rajendran_ Theatre Educator, Practitioner and Writer
Charlene Rajendran_ Theatre Educator, Practitioner and Writer

Charlene Rajendran is a theatre educator, practitioner and writer from Malaysia who currently teaches theatre at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Her research interests include contemporary theatre in Southeast Asia, pedagogies of play and issues of identity in multicultural society. She has worked on a range of productions as director, performer, writer, producer and dramaturg, collaborating with diverse artists in Malaysia and Singapore. At present she is involved as dramaturg for an interdisciplinary community arts project with Drama Box (Singapore) and as director/performer for a site-specific performance with Five Arts Centre (Malaysia). She is also engaged in research on contemporary theatre practice in Singapore and Malaysia, and the impact of arts education on cultural awareness.